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Power of One Little Thing: Why Thinking Small Is Secret to Meeting Corporate Wellness Goals

Healthcare Development & Architecture

As healthcare costs rise, many companies are tapping into corporate wellness programs to help employees get healthy. And no wonder: they work. According to a recent Rand Health study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, employees who take advantage of wellness programs are more likely to exercise, control their weight and cut back on smoking.

Wellness programs don’t just benefit employees — they benefit companies, too. Specifically, they reduce the productivity losses resulting from employee or family health problems, which according to CDC, cost them $1,685 per employee, per year. Healthy employees have fewer absences. It stands to reason that they are also more engaged, energetic and enthusiastic — all of which translate to higher performance.

Unfortunately, many employees choose not to participate in their company’s efforts to get them healthier. The Rand study reports that only 46 percent of employees undergo the clinical screening or take the Health Risk Assessments associated with wellness programs.

This reluctance can stymie companies. To help combat it, many offer incentives for participating. But, despite incentives, many employees still resist and it’s not hard to see why. After all, the topics wellness programs address — weight loss, smoking cessation, diet changes — are not only sensitive and private, but overwhelmingly hard to change.

Even employees who desperately want to make changes are discouraged from past failures. They view embarking on yet another attempt at reaching a big, health-related goal as a colossal waste of time.

The solution is to remove that sense of overwhelm from the equation. You’ve got to make the weight loss (or smoking cessation or whatever) seem doable. Instead of focusing on All the Big Things That Must Change, develop a program that helps your employees zero in on One Little Thing.

It’s hard for any of us to wrap our minds around big, dramatic, sweeping change. “I must change everything about the way I eat and I must make exercise a regular part of my life” feels almost impossible. Worse, it feels meaningless. It’s

Wellness programs don’t just benefit employees — they benefit companies, too.

so broad that it’s difficult to know where to begin. No wonder so many (already stressed) employees decide not to participate.

But, what if the program helped employees change One Little Thing? Then they’d be able to say, “I could walk for 30 minutes a day, every day,” or “I could switch my afternoon Coke to a healthier option.” Those goals mean something.

They’re tangible, doable.

Here’s another problem: many wellness programs goals are open-ended. They impose no deadlines. As a result, there’s no urgency, and execution suffers. (How many of us have said “I’ll start eating better and exercising someday”? Ever notice that “someday” never comes?)

By choosing a “keystone commitment” and vowing to do it every day for 12 weeks employees can make real progress.

Whether it’s a lunchtime walk around the company parking lot, choosing a healthy snack each afternoon, or smoking one less cigarette each day, there is something very powerful about the relentless daily repetition of doing One Little Thing.

Then, at the end of the 12 weeks, employees can choose another small commitment that advances their goal even further. Then they do it again — and again. And once a year has gone by they should have met their goal — or at least have made huge noticeable strides toward it. It’s simple and remarkable: planning goals in 12 week increments — what I call the 12 Week Year — rather than 365 day years creates a sense of urgency and forces execution.

Here’s what makes One Little Thing so powerful:

It feels doable. There are so many components to conquering big life challenges that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. If an employee has been smoking a pack a day for 15 years and has been trying to quit for 10 of them, the thought of trying to stop yet again, feels overwhelming. But if their One Little Thing is to smoke one less cigarette each day or to shorten their smoke break by a minute each day it starts to seem feasible.

It takes minimal brainpower. When we start obsessing over all the steps involved in meeting a goal it can be mentally exhausting. But, how hard can it be to focus on the One Little Thing over and over and over again — not very? It frees employees up to direct the rest of their brainpower to their job and other life obligations.

It negates excuses. If employees keep their keystone commitments simple enough, they can probably do it despite life’s endless complications. Most everyone can find, say, 30 minutes to walk, even if it’s in two 15-minute increments.

It feels good. Their success in the program will lead to more success. Doing something we said would do is deeply satisfying. The sense of accomplishment is its own reward and it keeps us motivated.

It’s habit forming (in a good way). Studies show it takes anywhere from 18-224 days to form a new habit, depending on the individual (and, of course, on which “experts” you ask). In my experience, 84 days (aka 12 weeks) is generally plenty of time to get a new behavior engrained in someone’s routine.

Best of all, it gets employees closer to their goal. Of course, it may take more than that first “one little thing” to reach their goal. But it’s a necessary steppingstone to the second and third (or more) “little things” which, together, will eventually get you there.

In other words, One Little Thing works where so many other Big, Complicated Things have failed. It’s a concept that works for businesses seeking wellness initiatives that truly engage. Here are a few ways to ensure success for a One Little Thing wellness initiative:

Pick “one little thing.” Ask employees to consider what their health goals are. Have them zero in on one broad goal, and then ask them to pick “one little thing” they can do to achieve that goal.

They might not be able to complete their big goals in 12 weeks, but think of the progress they can make by walking for 30 minutes each day, taking the stairs up to the office instead of the elevator, or getting 30 minutes more sleep each night.

Make it doable. When employees are picking their One Little Thing, they’re going to be excited, but don’t let that excitement lead them into an “eyes too big for their stomach”-type goalmaking mistake.

In other words, they need to be certain that their One Little Thing is truly doable on a daily basis. If they go too big, it won’t be long before their determination wanes. For example, if an employee wants to lose weight, they shouldn’t make their One Little Thing running 10 miles a day.

They won’t be able to keep that up.

Encourage employees to keep it simple. It’s amazing how simple tasks can affect larger goals. When employees
choose something they know they can stick to, they’ll make progress and then they’ll set themselves up to make
even more progress in the next 12-Week Year.

Provide structure. Employees need a system that keeps them motivated and thinking the right way. Through my own work consulting clients, I’ve seen how effective a 12 week execution system can be. Combine such a structure with the One Little Thing concept and you’ll have a wellness program that is execution friendly.

Helping employees get down to the granular level regarding what they must do each day, reduces the chances that they’ll make a wrong turn or a mistake and as a result reduces anxiety they might have about participating in the program.

Envision a future that’s worth the pain of change. The No. 1 thing that employees will have to sacrifice to achieve their goal is comfort. Therefore, they must create and maintain a compelling vision of the future that they want even more than they desire their own short-term comfort.

Then and only then can they align their One Little Thing with that long-term vision. It won’t be easy. There will be days when employees won’t want to get out of bed to do their 30-minute walk, won’t have time to make a salad for lunch, or will want to give into stress and smoke that extra cigarette. If they’re going to create a breakthrough — if they’re going to reach the next level — they will need to move through fear, uncertainty, and discomfort.

A personal vision will keep them going when things become difficult.

Don’t have them go it alone. Employees’ chances of success will be seven times greater if they have peer support. In working with thousands of clients over the past decade, we have found that when clients meet regularly with a group of peers, they perform better; when they don’t, performance suffers. It’s that simple.

Don’t “have to,” “choose to.” It’s all too easy for a daily action to turn into a daily have-to. “I have to go to the gym.” “I have to eat this apple.” “I have to skip this smoke break.”

That’s a problem, because a have-to quickly turns into things we loathe — and if we loathe something we need to do to accomplish a goal, we’re less likely to reach the finish line.

There will be days when employees won’t want to get out of bed to do their 30-minute walk, won’t have time to make a salad for lunch, or will want to give into stress and smoke that extra cigarette.

There are no such things as a have-to in life. Everything we do in life is a choice. And when employees look at their One Little Thing this way, they’ll notice a big change in their attitude and motivation. Instead of feeling burdened and put upon, they’ll feel empowered. Saying, “I choose to attend this yoga class so that I can meet my fitness goal” feels a lot better than saying, “I have to attend this yoga class so I won’t continue to carry around this extra weight.”

Focus on the present moment. Many of us tend to fixate almost obsessively on the future, worrying about what might go wrong and fretting about how we’re supposed to accomplish everything on our lists. Unfortunately, instead of solving problems or saving ourselves future stress, all we usually succeed in doing is increasing our own anxiety right now.

When employees let their minds drift to what might happen, the One Little Thing they’ve chosen may start to seem pointless in the grand scheme of things. Suddenly, the goal that’s challenging but doable can transform into one that’s frightening and overwhelming.

The more they contemplate all the time and effort it will take to get from “here” to “there,” the more uncomfortable, frustrated, and disconnected they feel. That’s why it’s important to be mentally where they are physically. They should stay focused on their One Little Thing. And stick with it, every day.

Celebrate progress. Chances are many employees haven’t had many opportunities in the past to celebrate actual progress toward a health-related goal. So when everyone reaches the end of their 12-Week Year, celebrate.

It’s very gratifying to be recognized for achieved goals.

Knowing a celebration or reward wait gives employees something to look forward to, motivating them to keep their nose to the grindstone when the going gets tough.

The psychology of change is fascinating to me. I’ve seen over and over that breaking bigger goals into 12-week segments lets people make consistent progress and celebrate milestones along the way. It’s discipline, yes, but it’s not drudgery. It’s doable and fun and that’s why it works. And to see it work is so incredibly rewarding.

We humans are amazing creatures. We can accomplish huge things — cure diseases, climb mountains and build skyscrapers — but, at the same time, we’re fallible. We can easily become overwhelmed by time, by the unknown, by too many options. Zeroing in on One Little Thing is how All Those Big Things happen — one experiment at a time, one step at time, one nail at time. Bottom line, it makes the impossible doable.

About the Author

Brian P. Moran is co-author along with Michael Lennington of “The 12- Week Year: Get More done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months,” (Wiley, 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1185092-3-4, $23.00, He is also founder and CEO of The Execution Company, an organization committed to improving the performance and enhancing the quality of life for leaders and entrepreneurs.

He has served in management and executive positions with UPS, PepsiCo, and Northern Automotive and consults with dozens of world-class companies each year. As an entrepreneur, he has led successful businesses and been instrumental in the growth and success of many others. In addition to his books, Brian has been published in many leading business journals and magazines. He is a sought-after speaker, educating and inspiring thousands each year. He lives in Michigan with his wife, Judy, and their two daughters.

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