If you've ever embarked on a new challenge, you've probably experienced what I like to call the improvement ripple effect: How focusing on improving one thing, no matter how small, naturally leads to improvements in other areas.

Research backs up the premise. Take leadership: Google found that when managers talked with new hires on their first day about their roles and responsibilities, not only did those new employees reach expected productivity levels a month faster than other employees, the managers became better leaders.

Doing one thing naturally led to doing other things.

The same holds true with exercise and diet: Many people, once they start to work out regularly, naturally begin to eat healthier. One study found that people who exercised for twelve weeks (long enough to make exercise a part of their lifestyle) still liked fatty or high-calorie foods just as much, but no longer wanted to eat them as much.

As the researchers say, "Exercise might improve food reward and eating behavior traits linked to the susceptibility to over-consume."

Or in non researcher-speak, I might still love ice cream... but a by-product of regular exercise -- of wanting to improve one area of my life -- means I won't crave ice cream as much.

Which Is Why You Don't Have to Make Drastic Changes...

James Clear calls them "atomic habits": A small habit that makes an enormous difference.

Say you want to read more books. Instead of setting a huge goal, like reading 50 books this year (although there is a way to do just that), commit to reading four pages a day. Just four. 

Anyone can read four pages a day; even if your day has gotten away from you and you're ready for bed, still: It takes five minutes to read four pages.

Four pages is easy to stick to -- and once you make that habit stick, you can build on it. You'll find yourself reading more. You'll find yourself reading other things. You'll find yourself starting to search other strategies, tips, helpful advice, etc. The pursuit of knowledge will make you even more eager to learn.

Doing one thing will naturally lead to doing other things.

And Then You Can Piggyback...

Ryan Holiday, author of several great books, decided he wanted to contribute more to his community.

He decided he wanted to be of greater service ... but he didn't do it.

Then he heard David Sedaris say he likes to go on long walks and pick up trash near his home. Ryan walks every morning; it's part of his routine. So he started picking up any trash he spotted along the way.

Ryan's walking habit was already well-established. All he had to do was add something small, something he wanted to do, to that "base" habit. 

If you always send thank-you notes to customers, piggyback a calendar reminder to check in a month or two later. If you hold a weekly staff meeting, piggyback praising at least one employee for something unexpected. (Because no one ever gets enough praise, and no boss ever tries hard enough to spot their employees doing great things.)

All you have to do is think of something you already do... and add something small you've wanted to do, but haven't.

And Combine the Improvement Ripple Effect With Piggybacking

In the study about exercise, participants didn't consciously choose to have less interest in high-calories foods. The change in desire for less healthy foods was a natural outcome; it happened without them noticing.

That's the beauty of the improvement ripple effect. Working to improve one thing, and sticking with it, naturally leads to improving other things, sometimes without having to make a conscious decision -- or needing the willpower to overcome resistance to change.

But you can also make a conscious decision to make other improvements by piggy-backing a small change onto an established habit.

Then you harness the power of the improvement ripple effect and of piggybacking.