Most people will agree that the hardest thing about making a change is taking that first step. This is the same whether your goal is to quit smoking, do more exercise or get into the habit of studying regularly. Many of our online learners have been away from any academic environment for years, if not decades, and getting back into the habit and mind-set of learning can be difficult, if they ever succeeded at doing it at all.
The temptation is to start setting big goals. A lot of self help books and guides will tell you this very thing. For example:
- Schedule half an hour for study every evening.
- Go for a one hour walk four times a week.
- Totally cut out cigarettes/alcohol cold turkey.
These are probably the right things to do. They’re also, unless you boast supreme personal discipline, completely unlikely to work. That is because they make incredible demands that you will struggle to keep up with, especially if starting from scratch.
Introducing the Snowball Effect
The Snowball Effect is a psychological term that explains how small actions at the beginning can cause bigger and bigger actions ultimately resulting in a huge change. It’s a bit like the idea that a small snowball or pebble rolling down from the top of a mountain can end up causing an avalanche.
Typically, like an avalanche, this is seen in negative terms. For example:
- Your Train is late, making you late for work.
- Your boss is angry that you are late for work and angrily shouts at you.
- You’re in a bad mood after being shouted at and end up losing a sale because you are distracted and not thinking properly.
- You feel even worse because you lost the sale and now you’re boss finds out you messed up the sale and shouts at you again.
- Feeling by now at rock bottom, you decide to go and get a drink only to find out that there isn’t any to be had. Beyond frustration now, in a pique of madness and anger you do something you immediately come to regret…
The Positive Snowball
Fortunately, the snowball effect can work the other way too. Just as one small bad thing leads on to a bigger and worse thing, so too can one small good thing lead on to another good thing. In terms of self-improvement for example, it’s much easier to make a small change than it is to make a drastic one.
Consider instead of committing to an hour walk every day, starting with just a five minute stroll. Likewise if you are giving up smoking you might consider using nicotine patches or gum to help beat the cravings.
It’s exactly the same for developing a desire to study. Don’t force yourself to read a whole chapter of your text book, or write an entire essay all at once if you are new. Start by committing to only three or four pages a day, or perhaps writing two hundred words. Succeeding in meeting this targets will help to both build confidence in yourself and the self-belief you need to try harder. As you find yourself able to achieve these smaller goals, you can build up the confidence to take on bigger challenges. From studying for 10 minutes a night, you can increase to 15, or 20 until you habitually and easily manage your goal of 30 minutes every night.
So don’t look to run the marathon immediately. Start with the first hundred meters, or the equivalent of whatever goal you want to achieve and you’ll get there.