Trade New Year’s Resolutions for Small Steps that Work!

Healthier fitness, weight, and diet. Improved finances. Better mental health. More time for loved ones.

What do all of these have in common? According to a recent poll, these are Americans’ top New Year’s resolutions for 2024. And when we make our New Year’s resolutions, more than three out of four of us (77%) have confidence we will keep them.

Well…. guess what? Statistically, 23% will bail on those resolutions after just one week. Only 9 in 100 people will keep their resolutions at all.

Despite our highest hopes, big New Year’s resolutions tend not to be a good use of our time and energy. 

So what do we do, if we really, really want something in our lives to improve? Research shows that taking small steps in a specific direction over a longer time frame works. Doable, repetitive actions may seem too minor to matter, but they are much more likely to result in the actual changes we seek.

For example, perhaps you want to move past grief of losing a loved one or improve your health habits. Maybe you realize you’ve become isolated, and want to get back to seeing people. All these desires are good and will lead to a more abundant, thriving life – and there is a way to get there with small steps rather than big resolutions.

Let’s dive in and take a look at how this actually works.

The kaizen concept

Back in the day, fresh out of grad school and newly married, I worked on Wall Street. Much of my job entailed analyzing large Japanese banks. I learned a lot about the Japanese economy and financial markets, but also quite a bit about the culture. (I wish I could say the same of my efforts to learn the language!) At the time, a very common principle in Japanese business was the concept of kaizen.

The word kaizen is a compound of two Japanese words, and literally translates to “good change.” But it has come to mean much more than just “improvement.” The concept of kaizen captures the idea of “change for the better, through small, incremental, continuous improvement over time.” This business concept can be applied in any area of life.

If we want to get past grief, eat healthy, exercise more, reverse our isolation, or do any of a hundred other things, I suggest we consider experimenting with a kaizen approach rather than a New Year’s Resolution approach.

But that requires three very important mental shifts.

Shift #1: Forget “think big” – think small instead

We’ve all heard “go big or go home.” The implication is that anything other than “big” isn’t worth doing.

So, on January 1 we decide to start running for one hour, five days a week. Or we start intermittent fasting, 16 hours a day. Or we commit to reading one self-help book on Topic X each week. Or maybe we do all three at once.

Those are all laudable actions. And perhaps for some, they are possible to maintain. But for many of us, the big steps are hard to keep up over time.

The kaizen approach says start with a goal, not an action. Where do you want to head?

For example, your goal might be to get back in shape. So you would find a small step to move you toward that goal. Rather than running five days a week, perhaps you decide to run when you can, but your main action will be to no longer take the elevator at work; instead you will walk up and down a few flights of stairs on your way in and out, and between offices. Once that becomes a normal part of your life, you add a walk after dinner most nights with your spouse. And so on.

Or perhaps your goal is to get past the anxiety and fear you’ve been dealing with, which you know is fueled by your social media and news habit. Rather than going cold turkey and completely eliminating social media and news consumption, maybe you decide to stop reading the two news sites that make you the most agitated. Then, when that has become a normal part of your life, you take another step that seems manageable.

The new becomes normal, and another new action is added. And step by step, you realize you are a surprisingly long way down the road toward your goal.

Shift #2: See the long game

In addition to “thinking big,” our Western culture also really prizes quick success.

For example: Perhaps we’ve started taking the stairs. Great. But after a few weeks, we step on the bathroom scale … and don’t see any change. Are you kidding me?

Subconsciously, we start thinking “it’s not working!” And if it’s not working, why do it?

We get discouraged. This is when, as noted earlier, only 9% of us keep going with our resolutions. The rest of us let them go.

The issue is: We have to start small, incremental changes expecting that they will make a difference over time. Taking the stairs regularly may not make a discernable difference in your health or weight in just a couple of weeks. But it might over a couple of months! And it almost certainly will as you add the next small action (e.g. walking with your spouse after dinner, or parking as far away from the store as you can, and so on).

We have to give ourselves permission to see our goal as a long-term vision that we will be heading toward over the next year, rather than the next week or month.

That long-term view also means that we view setbacks differently. For example, we can get back on the walking wagon when we’ve fallen off, rather than giving up. Sure, the rain (or the cold, or the twisted ankle) made the after-dinner walking difficult, we think, but it was temporary. Let’s get back to normal. Because, remember, that small action (walking after dinner) had indeed become normal.

Shift #3: Get to the root cause

Another distinctive of the kaizen concept is the focus on finding the problem under the problem. The root cause. The thing that is causing a process to break down in the first place.

The ultimate goal is to identify and address – through small steps – the problem where it starts. This is critical for almost any personal change.

For example: it is great to have a goal of healthy eating, but why are we tempted to binge on comfort food to begin with? It’s wonderful to have a goal of reconciling with a family member, but why is it that we get so defensive around them anyway? We may want to move past our anxiety or fear, but what is it that makes it hard for us to trust God with our future?

Addressing those root issues may require courage, introspection, counseling, or all of the above ­– but these steps are highly likely to have great impact over time.

So are you ready to get started on a new path? This year, consider experimenting with not doing a New Year’s Resolution. Instead, pick a goal and start with one or two small steps that, over the course of the year, really might help get you there.

One final note: a path for the next few weeks

If we want to thrive in our lives and relationships overall, and we want to take simple steps toward doing so, many of us might wonder: which steps will matter most? In what areas is a little bit of effort most likely to go a long way?  

Research has shown, over and over again, that certain actions and factors have a dramatic and outsized impact in our lives. I think of these as the “simple superpowers” for a thriving life. Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring some of these superpowers.

In the meantime, enjoy the beginning of 2024, and stay tuned!

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at

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