How Mini Habits Can Change Your Life

12

Mini Habits Introduction

A month ago, I read Stephen Guises’s book Mini Habits: Smaller Habits. Bigger Results.  What I loved about the content was Stephen’s emphasize on how small changes can have an amazing impact in your life.  His “mini habit” concept is something I’ve incorporated into my life.  And so far, it has worked really well. 

Recently I asked Stephen to post a few articles regarding mini habits.  In fact, he’s now a regular contributing writer to DevelopGoodHabits.com.  And here’s the first of his posts…

Hi, my name is Stephen.

For 209 days in a row, I’ve exercised 3-6x a week. For 123 days straight and counting, I’ve read and written quite a bit. I don’t burn out or miss days (not even Christmas).

This isn’t bragging—not even close—because my success isn’t due to being “extra special.” My success is due to something special I’ve found.

One semester in college, I didn’t buy any of my classes’ books; I attended only exam days in one class so I could play more Halo 3. I was happy to get Bs and higher that semester. Looking back, I don’t blame myself for slacking off, because I wasn’t the problem. I’m not avoiding responsibility here, but clarifying a truth rarely spoken:

We succeed or fail not by our inherit merit, but by our life strategies. (Tweet This!)

If you’ve been failing to do what you want to do in life, don’t be so quick to blame yourself. We like to attribute success or failure to ourselves, but that focus is misguided. Think about it: you are going to be you. Your behavior and abilities are predictable.

When people try to change, they usually try to get amped up for the change, but no matter how badly you want the change, you haven’t changed yet! As motivation wanes, so does progress. You don’t need more motivation, you need a strategy that can leverage the abilities of the current you into a better you.

On Decemeber 28, 2012, I was a sad person, sitting on my bed and wishing for the motivation star to come swoop down and energize me. The problem I had was exercise—I wanted it, but I wasn’t getting it. I was in average-at-best shape and far away from my goals. After 10 years of trying and falling short of my fitness goals, I hoped for success, but expected the same results, and I would have gotten them had I not changed strategies.

 

How “The One Push-up Challenge” Changed My Strategy

The motivation star never did come save me, but I was able to turn my life around in the most embarrassing way possible. I didn’t set the goal to climb every mountain in the world. I didn’t resolve to transform my fitness on the top of a mountain as I beat my chest like King Kong.

I decided to do a single push-up. Yeah, that’s it.

Michael Michalko’s book, Thinkertoys, is a creative thinking book that gave me this crazy idea. Michalko talks about a technique called False Faces, where you consider the opposite of what you’re currently thinking to see a full spectrum of possibilities. Regarding fitness, I was thinking of my big and intimidating goals, and “do one push-up” popped into my head as the opposite.

I scoffed at the idea… until I tried it. This tiny goal bloomed into a full workout that I couldn’t do “straight up.” Afterwards, I set the goal to do one push-up every day in 2013 and called it “The One Push-up Challenge.” I didn’t always do a lot more, but I always did something.

Then, I noticed the consistent, daily exercise, however small, was changing my brain. All forms of exercise were getting easier; I was forming a habit.

Daily exercise in small amounts is far more powerful than single, intense workout sessions. The former can become habit and destroy your resistance over time, while the latter makes you really sore for a few days and that’s about it. When my resistance to exercise had been whittled down, I began my current streak of going to the gym 3-6x a week. I haven’t looked back.

Why Mini Habits Work Every Time

I knew I was on to something. To exercise more is one thing, but to not have to face resistance to do it is game-changing. This “stupid” technique was like magic. My goals were “too small to fail,” and yet, not too small to matter. My results were significant and consistentbetter than any other strategy I had tried (and I write about personal development every day, so I’ve tried almost everything).

During this time, I furiously researched. I found that:

  • Getting motivated (i.e. trying to want to take action) is the world’s most popular strategy based on the number of books and websites that focus on it.
  • Getting motivated is completely unreliable as it’s based on human feelings. How motivated are you to run laps when you feel completely exhausted?
  • Willpower (forcing yourself to take action no matter what) is necessary to be consistent. This is because our feelings are always in flux.
  • Willpower is a limited resource, which is why we can “burn out.” It can, however, be strengthened.
  • Having weak willpower is a tricky problem that most people have and can’t solve, because it takes consistent willpower usage to strengthen willpower, but people tend to burn out before they can strengthen it.

These findings—combined with my personal experience in the last year—hit me like a linebacker. I could see exactly why the Mini Habits strategy worked so well. “This is it,” I thought. “This concept is the key to personal growth!” I retain this belief today.

As my weekly gym visits were already a moderate-strength habit, I added three more of these “mini habits.” I decided to write 50 words in my book, write 50 words in a blog post, and read 2 pages in a book every single day. That was 123 days ago. I’ve succeeded every day since then, save for 3 times I forgot to read.

But I’ve done more than hit my mark. Much more. Since starting these mini habits, I’ve written approximately 4x as much as previously and read 10x as many books (I wasn’t exactly a voracious reader before). You can see why the subtitle of the book, Mini Habits, is “Smaller Habits, Bigger Results.” I wrote the book using the strategy inside the book (a nice built-in proof-of-concept). Mini Habits has already sold more than 1,000 copies worldwide in less than 30 days, largely due to word-of-mouth and very positive reviews.

The Powerful Fringe Benefits Of Mini Habits

A couple months into my new mini habits, I decided to eat more “mega salads.” It wasn’t a resolution. It wasn’t a goal. I just… wanted to do it. When you take care of and invest in yourself every day, that mindset becomes a habit. There are so many extra benefits that come from following this simple method, that I could write another book about it. I will briefly list some of the additional benefits here:

Constant success creates more success: Failure is only valuable if you learn from it, and most people don’t learn from failing to reach their goals (they’re just discouraged). Failure is supposed to happen sometimes when you take a risk. Most goals we have are not risks, but 100% achievable outcomes—we should win that battle every time. Mini habits put preventable failure to rest, and as they say, success begets success.

No more guilt: When you always hit your target (and usually exceed it), prior feelings of guilt and inadequacy leave you quickly. It’s a welcome change if you’re used to overbearing goals that make you feel like crap.

Stronger self-efficacy: This term describes your belief in your ability to impact outcomes (similar to confidence). Self-efficacy has been found to be a key influencer in goal success (source, and there are others). With high self-efficacy, you’re more likely to take action because you believe that action will not be in vain. Mini habits are like a self-efficacy training program—they train you to always expect to succeed. Even the smallest effort counts, which makes you feel more powerful.

Habit formation: This is the single best strategy for forming habits. Habits don’t require large or impressive numbers like 100 push-ups, they only require consistency. Mini habits guarantee that with “stupid small” goals that you can’t resist. Think about having 100 days to do 100 push-ups and two options—do them all on one day, or do one each day. Doing them all on one day is a flash in the pan. But spreading them out over time like that will form into a habit of one daily push-up, from which you can build higher. Habits are the single best foundation for further action and progress. (It doesn’t matter if they’re “mini.”)

Motivation generation: One day, I may be an anti-motivational speaker, because I don’t believe in it as a starting strategy. But motivation is very useful. It influences the “willpower cost” of everything you do. If you’re motivated to do something, you don’t need willpower to do it, which is why people are drawn to motivation in the first place. Mini habits generate motivation in the same way that sparks ignite a fire. The small first step begins the process. And nothing is more motivating than seeing yourself take action! This is why I’m always exceeding my initial aim.

There are other benefits, and perhaps we’ll cover these in more detail at a later time. While Mini Habits is a simple strategy, it has a complex, smart, and scientific backing to it. For a more thorough analysis of the science of willpower, how habits form in the brain, and a step-by-step guide to succeed with your own mini habits, check out the Mini Habits book on Amazon.

Stephen Guise is the author of the best-selling, life-changing book, Mini Habits, and the founder of Deep Existence—a blog about focusing, small steps, habits, and minimalism. He loves writing, psychology, football, basketball, traveling, and personal development.

,

12 Responses to How Mini Habits Can Change Your Life

  1. Chris Bailey February 5, 2014 at 7:54 pm #

    Stephen,

    I’ve just started to dive into your book, and it’s fantastic so far. This article makes me want to jump in even deeper. Keep up the awesome work!

    • Stephen Guise February 5, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

      Hi Chris,

      That’s excellent! I’m happy you like it so far. I’m sure you can tell it’s something I believe in. If you think of it, let me know what you think after you finish it.

  2. Ludvig Sunström February 6, 2014 at 4:21 am #

    Good going with the post Stephen!

    And cool to see that you are taking on guest posts now SJ.

    I must admit it’s not the first time I read/learn this stuff. But I DO love to reinforce the concept/belief that it’s all about the small daily steps we take each day. To teach the brain to go just a LITTLE bit further in terms of exterting effort – and building willpower each day.

    • Stephen Guise February 6, 2014 at 5:16 am #

      Hey Ludvig!

      It’s true that small steps have been around forever. Mini Habits is at least a little bit unique though in that it discourages motivation as a starting strategy altogether, suggests that you keep your target small rather than scale up, and a few other reasons that are in the book. A single post can only go so deep, ya know? :-)

      In my view, any strategy that has starting small as the main component has a great chance to succeed. It’s how the brain is built to change, and there’s no substitute for it. Cheers!

  3. Michal February 6, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    First of all congrats on the book success Stephen! It is a great result for a single book.
    Did you read The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson? I recommend it wholeheartedly. It ignited my transformation. And it preaches 10 minute activities done consistently over time. It works as a charm and I’m the living proof of it.
    I don’t care much about science. It looks more like the market of opinions than what we mean as a science (proven way to get the results). There are research and contr-research on almost everything.
    When real people get real results I know it works, I don’t need an egghead’s opinion.
    I think you dismiss motivation all too easily. There is a reason it’s the most popular strategy ;)
    Sustained action brings results, because it compounds over time. It’s good to start ‘mini’ and develop as you go, but it’s better to start ‘midi’ and do the same.

    It’s cool to find like-minded people on DGH. SJ, you should steal Nokia’s motto!

    • Stephen Guise February 6, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

      Thanks Michal! That does look like an excellent book, and I can tell I’d enjoy the premise.

      I care very much about science. It’s how we found out that our willpower is limited, that a great part of the brain is subconscious, and that habits take longer on average to form than most people believe. This is critical information to understand when going about change. You can have success without knowing it, but consider that many people don’t have success because they don’t understand how change works.

      I don’t dismiss motivation easily, I dismiss it because it doesn’t work. It failed me for 10 years. The basis of motivation is human emotion, whether you feel like doing something or not. And the reason it’s popular is because it works really well when it works, but it only works sometimes.

      You’ll only be motivated sometimes, you’ll only be motivated to get motivated sometimes, and you’ll only succeed getting motivated sometimes. Motivation is a great thing that I benefit from every day, but it is a very poor starting strategy. You have to take action whether or not you feel like it.

      You said, “Sustained action brings results, because it compounds over time.” I agree, and for that to be possible you have to take action even when you’re not feeling it. That requires willpower.

      What does starting “midi” mean? All I can think of is “Musical Instrument Digital Interface,” haha, like how a keyboard can have a midi controller.

      Cheers!

      • Michal February 6, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

        I think we argue more about definitions than principles. My definition of motivation is closer to : “a reason for acting or behaving in a particular way”; yours to “desire or willingness to do something; enthusiasm.”
        A reason does not need emotions. It’s ironclad. You just have to had a capability to reason.
        An enthusiasm is handy, but not necessary.
        Willpower is needed when you have to force yourself to do something, to overcome interia. My reason gives me motivation to minimize the interia, thus I need lesser willpower expenditure.
        “Midi” stand for medium. 5 or 10 push ups insted of 1.

        • Stephen Guise February 6, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

          You’re right. I was thinking in the context of taking action. People’s reason for exercising hardly ever changes during their lifetime. My reasons today are mostly the same as they were 20 years ago (be healthier, feel great, etc). People’s motivation (i.e. willingness) to exercise in the moment fluctuates wildly. So while the word is used for both definitions, the second one is most relevant for taking action in the moment.

          “My reason gives me motivation to minimize the interia, thus I need lesser willpower expenditure.” This is what I’m talking about—getting motivated. You look to your reason to try to conjure up the desire for action. This is what gave me mediocre results for years. It’s what’s holding millions of people back, and I’m sick of hearing about how it’s the way. It’s the sometimes solution.

          If you schedule or plan your actions, you don’t rely on motivation. Planning to do something means you’re going to do it regardless of how you feel at the time.

          And what happens when you don’t want to get motivated? Then you’ve lost. What happens when you try to get motivated and still want to do something else more? It’s not easy to change your feelings by thinking—it’s easier and more effective to take action.

          And if you try to get motivated and fail, you’ll even burn up willpower in the process, as it is a “drawn-out decision” and uses the prefrontal cortex heavily. And at that point, you’ll try to switch to willpower and not have enough.

          I prefer not to rely on something so unreliable. If you say you’re going to do something regardless of how you feel, that’s relying on willpower and has nothing to do with motivation. Sometimes it’s easy because you’re motivated. Other times, it’s more difficult because you’re not motivated.

          I’m not sure how 5 to 10 push-ups is better than one. With a goal of 50 words, I’ve written 5,000. Small goals don’t hold you back. If getting motivated works for you, that’s great. I just know it didn’t work for me and is holding a LOT of people back, because they think they have been trained to believe they must feel like doing it to do it.

  4. Michal February 7, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Everyone’s different ;)
    It seems my reasons are good enough for me to take action almost every time. And when it’s not enough the power of habit kicks in.
    And small goals holds ME back. When I reach a goal I rarely go beyond it – I have too many other goals to reach :D

    • Stephen Guise February 7, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

      Using willpower and small goals, I meet my targets *every time* without exception and do extra 95% of the time. From the feedback on Mini Habits, this seems to be the norm. One reviewer stated: “My ‘read 1 page a day’ has resulted in completing 7 books in roughly 3 weeks.”

      But like you said, everyone is different and you have to do what works for you. It’s great that you have success in another way. I just know that mini habits work really well for most people.

      When a behavior becomes habit, we don’t need motivation or willpower anymore, so once we get to that point by whatever means, we’re golden!

  5. Jeevan Jacob John February 9, 2014 at 12:17 am #

    Hey Stephen,

    Thank you for sharing your success and your strategies. I do love experimenting with my life – and this is something I could try (I am going try it!).

    I do follow a routine (Pomodoro blocks – 40 min work and 20 min free time) and it works well (although I have found myself slacking off several times, but I do catch up in the weekends).

    I am able to keep up with reading, thanks to my 1 and half ride to college (I take the bus, so plenty of time to read books and do some HW).

    Perhaps I could try mini habits with those activities? See if it improves my overall efficiency.

    I am also planning to start writing eBooks (but that’s later this year). I could certainly try this technique with that.

    Thank you for sharing this, Stephen :) Appreciate it!

    • Stephen Guise February 10, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

      I often do something similar to the Pomodoro technique and find it works well too.

      There are so many ways to apply mini habits. Reading and writing both work very well—I’ve increased them 10x and 4x, respectively. Thank you for the comment and good luck with mini habits!

Leave a Reply