As we see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel in the U.S. and many other countries, a new phase of collective experience has kicked in: anticipation. It’s spring. The world is literally opening up again. Demand for airline tickets is surging. With places to go and people to see, we’re making big plans and making up for lost time.
The pandemic has been a time of unspeakable loss and tragedy. At the same time, it’s also been a catalyst, forcing us to examine our lives, our priorities, and our ways of living and working. We’ve spent more than a year looking inward, thinking about what we want to take with us and what we want to leave behind. And if we’re going to make the most of this moment, we need to accompany our big plans with small steps. It’s those small steps that will help us bring forward the wisdom we’ve accumulated this past year and build new habits that help us create better lives and a better world than the one we knew pre-COVID.
Because while we may have a knee-jerk, almost childlike longing for “the way things were,” we know we are never going back—and that’s a good thing. As we make our way into this next uncertain chapter, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to apply the lessons of our individual and collective experience. And it will be the small steps, more than the big sweeping vows and pledges, that help us navigate the transition.
At Thrive Global we have a word for these small steps: “microsteps.” Microsteps are small, science-backed steps we can start taking immediately to build healthy habits that significantly improve our lives. They’re at the heart of the behavior change system we’ve brought to individuals and organizations around the world, helping them build resilience, strengthen their connections, and improve their well-being and performance. And unlike New Year’s resolutions, which even the most generous estimates show that half of us fail to keep, microsteps are too small to fail.
That’s important, because haven’t we had about enough of feeling like we’re failing? Even as we see glimmers of optimism on the horizon, many of us are languishing—unable to focus, unproductive, caught in the “void between depression and flourishing,” as Adam Grant writes. Microsteps give us quick bursts of action, success and even joy, which is going to be vital if we want to approach a state of flourishing as we face the long tail of the pandemic’s impact on our collective mental health.
Last month, at Fortune‘s annual Brainstorm Health Conference, which I co-chaired, CVS Health CEO Karen Lynch told me that we’re going to be facing “post-COVID stress disorder,” with COVID-related anxiety and depression that may linger for years after the pandemic is over.
This was echoed by Dr. Michelle Williams, dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who said that when we look back at this time, “we will likely see a very much higher collateral damage to our mental health and wellness than to our physical health.”
Up against such forces, we need small wins more than ever. At Thrive, we wrote a whole book about them, Your Time to Thrive, an easy-to-implement behavior change system packed with hundreds of microsteps on subjects ranging from sleep, nutrition and movement to focus, creativity and purpose. In a world where so much is beyond our control, microsteps help us focus on what we can control. They give us something to celebrate, propelling us forward to our next small win, and the next one. Over time, as we build new habits, they become more than what we do—they become part of who we are. As my compatriot Aristotle said, “Habit is but a long practice, which becomes men’s nature in the end.”
With minimal time and effort, you can integrate microsteps into your days, with immediate benefits for your well-being, resilience, focus, relationships and sense of purpose. We’re on the cusp of a historic transition. And there’s nothing wrong with aiming big, but we can help ourselves by starting small.
Here are a few of my favorite microsteps to get you started:
- When you wake up, don’t start your day by looking at your phone. Instead, take at least one minute to breathe deeply or set your intentions for the day.
- Gratitude has been shown to have a wide range of benefits, including lowering stress and anxiety. An easy way to add the power of gratitude to our lives is through what researchers call “habit stacking,” where you attach a new habit to an existing one. So every time you brush your teeth, simply think of three things you’re grateful for.
- Neuroscience shows that we can course-correct from stress in as little as 60 to 90 seconds. And we can do this focusing on our breath, which activates our parasympathetic nervous system, lowering our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The Navy SEALS use a stress reduction method called “box breathing.” All you have to do is inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and exhale for a count of four.
- Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices—and gently escort them out of your bedroom. Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep—our to-do lists, our inboxes, multiple projects, and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help us sleep better, and deeply recharge.