Personal Finance

Small changes that deliver a great year

Learn to celebrate tiny positive steps. FILE
Learn to celebrate tiny positive steps. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Globally, 2018 felt like a whirlwind year. Turbulent changes to the world political order caused by a petulant American President questioning the underpinnings of hegemonic foundations such as NATO and the United Nations.

Despite peace talks on the Korean peninsula, regional instability percolated in other areas such as in South America with the continued exodus of Venezuelans to other countries as well as divisive elections in Brazil. In Africa we saw calm return to the continent’s two biggest economies with less turbulence reported in Nigeria and financial markets quietening due to South Africa’s leadership change.

Also, economic uncertainty permeated throughout 2018 with Chinese-American trade feuds, Britain’s unclear exit from the European Union, and the contentious renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Here in Kenya, we saw a rocky start to the year before the political handshake and subsequent calming of political tensions that ushered our return to economic growth albeit sluggish compared to pre-election years.

While we might get frustrated with what goes on around us, we can only make changes to our own lives and hope that those changes impact the wider world. Indian independence campaigner Mahatma Gandhi gave statements widely attributed to him about changing one’s self: “You must be the change you want to see in the world” and “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves”.


The first step towards lasting meaningful personal change during this time of new year’s resolutions and becoming better versions of ourselves involves envisioning our preferred future. What do we want our lives to look like in the coming year and beyond? Do we desire for thinner waistlines, more creative thinking, or more time with family?

Second, sit down and plan what behaviours need to change in order to reach your goal. A thinner waistline requires lower caloric food intake and more aerobic calorie burning exercise. Creative thinking entails more divergent thinking object exercises, wider reading, traveling to new destinations, and meeting people very opposite from ourselves.

The above two steps cause our prefrontal cortex to get motivated and excited for change. We feel a sense of willpower. However, such motivation will not last long since our primordial ancient parts of the brain will in the days and weeks ahead overrule our prefrontal cortexes and control our urges, desires, emotions, and sensations.

The ancient urges dictate how we will react and behave in our day-to-day lives long-term.

Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg details how individuals can practise changing their long-term behaviour by developing the third step in including one tiny habit at a time into our daily routines.

Changing behaviour stands as systematic. There exists 15 different ways to change individual behaviour, but only two ways last for the long-term. Either you can change your environment, including your social environment or you introduce slowly by slowly tiny habits into your activities. Since changing our environments and social environments often proves difficult, such as avoiding certain family members that bring negativity into our lives, tiny habits represent a more meaningful way to achieve lasting change.

After you brush your teeth, as an example, perhaps incorporate two jumping jacks. Before opening the refrigerator, do two push-ups. Before getting out of your car at your office in the morning, do one divergent thinking exercise. On your way up the stairs to your office, greet at least one new person. These small changes can become routine if you attach them to behaviours you already regularly do.

Then when you do those new activities, every time immediately celebrate victory. Do not even delay celebration by a minute. Celebrate immediately by telling yourself that you are fantastic for accomplishing that behaviour. Such celebration makes your brain remember that it feels good to perform those tasks.

Social scientists Akhil Mathur, Marc Van den Broeck, Geert Vanderhulst, Afra Mashhadi, and Fahim Kawsar even uncover that tiny habit change can hold positive impacts in the workplace when employees feel a sense of inclusion.

Such workplace tiny habits could include responding to one old email after every time you take a sip of a drink. Organise your paper inbox every time you enter your office. Place your three most important tasks for the next day on the top of your desk before going home each day.

Let us make 2019 the year where we start to see change in our lives. Incorporate dozens of tiny positive habits into your daily routines throughout the course of the year and watch them stick. If you do, you will then celebrate a more successful year by the time 2020 rolls around.