This is a 3-part series on sustainable change. In my experience January is a great month for understanding what doesn't work for personal change, at least change that lasts. It at least helps to identify intention, which can be re-booted now for change that is sustainable and successful. In the first part of the series published on the 1st of February, we looked at environmental design. On the 8th February we looked at marginal gains. Here, we conclude our discussion by presenting 4S.

"It's physical. If you keep on writing for three years, every day, you should be strong. Of course you have to be strong mentally, also. But in the first place you have to be strong physically."

As a runner for most of my life I’ve always been drawn to Haruki Murakami. The award-winning Japanese novelist writes fiction that on its own would make him notable, yet the means by which he produces that work is also fascinating. Known to the world as a successful writer, Murakami is also a committed marathon runner and triathlete. His days are marked by a solid routine, writing for several hours in the morning before training for a few hours in the early afternoon.

The opening quote above was taken from an interview with the Guardian newspaper after the release of IQ84. Anyone who has read IQ84 will know you have to be strong physically just to lift it! It is a major piece of work about 1,000 pages long. In the interview, he went on to describe how he starts his day:

"Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It’s a big, heavy door."

Any writer or creative artist will recognize the metaphor of the “big, heavy door” in having to face a blank canvas or page each time, and the interviewer then asks him if there is an element of fear to overcome in those actions every morning. Murakami answers, laughing:

"It’s just routine. It’s kind of boring. It’s a routine. But the routine is so important."

Why is the routine so important? It allows that “big, heavy door” to be opened with far greater ease. Automation often takes the mental load from doing things that are difficult. Murakami’s mental processing power is saved for the content of the creative writing ahead rather than the process of the creative writing.

It is this broader view of process and routine that allowed me to gain better clarity on sustainable change. Environmental design is the operating context that has to be mapped out first and marginal gains offers an alternative mindset that is developed further in 4S: a simple actionable model that makes it all work – involving other people and existing behaviour to re-engineer our routines. So let’s take a look:


The law of marginal gains shows us that small changes can have massive impacts. By creating a habit, the periodic (normally daily) practice will have a cumulative effect. And by making it small, we have the best chance of making it a habit. Research has shown that the smaller the change, the quicker it gains “automaticity”—without conscious effort or mental load. Beware of grand ambition, which often derails our attempts at change because we can become despondent when the ambitious goals are not achieved. The small changes are the quick wins on which the grander goals are achieved.


Beware also of vagueness. Set a finish line. In the same way that we need to be specific in the workplace to understand what success is, so too with personal change. Rather than making an open commitment to always take the staircase, start with a commitment to always take the staircase for the remainder of the month. Achieving your objective will give you the motivation to keep going. Part of being specific is measuring. What is the right measure? Change it up. Rather than being disappointed looking at the bathroom scale each morning, try integrating more movement into a daily commute for two weeks and taking a tape measure around your waist.


Support your new action by placing it next to an existing one. We are all slaves to our existing habits. What do you do each day? Perhaps you have a consistent routine related to your morning: personal hygiene or preparing kids for school. Do a plank after brushing your teeth each morning—or if you’re really ambitious, do the plank while brushing your teeth! Seriously though, triggers can be immensely powerful. Stanford educator and behaviour change expert B. J. Fogg talks of his “flushing the toilet” trigger, after which he would complete a couple of push-ups. Though perhaps not for everyone (he did stress only at home!) it is a much easier way of getting 30 to 40 push-ups on a daily basis than doing them all at once.


Share your change with your family, with your friends, or with your boss. If you plan to go offline after a certain time each day, you’ll need to manage expectations on a professional level. If you have a habit of collapsing on the sofa when you arrive home from work, tell your family so that they are waiting for you to go for a walk when you arrive home, after which you can fall on the sofa. Sharing your change makes you accountable. And we all need accountability from time to time. I didn’t explicitly share my own commitment a couple of years ago to walk after every evening meal (the legend of the Chinese Walk, detailed in the SEP book and coming soon in a Monday morning blog post) but accountability made it work. Animals are amazing at picking up habits. After my initial enthusiasm for walking after my evening meal wore off, my faithful companion Harry the sheepdog ensured that I kept going. Now, as soon as I put my knife and fork down, Harry waits at the door and barks if I don’t get moving!

The routine-level view of 4S is particularly valuable in a professional context. Creating automatic routines can remove the need for decisions and therefore help reduce the load on decision fatigue, something that Barack Obama highlighted in his interview with Vanity Fair in 2012. Talking of the routine and habits that supported his performance, he said:

"You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits, I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

I often present this (now commonly-found) quote in our programs on behaviour change, presenting it as Obama’s marginal gain. The takeaway for the busy professional is not to eat the same food every day, or wear the same clothes, but in being convinced of the power of small change for improving executive performance. And it also follows 4S. As well as being small, it is also sufficiently detailed, and clearly linked to other points in his day as well as other people.

Rather than always looking at the big picture, what are the small areas of your life—your habits, routines, and rituals—that you can change, re-engineer, to improve your own performance? Putting a question mark at the end of long-held practices, no matter how successful you perceive them to be, is a healthy practice. Just like the ambidextrous organization, we ought to know when to operationalize the good things for value maximization yet keep seeking the change and improvement in order to move forward. How do we innovate on a continual basis, adapt to our environment, and ensure that a powerful routine does not become a rut?

With more years experience we accumulate skills and knowledge and operate to an extent on ‘autopilot’ – a sign of competence. Yet mindfulness in the enterprise is not just about taking time out to meditate, rather being more mindful of practice to ensure that autopilot mode still works effectively. The value in the wearables revolution is not about collecting a cabinet of badges for each 10,000 steps walked, rather empowering today’s busy executive to be more mindful of their daily practice. And before buying that iWatch, give 4S a go.

That’s all for this series on sustainable change. I hope you’ve found it interesting. Let us know what has worked and what hasn’t, either in the comments, or by dropping us an e-mail. See you next Monday.