The Little Things That We Do Matter Over Time

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

– Lao Tzu

I love the above quote by Lao Tzu. It highlights that all of the little choices in life are important, especially in the long run. Not a single option or action unless it is unusually severe or unforgivable. I’m talking about the little things we do regularly, which accumulate over time and define who we are and how others see us.

            It may be something like choosing to make your bed every morning or getting up to go to the gym before work. Or having a veggie smoothie rather than a jam-filled doughnut and caramel macchiato for your 3 pm work snack. Taking the easy or not-so-healthy option may not seem like such a big deal if it’s just the once, but what if this becomes a habit over time?

            Without realising it, you may wake up one day and recognise that you have severe sugar, nicotine, alcohol or smartphone dependency. But, unfortunately, it’s no longer as easy to stop this behaviour as you may have believed. Especially once it becomes an ingrained habit. 

Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb famously said in 1949:

Neurons that fire together, wire together.

– Donald Hebb

It means that the more we do a particular action, the more these pathways become ingrained or more substantial in our brain. So the first time we do something, it might be a little path. But if we do it enough, it can become a superhighway, where our brain finds it much easier to repeat that behaviour than do anything else. 

            Most obese, unfit or unhealthy individuals probably didn’t expect they would be where they are. But it didn’t just happen overnight either. They started with an initial thought, felt something, experienced an urge or craving, and chose to act in a certain way. The more they repeated this action in similar situations, the more the brain learnt that this is just what they needed and that this is the correct behaviour whenever they think or feel this way.   Eventually, the action no longer feels like a choice but a compulsion. People may not even realise what they are doing until it is too late. Let alone be able to change it going forward.

William James said something similar but offered a solution to this trap: 

“Thoughts become perception; perception becomes reality. Alter your thoughts; alter your reality.”

– William James

I’m not sure if I agree with William James completely. In my experience, it is often easier to act ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than think ourselves into new ways of acting. While how we think and feel about things is vital, it is tough to make any positive long-term change if we don’t challenge and change our behaviour.

            Suppose we instead change our behaviours first regardless of our thinking. In that case, we will have more and more evidence contrary to the unhelpful thoughts or beliefs that we hold. In time, shifting these negative thoughts and perceptions becomes more comfortable. By doing this, you can shape your reality.

Why Bother Trying to Change?

Someone once asked me: “will you ever just be satisfied with how you are and stop using questionnaires and other measures to keep tracking and changing your life?” It seemed like a weird question, but it is consistent with how my father views life. He knows what makes him happy and does it. He’s not too worried about changing or growing. Instead, he focuses on enjoying each day, even if it’s the same as yesterday.

            That’s great for my father, and on some level, it would be nice, but I can’t do things that way. Maybe it was because I was an often stressed out, anxious and unhappy child. Or perhaps I have seen how much I’ve been able to improve my life and my relationships with others through learning, monitoring, and challenging myself over time.

A quote by Charles Bukowski probably sums it up better than I ever could:

“People are strange. They are constantly angered by trivial things, but on a major matter like totally wasting their lives, they hardly seem to notice.”

– Charles Bukowski

Some Worrying Statistics

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, people should do at least 4 hours of moderately vigorous physical activity each week. Yet, researchers have found that the average American adult only does 17 minutes each day.

            According to the 2017 OECD findings, more than 50% of adults and nearly one in six children are overweight or obese. This figure is likely to increase further by 2030.

            In addition, the World Health Organisation says that 3 million people died worldwide in 2016 due to harmful alcohol use. Fortunately, alcohol drinking has continued to decrease in Australia since its peak in 1974–1975. However, regular teen alcohol consumption is still the most significant risk factor for problematic alcohol drinking in adulthood.

            In 2014 in the US, 6.2 million people suffered from an illicit substance use disorder. Furthermore, over 115 people die every day from opioid abuse or misuse. Moreover, social isolation and loneliness are becoming more severe problems these days. One-quarter of Americans reported that they have no one to discuss important matters with or call in case of an emergency. Too much social isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of people dying. Perhaps even more than cigarette smoking.

            The average American household watched 8 hours and 55 minutes of TV daily in 2009–2010 (the peak). In 2018, it dropped to 7 hours and 50 minutes per household, which is still extremely high. From 1950 to 2010, viewing time per household increased every decade. It became what Americans did for leisure, as documented in Robert Putnam’s sociological book ‘Bowling Alone’.

            59% of all Americans and (48% of Europeans) now play video games, including 97% of teenagers in the USA. However, a 2016 study found that 6% of gamers worldwide could be considered addicted. Another study found that 7% were problematic gamers who played at least 30 hours weekly.

            Lastly, smartphone usage continues to increase worldwide. Excessive social media and smartphone usage can result in adverse mental health outcomes. Australia is now fourth in the world regarding smartphone usage. The average for all Australian mobile phone users is 2.5 hours a day, which adds up to 38 days per year. We check something on our phones 30 times daily, and 45% of Australians now say they couldn’t live without their phones.

It is Possible to Choose to Change 

It’s pretty easy to see the long-term consequences of our brains wanting to conserve energy, take the easy option, or avoid pain. However, these seemingly insignificant moments can happen hundreds of times per day. In each moment, as long as we pay attention, we have a choice. We can stay on autopilot and do what is easy. Or, we can tune into our core values, ask ourselves what type of person we would like to become in the long run, and then act consistently with this vision.

            It may feel strange, different, or even uncomfortable when you start making more challenging choices and living by your values. However, that doesn’t make it wrong. For example, going to the gym will always hurt the first time you go, but the 20-minute walk you choose to do today is better than the 10km run you put off until next week. 

            Likewise, it may be tempting to say that you’ll start a new diet on Monday, but why put off making a healthy decision in the here-and-now if you don’t have to? These moments will eventually define who you become. You can begin to make a positive long-term change today.

But What Do We Do if We Want to Change?

Let me ask you the following three questions:

1. Is there anything you wish you could do more in your life?

2. Is there anything in your life you want to do less?

3. Finally, what is stopping you from making these changes?

If you answered YES to question 1 or 2 and don’t know the answer to number 3, it is worth exploring deeper.

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

4 thoughts on “The Little Things That We Do Matter Over Time

  1. Funny how that works. We think it’s the big thing that help us or hurt us, but it’s our own thoughts — the positive or concerning messages we tell ourselves that drive us to success! I find with change it really does come down to simple things, taking that first step, and then another, and another. Great post, thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Is there anything you wish you could do more in your life? I wish I could travel more and actually get my business off the ground where I was making money.

    2. Is there anything in your life you want to do less? I’m not sure on this question. Certainly something to think about.

    3. Finally, what is stopping you from making these changes? People in my life that have rules in place.

    Liked by 1 person

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