Small Steps: a Good Start, But Not Enough

Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Eat more vegetable servings a day. Remember, small steps add up to big changes. These worn-out wellness cliches point people in the general direction of physical activity and good nutrition, but they’re terribly simplistic and misleading.

The truth is, little changes here and there don’t add up to a significantly healthier lifestyle. Making a meaningful dent in existing conditions or risk factors — like overweight, obesity, metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, tobacco use, inactivity, poor nutrition, or a high-stress lifestyle — takes a lot more than a few small steps in the right direction. When was the last time someone told you they lost their spare tire — or went from desk potato to completing a 10K race — by simply vacuuming vigorously? Never; because small steps — done randomly or without being tied to a larger goal — don’t work. Here’s why:

  • When participants follow “small steps” advice without setting a larger goal and pushing toward it, they won’t see much — if any — progress. As a result, their trust in your wellness program, your expertise, and their own ability to make changes erodes.
  • Making steady progress doing meaningful work is a huge influence on how people feel and perform on the job, according to researcher Teresa Amabile.1 The same is true for health behavior change; seeing steady progress is a powerful motivator. Unless goals are adequately challenging, participants will experience little success.
  • Locke and Latham’s goal-setting theory shows how big or challenging goals lead to greater effort, persistence, and performance compared to small or easy goals.2 Likewise, Tracy and Robins advise that boosts in self-esteem arise only from going after difficult, challenging tasks; mediocre goals don’t help.3 When people set challenging goals, a bigger discrepancy exists between current and target behavior; this causes dissatisfaction, while increasing motivation at both the conscious and subconscious level.4 Big efforts lead to better results, improved self-efficacy, and help pave the way toward lasting change.
  • To a large extent, emotions drive human behavior;5 for most people, it’s hard to get inspired or energized about taking tiny steps. Further, eating a carrot a day doesn’t do a whole lot for self-efficacy or satisfaction.6
  • Serving up “baby steps” to adults is not only misleading, it’s patronizing — and communicates a lack of confidence in their ability to handle bigger challenges.

Granted, small steps can play a role in building momentum and making progress toward a larger goal —as long as they’re big enough to be challenging and produce a real sense of accomplishment. If they’re too easy, they contribute little or nothing to lasting change.

Excerpted from our white paper: Small Steps or Giant Leaps: What Works Best for Health Behavior Change


1 Amabile T, Kramer S. The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business Review, May 2011

Locke E, Latham G. New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory, Association for Psychological Science, Vol. 15(5): 265-268

3 Tracy J, Robins R. Emerging Insights into the Nature and Function of Pride, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007; cited in Miller C, Frisch M, Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide, Sterling, 2009

4 Locke E, Latham G. Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-year Odyssey, American Psychologist, Vol. 57(9): 705-717

Heath C, Heath D. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Broadway Books, 2010

6 Strecher V, Seijts G, Kok G, et al. Goal Setting as a Strategy for Health Behavior Change, Health Education Quarterly, Vol. 22(2): 190-200 May 1995


Beth ShepardBeth Shepard
Well-being consultant, educator, writer |National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach |ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist |Lifestyle medicine advocate |25+ years in wellness |Jazz enthusiast.

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