It’s almost New Year’s Resolution time, and if you’re like most people, you’re going to make a fatal mistake.
You’re going to commit to massive, sweeping changes, like completely overhauling your appalling diet or going all-in on your quest to “get ripped or die trying” or taming your urge to accumulate as much debt as possible…and you’re probably going to fail like 92% of people resolving to do the same exact things.
Resolving to tackle the whole enchilada is enticing. It feels good to puff our chests out, put our foots down, and know that this is the moment you stop buying the junk food and start saying “no” to the doughnuts every morning. Where you begin showing up in the gym every day and kill your workouts like you own the place and ritually sacrifice the credit cards to free your soul from their evil enchantment.
It never goes like this, though. The pistol fires, the race starts, you close your eyes and run like hell until you’re breathing pepper spray and then open them back up to realize the horrible truth: you’ve moved about an inch. And you signed up for the ultramarathon.
The reality is ripping out some major unwanted part of us and neatly replacing it with something shiny and pretty is about as easy as swallowing the sun. And yet we keep trying it over and over, wondering why we can’t do the impossible.
To be fair, there are people reading this that don’t know what I’m talking about. They just finished what’s sure to be their sixth bestselling novel, which they wrote while motorcycling through South America and running their multimillion-dollar online businesses on 4-hour workweeks. Bless their hearts. (If you’re one of them, just know your friends secretly hate you and can’t help but fantasize about small, bad things that God must have planned to restore cosmic balance.)
But, for the rest of us plebeians, we have to tame our appetites and go for sun-motes instead. That is, tiny, almost inconsequential acts of change are easily digestible, and a steady diet of them is, in time, just as nourishing as the feast.
Here’s how BJ Fogg, creator of Tiny Habits, explains it:
Want the TLDR version? Here it is:
The easiest way to do big things is to learn to do and celebrate really, really small things first.
Sun Tzu said that great warriors win first and then go to war, and that’s exactly what mini-habits let us do. They give us easy wins and a positive position from which to conduct the rest of our campaign.
Want to write a book? Park that away and just commit to writing 50 measly words per day instead. Want to lose 30 pounds? Great. Start with sticking to a proper meal plan for just a week and see how you feel. Want to exercise more? You can start with 10 big ol’ pushups per day.
The key here is these “mini-habits” get you in motion and puts the first law of inertia on your side: once you’re moving, you tend to stay in motion.
And then you realize that you can move a little faster. And little faster still. And the wheels don’t fall off. In fact, everything is running more smoothly than you would have imagined.
Another great thing about mini-habits is you can do several at a time without getting overwhelmed. This puts you on the path to meaningful change on multiple fronts without requiring large reserves of time and motivation.
Simply put, mini-habits let you succeed in numerous ways even on your worst days, and that’s powerful.
Mini-habits can also fit into even the nuttiest of schedules and days. Andre Dubus wrote the inimitable House of Sand and Fog in 20-minute daily installments in his parked car, longhand on a notepad, before driving home from work to join his family for the evening.
20 minutes per day. House of freaking Sand and Fog. I love that and remember it whenever I feel like slacking off.
Mini-habits can quickly and naturally grow in scope. Drinking one less cup of soda per day turns out to be quite easy and you then feel brave enough to forego another. 10 minutes of exercise feels so good that you don’t want to stop.
Don’t harbor hidden higher standards for your mini-habits though. If the habit is 10 minutes of exercise and you do just that, you win. If you do more, you win bigger.
In his short, fantastic book on the subject of mini-habits, that you should read right away, Stephen Guise talks about the importance of consistency in your mini-habits.
Consistency builds willpower and self-confidence, or “self-efficacy,” as Guise calls it, which keep us from getting entangled in the roots of procrastination and despair.
Fail to be consistent and you’ll eventually develop an expectation of failure in anything you do. Cherish and insist upon consistency, however, and eventually you can’t help but believe in the inevitability of your success.
If a mini-habit isn’t working, it’s probably just too big. Make it smaller and let it grow organically.
Committing to one workout per day might not sound like much, but it can get easily lost in the whirlpool of daily living. Trim it down to something stupidly easy and quick and “un-skippable”–a couple sets of bodyweight exercises to failure or a 15-minute walk, for example.
The mini-habit tool is incredibly versatile. You can apply it to just about any endeavor and immediately reap the benefits. For example…
- Read 5 pages of the book you want to finish.
- Write 50 words on your project.
- Do 10 minutes of that exercise DVD.
- Lift weights one day per week.
- Practice your yoga poses for 5 minutes.
- Follow your meal plan for one day.
- Cook one new recipe per week.
- Give one compliment per day.
- Replace one cup of soda with water.
You get the idea.
So, what major, scary change do you want to make in your life? And what’s the stupidest, simplest action you can take every day to nudge the needle in that direction?
There’s your bread crumb of a mini-habit. Pick it up and see where the trail takes you.