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At my best, I’ve had average self-control in my life, and at my worst, I’ve played video games for double digit hours every day.
Despite this, I've recently created habits in reading, writing, exercising, and alarm clock practice (to condition a new response to the sound of my alarm so I won’t hit snooze 11 times). These are my current streak counts:
The interesting thing is that I'm doing these all at the same time. I've only ever missed reading on three days (when I forgot). Every other day has been 100% success because my tasks are too small to fail. They're mini habits.
Habits: Can You Create More Than One at a Time?
The traditional way of building habits is to pursue one at a time and create your cue-behavior-reward strategy. S.J. has written about this, and I completely agree that you should only pursue one traditional at a time.
The video below provides a simple 9-step process about building habits that you can immediately implement.
I hated doing it; not because it was ineffective—it can work and it’s better than failing to form 2+ habits at once—but because I wanted to do so many other things. Are you willing to sacrifice all of your other habit goals for two months to develop just one of them? That’s tough to do.
When you're having success playing piano every day to make it a habit, that success can create “habit greed.” Soon enough, you'll also wish you were reading more, exercising more, eating well, and writing a book.
These “set aside” desires can drive you crazy. But if you add more habits to your tab, they'll combine to sabotage your focus, drain your willpower, and set you back. We can only handle so much at once.
It's worth it to sacrifice some things for two months for a lifelong good habit, but it is very difficult to have the discipline to ONLY seek one at a time. (Check out these self-discipline quotes to help you build mental toughness.)
Creating Multiple Mini Habits Is Possible, And It's Easier Than You Think
Before I developed the habits listed above at the same time, I had a tough time even forming one traditional habit, even with focusing on it. That’s because a mini habit is about 95% easier to maintain than a traditional habit. Even four mini habits are easier for me to develop and maintain than one big habit.
To demonstrate this, will you do either one push-up or 100 push-ups right now? Really think about doing each task and gauge your response to both. How do 100 push-ups sound? And one push-up?
Unless you have an abnormal love of push-ups, you're going to be much more willing to do one than 100. The thought of doing 100 push-ups can actually give you a feeling of repulsion if you're tired, out of shape, or have your heart set on another activity. That feeling comes from your subconscious strongly disagreeing with the idea.
But if you're physically able to do push-ups, you're likely to laugh at how easy it is to do just one of them. This all but guarantees you will always have enough willpower to force yourself to meet this challenge.
This is a powerful strategy because according to your brain, 100 push-ups and one push-up are equally viable behaviors for habit.
I know that is a bizarre claim, but it's a true one:
For a behavior to become habit, ONLY consistency matters.
It opens up a new world of habit formation possibilities because it means we can make almost any behavior into a habit, even if we’re unmotivated or have weak willpower. The key ingredient to success is making the behaviors mini-sized, or “too small to fail.”
We Have So Many Habits, and Most of them ARE Small
I play basketball often, and one day while playing a game, I noticed that after I made a 3-pointer, I wiped my face with my shirt. I didn't think much of it until I did it several more times! I'd even do it if there wasn't any sweat to wipe off.
This small, insignificant gesture had somehow become a habit. If you’re curious, I realized it was due to embarrassment, similar to when people sing you happy birthday. I do it much less often now that I’m aware of it.
Can you think of any small habits like this—such as biting your nails, twirling your hair, stroking your beard, etc.—that you've accidentally formed? There are likely hundreds of small habits you won't realize unless they become prominent or problematic.
A Duke University journal study found that approximately 45% of the study participants' behavior was habitual. With so much habitual behavior, it’s unlikely that we’re consciously aware of many of the automatic decisions we make. By definition, these decisions are made under our consciousness (i.e. “sub” conscious).
You can see that small habits aren’t just possible, they’re far more common than the major habits we tend to focus on (e.g. exercising, smoking, getting up at 7AM, eating fast food, etc.). As for the meaningfulness of small habits, don’t underestimate them. They can grow.
How Small Habits can Turn into Big Habits
Small habits often grow into “big habits” because habits are automated behaviors, and each iteration of the behavior reinforces the habit.
Neural pathways in the brain are like the muscles of habits, and the growing process works like this:
- A neuron fires down a pathway in your brain (trigger/cue)
- You perform a behavior (action)
- You get some kind of positive feedback (reward)
- That neural pathway (habit) is strengthened
Each iteration represents a very small amount of strengthening, but when you add it up over weeks and months, it's meaningful. Habits’ iterative strengthening is an excellent microcosm of how exercise works.
It's actually very unnatural for the brain to make large, sweeping changes. It's not built to change quickly either, which makes it stable. It’s why the “big plans for change” are so hard to execute.
It’s why when habits grow “naturally,” they start off small, and often sneak up on you (for better or worse). Be very careful about repeating even a small behavior that you'd rather not have as a fully-developed habit.
This can be the case with good habits too, though, which is why I strongly recommend that you try creating your own mini habits. Because of how habits work in the brain, you can’t judge a habit by its size. Though if you do judge them, at least do it accurately by frowning at big-habit goals like 100 push-ups a day.
How to Pursue Multiple Habits at Once (Successfully)
There are probably some infinite willpower machines/humans who can consistently take action on 8 full-sized habits at once over time.
But for the other 99.9%, we need a strategy that will guarantee success despite our limited willpower. That strategy is mini habits and it even allows for multiple habits at once.
Mini habits take very little willpower to do each day, to the point that you can do them at your worst (depressed, sick, exhausted and completely stressed out). And because they're so small, you can easily develop more than one at a time.
I don't use the word easy lightly when talking about personal growth. But we're talking about things like reading one page per day, cleaning for one minute, dancing for 30 seconds, or processing one piece of mail. There’s no excuse to miss a day.
My personal consistency with mini habits doesn’t speak to my personal strength—it shows the strength of this strategy. And every day, I should mention that I far exceed my measly goals.
I recommend having 1-4 mini habits at one time. For some, four might be too many. I've found that more than four begins to diminish the power of mini habits, which comes from the “too small to fail” requirement.
Final Thoughts on Developing Multiple Habits
When you have a large number of small things to do, you can get overwhelmed by the quantity, even though each one is very small. Each person will be a bit different; experimentation is useful.
The best metric is, “could I still do all of these on my worst day?” If yes, then you're in good shape, won't miss days, and could actively develop as many as four new good habits at once. I don't miss my mini habits on holidays, vacations, sick days, or anything else. They're too easy to say no to.
Remarkable consistency is the golden path to developing habits because it’s the golden rule of habits (everything is golden suddenly), which bears repeating:
For a behavior to become habit, ONLY consistency matters.
Need mini habit ideas? You can find a few dozen mini habit ideas at the mini habits website. If you want to dive deeper into the science, benefits, explanation, and step-by-step application of this life-changing idea, check out Mini Habits.
And if you're looking for more resources to help you develop good habits, be sure to read these articles:
- 100 Day Challenge Review: Will It Help You Achieve Goals?
- 47 Good Daily Habits List To Transform Your Life
- The Habit Loop: A Simple Guide on How Habits are Formed
Finally, if you need help with building habits, then check out this nine-step blueprint that walks you through the entire process of creating lifelong habits.)