How Incrementalism Can Improve Your Life (In 5 Baby Steps and 2 Warnings)

Filed under: Personal Growth

Very few of us stand up in the morning and declare to the heavens “I will change the entire world today!” 

Even if we should, there are a number of reasons why that kind of declaration is unfeasible. 

What if there was an easy way for us to enact those grand ideas, those hazy-shower thoughts that drive us to make the most impactful decisions of our lives?

Watch this 55 second video to see how someone might end up three miles back from where they started without realizing how they got there.

Jordan Peterson tells Joe Rogan how tyranny happens 'one tiny step at a time' on COVID measures

Today we are talking of Incrementalism or as Bob would say: Baby Steps.

What is Incrementalism?

In short, it is the idea that we can break down any goal, no matter how large or inconsequential, into a series of tiny, easy to accomplish tasks. Thinking along the lines of baby steps, the task of becoming president of the United States of America, and getting a 2am glass of water, are essentially the same. 

Let’s take a look at 5 ways you might applying tiny habits of incrementalism to reap great benefits over time.

The Good

Step 1: Stick a Pin 

It might be best to think of our lives as a big map. There are places on maps such as cities, towns, or that fancy coffee place you really like. There are roads to take you to those places, some of them empowering us to swiftness, and others encouraging patience and experience. Then there are the detours, those pesky little obstacles like bridge construction or downed power lines.

So, take a look at that big map called “Me” and decide just where you want to go. If, for some inconceivable reason, we actually want to be president, then stick your pin there. If we want to lose thirty pounds in three months, then that’s where it goes. Don’t stick your pin blindly. Take a few minutes right now and think about it.

Where do I want to go in my life?

That’s where you’ll stick your pin. 

Step 2: Choose a Direction

Remember those roads? Now we have to choose one, or twenty. This is where we can actually apply our “Baby Steps” with purpose.

Think of it like this: No matter how complicated the route we choose, no matter what kind of vehicle we desire or how fast we go, every single trip we take can be broken down into a series of turns. Right turn, left turn ... hell, we could even go straight. Everyone can make a single turn. That is what our baby steps do for us.

Say we really want to write the next great American novel. Very few people will be able to sit down and do that in a day. Instead, we set an increment, or the distance between our turns. Writing the whole thing at once might be intimidating, but writing one word, or ten? Anyone can do that. Given enough time, those ten words will get us to that novel, just like those turns will get us to our destination. 

Take a look at that pin you stuck. Ask yourself, what are the smallest steps I can take to get there. Make a list. You might surprise yourself with what you find. 

Step 3: Follow Through

This is where incrementalism shines. The doldrums, that place in the sea where no wind blows trapping us somewhere in the middle, out of sight of our starting point and still far from our destination. Our car has run out of gas, or a tire’s just blown. We’re stuck, but we don’t have to be. 

Since we have already established our increment in Step 2, we do not have to rely on willpower or motivation to follow through! At this point the tiny behavior should be a habit that automatically keeps you moving towards your destination.  

Remember: These are called baby steps for a reason. They are the least difficult option we can take. We can do it no matter how overcast our lives may seem at a particular moment. 

A certain blue fish coined it simply: just keep swimming. If we keep going, keep doing our baby steps, one step at a time, then we can swim many miles without realizing we have expended any effort.  

Take another look at that list you made. Which steps are the ones that you can keep doing even when life drags you down?

Step 4: Avoid Idling

Well done! We’ve arrived at our pin, and we have achieved our goal. All is well in the universe. Presidency secured, world peace achieved, weight lost. We can put our feet up and sip a few well deserved margaritas.


Let's not get carried away. We might have arrived at our destination, but that doesn’t mean that our lives are over. While we now sit at our destination there is a bonus we’ve brought along with us: momentum

We’ve achieved one goal, and that has given us a confidence boost. Whatever we choose to do next will now be a little bit easier because we have already sampled success. Don’t lose that.

Take another look at that big map called life and start sticking a few more pins in it. Start connecting those dots with our Baby Steps and each goal becomes a Baby Step.

Here is a really useful template to use when creating your baby steps.  This comes from BJ Fogg’s TedX Talk,  Forget Big Change: Start with a Tiny Habit 

“After I ______(Existing Behavior)__________, I will ________baby step_______.” (Mini Celebration dance or phrase with a fist pump is important every time immediately after!)

Here are a few examples in this format.  

  • After I flush the toilet, I will do two push ups.  + Celebration
  • After my head hits the pillow I will do two physiological sighs. + Celebration
  • After I put my kids to bed I will create 10 seconds of fun with my partner. + Celebration
  • After I open the fridge, I will do 5 jumping jacks. + Celebration

Step 5: Reflection

While reflection is important in any endeavor, it is doubly so here. Maybe we have just achieved our first goal using Baby Steps or maybe it's our hundredth. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we take the time to sit down and ask ourselves “what went right, what went wrong and how can I apply those lessons to my life?” We can even start right now. We might even look back and apply the 80/20 rule!

It sounds almost too easy. We might ask ourselves, really? This is one or our five steps?

It might seem silly, but we can use it to ensure that those four previous steps are never used against our best wishes. 

Kind of like the lobster that doesn’t realize it is being cooked due to the incremental temperature increase.

Here are two red flags to keep your eyes open for.

The Bad

Maybe it’s time to buy a new mattress. We pick over the store until we find the perfect one. Goldilocks would like it. We’re exhausted. We’re ready to get the heck out of there, but the salesperson has a different agenda (and they never mention where they stuck their pin… it can take 45 extra minutes to locate that pin).

“Honey, we might need a pillow to go with our new bed, so I guess we’ll get a new pillow… They have those two for one deals... we probably will need the mattress protector, too, right? I mean it is a lifetime warranty… so that must be worth it?” 

A clever salesperson can use incrementalism to up their commission and if we are not okay with that, then proper reflection can help prevent us from going too far down a path we would rather avoid.

The Ugly

Ah, but what is one bad decision ever going to do to us? We can get over that. It's not that big a deal.

The problem is it can be

Without proper reflection, we can enter a cycle of negative baby steps, ones that take us away from our goals instead of towards them. And because baby steps add up, we can get SO far off track by accident without proper reflection. 

You may like to identify one of your current behaviors that could compound over time in a way that takes you away from your goals.  Is it the way you take your coffee?  Is it the summer beer you have delivered in bulk to your house?  Is it staying in the car while your family plays at the playground?  

Like so many tools available to us, we must be wary of the fact that they are tools. They have no ill will or benevolence. They act the way that we use them, nothing more. The clarity with which we set the parameters of their use will help us achieve those goals we set over time. Make your list, check it twice (or more!) and start pushing those pins into your map. Baby steps will take you there. 

If you are curious about the dark side of incrementalism, you may like to watch the Derren Brown Netflix Documentary “The Push”  where he used baby steps to conduct a blind experiment to see if he could convince a stranger to push another stranger off a rooftop to their death.  I won’t spoil the ending, but safe to say it was an intense watch! 

If you liked what you learned in this post, and you are working on personal development, you will LOVE our Personal Growth Membership where we teach everyday people how to live awesome lives. We hope to see you there soon!