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No matter how determined or sincere you are, making life changes is hard. You may intend to exercise for an hour a day, but intention without action is pointless. Human beings have a tendency to overestimate their self-discipline. That leads to a disconnection between objectives and results. People commonly set ambitious self-improvement goals, only to fail and feel guilty and discouraged. Failing is not your fault. The blame lies with most popular self-improvement strategies. No matter how many times you try a flawed strategy, you arrive at the same disappointing result.
Instead, decide that you’re better off taking a step, even a small step, than staying in the same place. Taking one small step daily leads you in the right direction and sets you on your way to developing a lifelong habit. The small step requires little willpower, but its results are enormous.
The mini-habit model of behavior modification focuses on adopting positive behaviors, one small increment at a time. It doesn’t effectively break active bad habits, such as alcohol abuse. But it can help you negate passive bad habits, such as laziness or procrastination, by giving you new ways to focus your energy on making a positive change.
A Personal Experience
Stephen Guise had never been able to force himself to exercise regularly. On December 28, 2012, faced with another new year, he decided not to resolve to work out more often, knowing his dismal success rate. He decided, instead, to exercise for 30 minutes, but he couldn’t get himself to even start. No amount of upbeat music, visualization or self-admonishment got him off the couch. The idea of having to work out every day to attain his fitness goals was simply too overwhelming.
Once he understood that barrier, he negotiated a compromise with himself. He decided to do just one push-up a day. A single push-up was such an easy goal he did it almost without thinking. Then, he decided to do another one and then a few more. Next, he told himself to do just one pull-up. He did that, and then he did a few more. Once he started, Guise continued to set easy goals and to exceed them by just a few repetitions at a time until he completed 20 minutes of exercise. This marked the beginning of “The One Push-up Challenge.”
Guise resolved to do a push-up daily, and after a short time, he felt stronger. That push-up quickly became a habit. By June, he added visits to the gym; within months, exercise became part of his routine. He wondered why he had succeeded with this approach after failing with so many others.
Why Mini Habits Work
A mini habit is a positive routine you develop in its smallest form – a desired behavior broken down to a “stupid small” component. If your goal is 100 push-ups a day, the mini habit is one push-up a day. Because the step is “too small to fail,” and takes an almost infinitesimal amount of willpower, you’ll build success day after day. Soon, you’ll start to feel good about your achievement; that creates a positive feedback loop that motivates you to continue. Almost before you realize it, the mini habit becomes part of your routine.
A research study at Duke University concluded that habits make up 45% of human behavior. People form habits over time through repeated actions. The brain develops neural pathways, conduits that carry messages from one area of the brain to another. Repeating a behavior strengthens the pathway associated with that activity. For example, if you shower when you wake up, waking up will trigger an electrical charge in the associated neural pathway and you’ll step into the shower without consciously deciding to do so. Once a behavior becomes a habit, the corresponding neural pathway becomes stronger.
The subconscious brain – the basal ganglia – efficiently automates repeated behaviors to help you navigate the world with less effort. The prefrontal cortex, the conscious brain, handles decision–making and understands long-term benefits and consequences. It uses more energy than the automated basal ganglia.
Contrary to common belief, the average time it takes to form a habit is not 21 to 30 days. Studies show it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a habit. The average person needs 66 days. You’ll know when a behavior becomes a habit when you experience a decrease in resistance. Instead of forcing yourself to meet your one push-up goal, for example, you’ll head to the gym without giving it much thought.
The Problem with Motivation
An inverse relationship connects motivation and willpower. When your motivation is high and you’re enthusiastic about something, you only need a little willpower to get going. When the initial buzz wears off or you must face a task you don’t want to do, your need for willpower rises. When an aspirational activity requires lots of willpower, you’re less likely to stick with it.
You may be able to motivate yourself sometimes, but your motivation levels will rise and fall with your emotions. If you’re tired, sad or hungry, your motivation will drop. The short-term rewards of eating a healthy salad instead of a burger and fries are not enough to motivate you consistently. No amount of thinking about it will keep you on track. Unfortunately, most self-improvement programs rely on motivation to fuel sustained effort. Decoupling motivation from action – and relying on a little bit of willpower instead – opens many possibilities.
Studies show that human beings have only a limited supply of willpower. The five primary causes of weakening willpower or self-control – called “ego depletion” – are “effort, perceived difficulty, negative affect, subjective fatigue and blood glucose levels.”
Developing mini habits that overcome these obstacles can help you move ahead. A mini habit is such an easy task that you need only a little willpower to carry it out. Doing one push-up – even if you’re tired or hungry – requires minimal effort. At times when you have more energy, nothing stops you from doing more push-ups.
The “perceived difficulty” of performing a mini habit is quite low. Mini goals drastically reduce perceived difficulty. Negative affect, or feeling bad about an experience, doesn’t pertain to mini habits, which add only positive feelings to your life.
Subjective fatigue is the emotion that arises when you don’t feel capable of accomplishing a task. Thinking about working out for half an hour makes you tired. Mini goals eliminate the subjective fatigue factor.
Actions requiring a lot of mental energy, such as forcing yourself to exercise or to resist chocolate, can deplete your willpower and reduce your glucose levels. Mini habits break goals down into manageable steps, which conserve glucose – your energy source.
An Eight-Step Plan
The eight steps in the mini-habit program are:
- “Choose your mini habits and habit plan” – Write a list of positive habits you’d like to have. Break each habit down into a stupid small step, the minimum possible action, such as sorting one email or saying thank you to one person a day. Try a mini habit for a week and evaluate the results. Then choose to either focus on that mini habit (the “Single Mini Plan”) or to accomplish multiple mini habits a day (the “Multiple Mini Plan”). If you have one primary goal, such as getting in shape, the Single Mini Plan will be the more effective approach.
- “Use the why drill on each mini habit” – Ask yourself why you want to instill a mini habit into your life, and delve deeply into the answer by asking the question more than once. Make sure that your mini habits align with your values.
- “Define your habit cues” – Habits are either “time-based” or “activity-based.” Identify which cue works for each new mini habit. Do you want to exercise at a specific time, such as nine every morning, or give yourself more flexibility, such as before dinner? If specific cues tax your willpower, assign yourself general cues, such as completing the mini habit before bedtime.
- “Create your reward plan” – Many habits don’t offer immediate rewards. Sculpting your abs, for example, takes time. Give yourself mini rewards to accompany your mini habits. For example, allow yourself a 10-minute power nap or watch a fun video as a reward for meeting your mini goal.
- “Write everything down” – Writing something down grants it importance. Visually track your mini habit success to reinforce your sense of accomplishment. Crossing your performance off on a calendar each day gives you a graphic representation of your progress. Several digital apps, such as Habit Streak Plan, can help you reinforce your mini habit by tracking your development.
- “Think small” – The advantage of mini habits is that repetition strengthens your willpower. Each task requires just a little willpower to complete and the frequency of repetition forms a habit over time. Once a habit is in place, you can build on it more easily. That’s why stupid small is powerful.
- “Meet your schedule and drop high expectations” – While having a positive belief in your capabilities is good, setting your expectations too high can hold you back. When you’ve exceeded your stupid small goal several days in a row, your expectations will naturally rise. You won’t be content with one push-up when you’ve done 25 every day. Resist the urge to increase the mini goal to match your elevated expectations. Feel good about your accomplishment and focus on consistency.
- “Watch for signs of habit, but be careful not to jump the gun” – Several signs will tell you that you’ve developed a positive habit. You’ll feel less resistance and perform the activity without much thought. The activity will become less emotional and more routine. You incorporate it into your identity, such as “I’m a writer” or “I’m a cyclist.”
“Eight Mini-Habit Rules”
Following the rules of the mini-habits program will keep you on track and ensure success:
- “Never, ever cheat” – Don’t treat your mini goal with false sincerity. If you’re mini habit is one push-up per day, don’t tell yourself you’re really going to do 25. Do the extra reps but don’t increase the number of your mini habits. Forming a positive habit is more important than your push-up count.
- “Be happy with all progress” – Cherish your wins, no matter how small. Embrace the program, take the first and subsequent step, and enjoy the journey.
- “Reward yourself often, especially after a mini habit” – You may feel a sense of accomplishment when you complete your mini habit even if the ultimate results are not immediate. Rewarding yourself creates a positive feedback loop that builds and sustains momentum.
- “Stay level-headed” – Once a habit becomes routine, performing it is less exciting. Revel in the knowledge that the positive activity is now part of who you are, and embrace the boredom.
- “If you feel strong resistance, back off and go smaller” – If you experience resistance to your mini habit, your step is not small enough. Your mini habit shouldn’t require willpower. If your goal is to eat one piece of fruit every day and you can’t make yourself do it, settle for one bite. Rethink your mini habit until you’ve broken the task down into the smallest possible step.
- “Remind yourself how easy this is” – Society encourages you to set high goals and motivate yourself to achieve them. But, if you embroil yourself in willpower battles, as most people do, you lose. Mini habits are easy. Set ridiculously manageable goals and rack up win after win. Soon, your subconscious will come to believe in your ability to incorporate the positive habit into your behavior.
- “Never think a step is too small” – Although mini habits are stupid small, they’re anything but stupid. They align with the workings of the human brain to develop positive patterns of behavior.
- “Put extra energy and ambition toward bonus reps, not a bigger requirement” – Resist the temptation to maximize your mini habits. Relish your new identity as an overachiever.