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A little habit goes a long way!
As I discussed in a previous post (Habits, Routines, and Rituals), habits are the building blocks of routines and rituals – but what happens when you find it difficult to even create a new habit? How do you build an efficient routine or awesome ritual if you can’t come up with the right building blocks?
There are lots of things to consider when you’re trying to change things in your life, including developing a clear vision of who you want to be. That vision becomes powerful when we link it to the identity we choose for ourselves, provided that identity is one that we can feel totally connected to.
When it comes to developing new habits, it’s always best to link them to your identity. And the easiest way to link a new habit to your identity is to choose “do” and “don’t” over “must” and “can’t.”
“I run” is better than “I have to run every day.”
“I don’t eat refined sugar” is better than “I can’t eat refined sugar.”
The first is linked to your identity – it’s about what you do or don’t do – while the second is relying on some imaginary authority that’s forcing you to change.
When it comes to eating well, for example, I’ve found that “don't” feels empowering and supports my long-term vision while “can’t” wears me down because resistance is hard. “Can’t” also tends to make me want to rebel more often. "Screw it. I'll eat those potato chips if I damn well feel like it!"
“So what do you suggest?”
Like most continuous improvement efforts, I suggest you start small. VERY small!
Author Stephen Guise writes about a strategy of using “mini habits” to create positive change. These mini habits can then turn into regular habits, which can grow into routines that are refined into positive rituals. In my own experience using mini habits, I’ve found that they tend to work like “triggers,” which require very little will power and kick-off a larger habit, routine, or ritual. The difference is that once you do a mini habits, you can be done. You don’t need to continue. Something that is truly a trigger, on the other hand, always leads to something bigger.
An example of a mini habit I use is to put the oatmeal on the counter every morning. I wanted to develop the habit of eating oatmeal every morning but I don’t love oatmeal. I don’t necessarily dislike it – it’s fine – but I’ll take eggs and toast or a bagel any day. Since we always have eggs, bread, and bagels around the house, choosing oatmeal was difficult. So I decided that when I walk into the kitchen in the morning, the very first thing I’ll do is take the oatmeal container out of the pantry and set it on the counter. If I did that, I was done. I didn’t have to actually make and eat the oatmeal because that wasn’t the habit I was trying to develop.
Early on, there where plenty of times when I took the oatmeal out of the pantry, set it on the counter, brewed a cup of coffee, put the oatmeal away and ate eggs or a bagel. I didn’t feel bad about doing it because I had accomplished what I set out to do – I put the oatmeal on the counter.
As the days went by, I found that putting the oatmeal on the counter ended up being a trigger that led to more. I mean, it’s already out, so why not just make a bowl of oatmeal? I ended up leaving the measuring cup handy, so it takes about 20 seconds to mix it up, and while it’s in the microwave for 2 minutes, I get some fresh fruit ready to add to it. All toll, the entire routine takes less than 5 minutes and I end up with a hot bowl of healthy oatmeal and fresh fruit, and a nice cup of coffee... all because I took the oatmeal out of the pantry and set it on the counter.
“That’s one meal a day. What about something more difficult?”
Okay, I’ll give you one more example of a mini habit that I just recently started. I’ve been working from home since the end of March, 2020, and I had gotten very sedentary. I used to spend almost four hours commuting every day but because I took commuter rail and walked the last half mile to my office, I almost always managed to get 10,000 steps and really didn’t snack all that much.
Needless to say, it’s hard to get 10,000 steps walking around the house and I’ve been really bad about making time to get out of the house and walk around the neighborhood. My office is in the basement and our weight room is right around the corner – literally 20 steps away – but I just wasn’t using it.
Rather than putting a full workout plan together and trying to change me entire schedule, I decided to implement a mini habit. The mini habit I chose was to put on my walking shoes when I sit down at my desk. I leave them sitting on the floor within easy reach every night. So when I sit down in the morning, the first thing I do before I login for work is to put on those walking shoes. If I do that, I’m done for the day. I’ve accomplished my goal of implementing my new mini habit.
But here’s the thing – my feet notice the difference when I have my walking shoes on. It’s just a LOT more comfortable to walk with them, especially since I have my custom orthotics in them. So when I get up to use the restroom or get another cup of coffee, I often just walk around the basement two or three times. It’s only 150 steps or so but it starts to add up. I also find that sometimes I just need a break and I get up and walk around – maybe even step outside for a bit – all because those shoes make walking feel great!
Not always, of course, and that’s fine. Sometimes I put my walking shoes on and then don’t get many steps in because I end up getting really busy and don’t have many breaks. But it’s okay because my goal wasn’t to get steps – my goal was to put on my shoes, and I accomplished that.
Here’s an interesting thing though: When I do end up taking a few laps around the basement, I’ve found myself stopping in the weight room to do some curls, overhead presses, and bench presses. Or maybe some sumo squats and kettlebell swings for a couple of minutes. Is it a full blown workout? No – but if I spend 5 to 10 minutes 4 or 5 times a day, it starts to add up!
I’m adding activity into my day, not by trying to add activities but by putting on my walking shoes. Pretty cool, huh?
Mini Habits, Gateway Habits, and Triggers
There are a number of great books out there that can help you identify, define, and implement excellent habits – and the best ones encourage you to start small. If you haven’t figured it out already, I definitely agree with that approach. In fact, I take a similar approach to goal setting and execution, which I explained in Think Big: The only goal-setting framework you’ll ever need, which explains my Think Big, Act Small, and Move Quickly approach. Starting with small habits is much the same.
One author calls them “atomic habits,” another calls them “mini habits,” and someone else calls them “gateway habits.” The bottom line is they’re small and easy to do, and they all tend to operate as triggers once you start using them regularly.
Get up in the morning and “do one push up.” BOOM! You’ve done your small habit for the day. But guess what? When you’re down on the ground already in the push up position, it’s really easy to try one or two more. And after a couple of weeks, you might find yourself dropping down in the middle of the day to do a few push ups because, well, you can.
Doing one push up becomes a trigger (or a gateway) to doing more.
Who do you want to become? What identity are you hoping to create?
Do you want to be a musician – someone who plays music? Then practice every day. But don’t worry about 60 minutes or 30 minutes. Try 5 minutes. Once you’ve played for 5 minutes, you can be done. Anyone can take 5 minutes out of their day but you’ll often find that you just keep playing a little bit more.
Do you want to read more? Maybe you want to read a book every couple of weeks? Don’t start with reading for an hour or reading 20 pages. Don’t start with something vague like “read before bed” either. Try reading one page. Once you’ve read a page, give yourself permission to stop... or keep going. Either way, you’ve done well.
So figure out the identity you want to develop and start coming up with some appropriate small habits to try. You can try 3 or 4 at a time, if you’re feeling ambitious. Otherwise, simply experiment with 1 or maybe 2.
The key is to keep them small and once you’ve done the tiny little habit, give yourself permission to stop... and be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. Anything more is simply a bonus!