The Power of Incremental Change – How To Make Big Changes With Small Steps

November 27, 2020 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Blog

When we have a goal in life, whether it be to write a book, move house, start a new business, change careers or get married, these kinds of projects can feel overwhelming. The fight/flight part of our brain (the amygdala) can start to kick in very quickly if a project feels too big and insurmountable and we can begin to feel anxious.

According to Professor Steve Peters, author of the mind management book The Chimp Paradox, this survival part of your brain is your ‘chimp’.

Your chimp is like a screaming child that tells you everything that’s likely to go wrong. This part needs to be settled, otherwise it will be a constant distraction and will sabotage your attempts to make progress and move forward on your project.

So what do we do to settle this primitive part of our brain? One way is to work in what we call increments. Incremental working means having a goal and breaking that goal down into smaller activities that are easier to accomplish than the goal as a whole. For example writing a book can be broken down into:

1. Idea creation

2. Research and content creation

3. Outlining the book

4. Writing the book

5. Editing and proofing

6. Amendments

7. Publishing

What may at first seem like a big piece project (writing the book) becomes seven smaller phases each of which can be further broken down into steps and scheduled into your diary or onto your calendar. Working in this way means you are instigating change through incremental steps. This in turn means you have the tools to ensure you put yourself under just the right amount of pressure to get the job done without feeling overwhelmed. There are a few tricks, however, to bear in mind.


The trick is to find a balance between impatience (wanting to achieve your ambition too quickly) and procrastination (putting off the inevitable). When a project is too big, you risk struggling to comprehend it and as a result you may end up leaving it for later or even just dismissing it completely.

Herein lies the beginnings of procrastination due to your brain being in a state of overwhelm. If there is a time limit on your project, the longer you leave the project, the less time you have to complete it to a sufficiently high standard. You also have less time to work through the inevitable setbacks along the way.

Breaking your project down into steps that you can handle on a day-to-day basis and progressing through those steps incrementally and systematically starts to help you to find that balance. When you know how long each step will take, you know how long your entire project is going to take. This is very freeing and enables you to plan your life more effectively.

In addition, starting the process as soon as possible puts time on your side. The longer you delay in initiating your project, the bigger the blocks of activity you’ll need to complete it. The bigger these blocks, the less in control of your project you’ll feel.


Another trick, therefore, is getting a balance between making your steps to big and too small. The longer your timeframe, the more creative you can be with the steps you devise. Your steps should be big enough to keep you motivated but small enough for you to feel as certain as you can that you’ll complete your whole project on time. You can transfer the steps to paper in the form of a plan, or keep them in your head, depending on whether or not you’re a visual person who needs to see things in written or diagram form.

Working in this way gives you an enormous sense of control, freedom and the feeling of having the wealth of time on your side. This approach to project and life management is termed in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) as ‘chunking’. NLP covers the effect on the brain of how we use our language and physiology. Everything can either be ‘chunked up’ – creating bigger steps to enable you to be more strategic – or ‘chunked down’ to facilitate the management of detail.

The Process of Incremental Change

So the key to incremental change is:

1. Identify what you want to achieve (be clear on your end goal)

2. Break the goal down into chunks (phases)

3. Break down the phases down into smaller and smaller steps until you’re able to start

4. Schedule the steps into your diary or onto your calendar

5. Implement the steps until you reach your goal

Source by Carmen Gilfillan

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