Micro-Habits — Make Big Changes With One Tiny Step at a Time

When I was an undergrad student I swam laps almost every day. I’m far from being a gifted swimmer but I love being in the water. What I don’t love is getting into the water — getting started was (and is) always the hardest for me. I had all the hacks – packing my swim bag the night before, having a checklist to mark it as “done,” and “booking” my swim into my schedule.  And yet, I’d show up at the pool, get changed into my suit, and still be tempted to walk away without even dipping my toe in. I’d even debate with myself as I was standing on the edge of the pool dripping wet from my pre-swim shower.

Swimming One Lap

My solution?  I told myself that I only had to swim one lap. And I meant it. If I swam one lap, then I could get out and go grab a coffee or find my friends or do whatever it was that was “better” than swimming.

And with that thought in mind, I pulled my final hack: counting down from ten.  Ten, nine, eight … and at one, I dove in and swam. Did I get out after one lap?  Maybe once. I think I was just testing myself. Did I really mean it?  Would I give myself permission to get out after just one lap? Yes, I did mean it.

But I also know that I love being in the water — and that once I was in, it would be easy to stay in. After all, I was swimming by choice.  It was just getting in that was the challenge.

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One lap is a micro-habit.

One lap is a commitment is so small that it’s really easy to complete. And it’s lame to NOT swim just ONE lap. Any excuses I came up with were weak. And swimming also had its benefits:

  • I’d feel better about myself for having honored my commitment
  • I’d feel refreshed after my swim and shower
  • I’d get some exercise which is good for me — even one lap is better than none.

I’m sure I missed a few days but for the most part, I created a micro-habit that evolved into a habit. A real habit. In a recent post, I discuss these five steps to creating a new habit:

  1. Focus on your behavior not the goal (e.g. swim vs. get in shape)
  2. Take it seriously — make a commitment you can follow through on (e.g. swim every day)
  3. Make it specific — only black and white, no grey areas (e.g. 30 minutes)
  4. Consider your barriers and roadblocks, and a plan to overcome them (e.g. my count down from 10 to battle inertia)
  5. Build in support – a buddy or support system (I didn’t have any — I relied on willpower).

Micro-habits are different

While they have much in common, a habit and a micro-habit are different.  For one, the commitment (#2) is much smaller for a micro-habit — like swimming ONE lap.  And the small commitment means the barriers and roadblocks (#4) are hopefully close to non-existent. And support isn’t as critical (#5) although a little support never hurt.

What’s also different is that you attach your new micro-habit to an existing ritual that becomes the trigger. So, you can pick something you already do, like drinking your morning coffee, driving to work, or brushing your teeth, and make your new micro-habit something you do at the same time.

How small is this new habit?  Tiny.  Really tiny.

Some examples: floss one tooth or read one page. Just one tooth. Just one page.  Just one lap. In some cases, doing more will be the norm. Just like I swam more than one lap, once you’ve got the dental floss out, you’ve broken the inertia and will probably floss more than one tooth.  Who knows, maybe you’ll floss them all, particularly if you believe it’s a good idea. As a friend once said about teeth: only clean the ones you want to keep.

And even if you don’t end up adding more, there is still the cumulative effect. If you read one page every day, that’s one or two books a year. Whether that’s good enough depends on how many you read last year or if you’re trying to work your way through a very dense text.

Creating your own micro-habit

Ready to design your own? Think about something you’ve been meaning to do or change, but haven’t quite got around to it.  As with habits, for micro-habits start with a focus on behavior:

  1. Focus on your behavior, not the goal which means some action you can take like eating more greens (versus losing weight)
  2. Make a TINY commitment you can easily keep. So small it won’t really feel like a change
  3. Make it specific — only black and white, no grey areas
  4. Pair it with an existing habit – something you do every day without thinking
  5. Try it for a week, and then a month; revise as needed. 

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The pairing is important.  You use an existing ritual, like having your coffee every morning, to trigger a new action — your micro-habit. For example, if you’re thinking of being more grateful in life, maybe each morning when you take your first sip of coffee, you pause to think of something that you’re grateful for.  Even if it’s appreciating the coffee, or thinking of the same thing every day. It’s still gratitude. Take a deep breath and focus on what you appreciate. That’s all there is to it. Small changes that you can do every day.

Examples

Here are some more examples of micro-habits that are paired with an existing habit:

  • Flossing one tooth every time you brush your teeth. Just ONE tooth, every time you brush your teeth at night
  • When you first open your computer, send a thank you or acknowledgment email, before you answer any other emails for the day
  • Read one page of a book when you go to bed
  • Do one sit up (or one push up) when you wake up
  • Add one extra serving of vegetables to every meal.

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In order to make this a habit, it’s important that it be a regular event. So pick an existing behavior that you do every day, such as:

  • turning off your alarm,
  • getting up in the morning,
  • drinking your first coffee,
  • eating breakfast,
  • commuting to work,
  • eating lunch,
  • going to the gym,
  • buckling your seatbelt,
  • commuting home,
  • eating dinner,
  • brushing your teeth, or
  • going to bed.

We have many rituals in place that we often do without thinking. We do them effortlessly, which is the point — by doing your micro-habit often enough, it will become a new habit. Attaching it to the established habit is an easy way to make it a new ritual.

A new tiny ritual is so small that it might be tempting to do try more than one new micro-habit.  But don’t. Start with one. If that proves so easy after a week, then you might consider a second — but wait and see how it goes. It’s all about how easy this is and what kind of inner-resistance you encounter.

Revisit and revise as needed

Choose wisely. I’m a big tea drinker and I had a stack of books that I wanted to read that somehow I hadn’t even started reading. So I created a mini-habit that said I would read ONE page every time I made myself a cup of tea.  This would be great.  I knew that time permitting, I would likely read 2-3 pages with every cup of tea, or maybe even more. I had hopes of reading 10-20 pages a day. But then I found myself NOT making tea. My resistance to reading these books was so strong — even just a page — that I found myself NOT drinking tea. This micro-habit definitely back-fired, unless I was of the opinion that I drank too much tea (which I’m not). So I scratched that plan and moved to plan B which was a creating a book club reading the same books.

Micro-habits don’t work for everything — but they can be really effective at getting you unstuck, particularly if they are well designed, and if you revise them as needed.

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Stay well and good luck creating those new micro-habits.

I am always happy to hear from you, with any insights from my writings, or just to connect.  You can reach me through my about page or find me on LinkedIn.