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How to Change Any Diabetes Habit, Part 2: Think Mini

By Adam Brown

Overcoming the “thinking BIG” trap when starting new diabetes habits or doing anything hard

In part 1 of this series on changing diabetes habits, I wrote about the power of environment and location: putting my vacuum in the kitchen, rather than buried in my closet, makes an immediate difference on my behavior. This approach applies to many diabetes habits, especially where food is located. Here in part 2, I want to share another subtle approach.

When trying to change a diabetes habit or start a new one, there is often a critical decision point – “I’m going to try this!”, “It’s time to change!”, or “I’m signing up for ____!”

This is a precious moment, and one that is susceptible to a sneaky trap: thinking way too big. If I’m not exercising at all right now, I’ll sign up for a marathon. If my blood sugars are in range 40% of the day right now, I’ll set a goal to be at 100%.

“Thinking big” can (sometimes) jumpstart motivation, but it can also crush it. When the mountain feels too high to climb from where I stand, it’s easy to: (i) never start climbing; or (ii) give up quickly.

This is why one of the messages in Bright Spots & Landmines is to think "small and consistent" – it beats “big and infrequent" every time. I’d much rather do 10 minutes of exercise 7 days per week vs. 70 all-out minutes once on Sunday.  

Sometimes, it can feel embarrassing or unambitious to think small. Our culture is dominated by “go big or go home” mottos and “moonshot” thinking. For individuals, however, big accomplishments and transformations don’t occur overnight – they happen in mini steps, added up consistently over time.

One of my new go-to mottos is “five minutes beats zero minutes.” I’ve shared how well this works for exercise, but it works for anything. When something feels super easy and achievable, I don’t need enormous motivation to do it; I feel a sense of accomplishment when it does happen; and I then I can build on that over time!

Below, I’ve shared one of my favorite excerpts from the Mindset chapter of Bright Spots & Landmines, centered on this theme – why thinking in terms of mini milestones and “process goals” is powerful for changing diabetes habits. Enjoy, and stay tuned for part 3!

Set process goals with mini-milestones: focus on consistency and routine, not outcomes

  • “Get an A1c less than 7% by June 15.”

  • “Cycle 1,000 miles this year.”

  • “Check blood glucose before and 2-3 hours after meals and take action on each number.”

  • “Ride my bike on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”

These are all valuable goals, but they are different. The first two are what I call “outcomes” goals, while the third and fourth are “process” goals.

A lot of goal setting focuses on outcomes: what is my end destination? This can provide useful motivation, but I find it often leaves the journey too unclear. These “outcome” goals can also make me feel like a failure if I fall short.

One of my motivation Bright Spots relies on setting process goals: the interim step of doing something rather than the need to hit an outcome. It’s the journey mindset, not the destination vision. For example, checking blood sugar before and after every meal or riding my bike three times every week. Emphasizing the process can ensure the larger goal is served (e.g., an A1c less than 7%, cycling 1,000 miles this year), but with less pressure to hit an outcome.

I also like that process goals clarify the journey in more actionable ways – “check blood glucose before and after meals” is more useful than “get an A1c less than 7%.”

The key to this Bright Spot, of course, is choosing the right process goal. What interim step(s) will ensure my larger goal is served? Which single step, if completed consistently, would make the biggest difference to my larger goal?

Sometimes, getting started at all is the hardest part. I often ask:

"What is the absolute smallest step I can take right now to move forward?"

Even though it feels unambitious, I have to force myself to think tiny and specific – what can be done in the next five minutes? In the next one hour on a commute? In an afternoon? This week? Focusing on the immediate next step – even when it is small – is often enough to boost my motivation to tackle a big goal, and from there, it can snowball!

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Just. One. Step.

Examples:

  • Eat one extra vegetable at my upcoming meal.

  • Go for a five-minute walk around the block right now.

  • Put my exercise clothes on.

  • Check my blood sugar one extra time today.

  • Breathe for one minute this morning.

  • Floss one tooth today (a funny recommendation from Stanford’s Dr. BJ Fogg)

Then, the key is replicating that small step over and over again to build momentum and actually feel progress.

I set a goal a couple years ago to bike 3,000 miles for the year, a very ambitious 50% increase over the prior year. The only way I achieved the big goal was breaking it down into weekly sub-goals (60 miles per week), and from there, a process goal: two short bike rides during the week and a long ride on the weekend. That narrowing, or reframe, made the huge goal so much more achievable.

Another example is Bright Spots & Landmines itself! Even though I write about diabetes every day for a living, the thought of writing this book was truly daunting. I didn’t get going until I broke it down into smaller steps that felt doable. 

Diabetes is no different – just one more Bright Spot (checking BG after meals) or one fewer Landmine (overeating to correct hypoglycemia) every day can make a big difference on the journey to more in-range BGs and higher quality of life.

The tiny step I actually take always beats the huge step I dream about taking but never do. Ask, “What is the smallest step I can take right now to work toward the larger vision?” If I can’t come up with anything, it helps to reach out to someone else for perspective and ideas.

Break a big outcome goal into a process: “two short weekday bike rides and one long weekend ride” instead of “ride 3,000 miles this year.” These process milestones should be small, specific, and near-term. Experimenting with different process goals (time frames, types of goals) can help arrive at the right solution.

Join Dr. BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits” program (www.tinyhabits.com/join) – it’s free and done over email. The five-day behavior change program takes less than 30 minutes total and helps users “tap the power of environment and baby steps.” I loved it! Make sure to read the fascinating intro document.

Identify my biggest barrier(s). Have a partner or friend ask the following questions, and fill in the blanks with my own responses. The answer to the last question is the key barrier that needs to be addressed. I picked this up from Chip and Dan Heath’s terrific behavior change book, Switch.

1. Partner: On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to ______ (insert desired goal).

  • Example: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to start exercising 30 minutes each day?”

2. You: I’m a __ out of 10 (insert number out of 10, with 10 being ‘very ready’ and 1 ‘not at all ready’).

  • Example: “I’m a 6 out of 10.”

3. Partner: What would need to happen for you to go from a ___ (current number) to ____ (higher number)?

  • Example: “What would need to happen or you to go from a 6 to a 7?”

4. You: I would need to _____.

Example: “I would need to find someone to walk with me after work.

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“You will learn a ton... Recommended for people with any form of diabetes, pre-diabetes, partners, caregivers and health professionals.” – Riva Greenberg in The Huffington Post. If you don’t have your copy of Bright Spots & Landmines:

  • Get the PDF for free (or name-your-own-donation to The diaTribe Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit)

  • Get it at Amazon US ($5.78 in paperback, $1.99 on Kindle)

  • For readers in the UK, Canada, Australia, and other mmol/l countries, get the new mmol/l edition here as a free PDF, or in paperback at Amazon Canada or Amazon UK

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