Ep. 33 – Ridiculously Small Steps: How Consistency Kickstarts the Brain

Today we’re going to talk about a big, small thing. 

While the desire for change can be large and looming, the actual act of changing can be simple and small. 

As much as I enjoy learning about habits and the practice of productivity, I also get quickly overwhelmed with the reality of what’s possible in my daily demands as a single parent who travels a fair amount while running my own business and also tending to the needs of two teenagers (and a rescue dog). You get it. 

Sometimes the most I can seem to get done in my quest for control is simply updating my to-do list. Several years ago, I stumbled upon a strikingly simple concept that has fundamentally changed how I approach progress against goals (and even that pesky to-do list). 

It’s called RSS, which stands for Ridiculously Small Steps. This is an intentional approach to unpacking an item, a goal, or a project into the micro actions. It can be as simple as looking up the phone number or website of a place you need to call to changing one setting on your phone.  

This is more than a methodology; it’s tied into the science of subtle shifts between the conscious and subconscious brain as it relates to taking tiny steps on everyday actions. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that a lot can be done by starting with a little. Think of ridiculously small steps as the minimum momentum that you create for yourself. Small, simple actions that – when repeated – inch you along without wearing you out. 

The best part of Ridiculously Small Steps is that they are customized by you, for you. The more micro, the better. Instead of setting a broad goal like “get more sleep,” you can focus on one component and find the RSS that almost sounds too easy. That’s part of the simple elegance of it. When it’s so simple that it’s hard not to do it, then you’re on the right track. 

For example, one woman wanted to increase her flexibility but she dreaded going to yoga even though she knew it was good for her. So she picked an RSS of doing one downward dog pose a day. She held that post for three long breaths and she was done. It took her about 20 seconds – no yoga studio required. 

The idea here is to trick the brain into action by taking away all the arguments for inaction. Once effort is extended, even for a matter of seconds, the momentum is already moving. However, it’s the consistency that provides the compound effect. 20 seconds taken one day it’s a quick check box. A yoga pose done every day for 5 days, that’s now a pattern. And our brain loves pattern. A small action done consistently activates the reward center of the brain (Goal = Achieved) and, in turn, our neurotransmitters respond with dopamine. The brain starts to categories the action – in this case, one yoga pose – with a reward, no matter how quickly the action was being done. 

Change of any type is a risk/reward activity. How much effort/time/inconvenience/pain do I need to invest in order to get the desired reward? Our behavior is a battle for attention between short and long-term desires. And most of this is being done subconsciously, which makes the RSS an even more important tool. 

Let’s shift from the mind to the clock. We’re busy. Fitting in anything extra, even something ridiculously small, already feels like a risk. But what if you could repurpose time already being spent and scratch a bit of your multitasking itch. (Side note: Episode 3 walks through why multitasking is actually a myth and yet we all have the desire to do it. So this suggestion is, again, about tricking your brain into wanting to do the Ridiculously Small Step again and again).  

Think about what is transition time in your day? It could be the time spent commuting, walking a familiar path, preparing a regular meal, even brushing your teeth. This is time that your subconscious mind already recognizes as low risk since it’s a familiar activity. What Ridiculously Small Step can you add? How about listening to an audio book, doing that yoga pose, or drinking a small glass of water. Super, super simple. 

Productivity principles often call this ‘habit stacking.’ It’s where you add a new action onto a routine one. The challenge is that most of us try to jam ambitious new goals into our subconscious patterns, like trying to do 20 squats while brushing your teeth. That’s just gonna be messy. 

Episode 9 talks about the benefits of being boring and that is true with RSS as well. The more boring, the better because that removes the risk factor and, let’s be honest, most of the ready-made excuses. 

The ridiculous part of an RSS is that it will likely take more mental energy to avoid it or talk yourself out of it than to simply do it. Just like 20 seconds of holding that yoga pose. But after several days of doing one downward dog pose, the woman then extended the step to holding it a bit longer, a few more breaths. Then a bit more, and then she added in a second pose. Slow actions, consistently done, become conscious choices. Additional action, extra dopamine. Win win. 

Now most of us are running on autopilot during the day. By determining one intentionally small step, it’s easier to remember it consciously and then move it to our subconscious. 

So as you’re considering this technique, there are two ways to ways to give it a quick try. 

One is to pick one small step and repeat it for at least a week. If you like this approach, check out Episode 23 to learn more about the benefits of a 7 Day Sprint. The other thing to try is to select a goal, such as get more sleep, and then do one RSS each day in support of that goal. So day one could simply be setting a daily bedtime reminder on your phone. It’s done quickly, and you move on. 

There isn’t a template for how to create the perfect RSS, however it’s common to overestimate at first. As a general rule, aim for something that will take you less than a minute to complete. That’s the ridiculously small part. This doesn’t require tracking tools or detailed plans. 

You already have at least one goal that rattles around in your mind. Trying the RSS approach allows you to make minimal movement. And it’s the movement that matters. “Nothing happens until something moves,” said Albert Einstein. And he knew a thing or two about movement. 

One final note for my fellow overthinkers listening to this: You don’t need more knowledge. You don’t need another book or an expert. You need a few small steps, done consistently. 

Do a Ridiculously Small Step each day in support of that goal. 

Put yourself on your daily list. One thing, one minute or less. Then do it again tomorrow. 
 Movement creates momentum. And it helps us do fewer things better. 

Consistency stands up where motivation falls down, and progress comes in all sizes. 
 It’s another way you can take care to take good care. 

You got this. I’ll see you next time. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.