How to Develop Multiple Habits at Once

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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:

  • Gym at least 3x a week: 236 days
  • Reading & writing daily: 150 days
  • Alarm clock practice daily: 43 days

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:

  1. A neuron fires down a pathway in your brain (trigger/cue)
  2. You perform a behavior (action)
  3. You get some kind of positive feedback (reward)
  4. 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:

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.)

multiple habits | how to develop multiple habits | multiple habits at once

16 thoughts on “How to Develop Multiple Habits at Once”

  1. SJ, similar basketball habit here 😉 I haven’t played in years yet remember doing the same thing after nailing a trey. I felt embarrassed by the attention in some way. I like changing multiple habits at once by taking baby steps. If I want to post 5 times daily I will start by writing 1 post, then a few days later, maybe 2 posts.

    Taking this approach helps me change things without burning out.

    Smart post!

  2. I love the post Stephen.
    I rephrase your main thought: “For anything, ONLY consistency matters.” I can’t articulate the feeling, but I feel that anything employing the time gains the power.

    Hey it’s not nice to call people names:
    “some infinite willpower machines/humans who can consistently take action on 8 full-sized habits at once over time”. I feel offended 😉 Just kidding.

    I’m starting to get what you mean by mini-habits: a behavior too tiny to miss. When I set to transform myself, I’ve successfully developed six 10-minute daily disciplines at once and they were easy for ME. I didn’t think of them as grand or hard. They were just 10 minutes long.
    And to say the truth from that time on, each my new habit seems to be easy for me, even writing for 30 minutes a day.
    When you think about some behavior as easy, it’s a mini-habit.

    • Thanks Michal. Haha, sorry about calling you that name.

      Yes, that’s exactly right. Mini habits are relative. The tasks need to be small enough that you can do them on your worst day (and if in doubt, go smaller).

      And for a lot of people 10 minutes is enough resistance to skip days. But if you can hit that target every time, that’s great! I still keep my targets really small, but frequently do “bonus reps” because starting sparks me to do more.

      “When you think about some behavior as easy, it’s a mini-habit.”

      Yes, precisely, though I take it farther and say “stupid small,” when a behavior is so small it sounds ridiculous to you. That ensures that you’ll always be able to do it.

  3. Re buying the book yesterday and today for 99cents, as advertised by SJ Scott: Being a determined person in need of developing a myriad of new habits, I spent over an hour on a dialup connection last evening trying to buy Mini Habits for this price, but could only find a price just under $6.00. I had to come into town today and am taking advantage of the library high speed internet, only to find the same result. Is there some other way to get to this book for 99 cents? Unfortunately I’ll only have dialup until Wednesday evening, when I shall once again had high speed internet. Thank you!

    • Hi Rosemary,

      I’m the author of Mini Habits. I’d love to help you out with this. Could you send me an email?

      sguise [at] deepexistence [dot] com


  4. It’s like waxing the car, and painting the fence … next thing you know, you’re a Karate man.

    I’m a fan of learning multiple things at once, habits included.

    The key for me is always choosing what to spend more focus on, and making sure that it’s not just the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

  5. This is a great article, Stephen. I’ve recently became convinced of the power of systems, consistency, and developing good habits. But this article on creating mini habits has brought new light to me. I actually started a new habit of doing 80 push ups and 200 crunches every day. Been at this for about a month and so far so good, heh!

  6. I actually practise this since beginning of this year.

    My mini habits are longer than what you described here but I cluster them all in my morning ritual.

    – Wake up early 6.30am (to be honest, still struggle with this)
    – Drink 500 mL of water in the morning – I fill up my water bottle every night before I go to bed
    – Take a 5-min cold shower – it’s actually a challenge to make myself okay of doing uncomfortable stuffs. I make it the first thing to do once I wake up without giving myself time to hesitate.
    – Eat a homemade (not quick-bite from fast food) breakfast – I pre-determine what I want to eat and eat almost same thing everyday.

    BJ Fogg was one of the pioneers that advocates tiny habits as I know. That was where I picked up this concept as well.

  7. Just a gently reminder, you might also need to build a tiny habit of “tracking progress” first, so you get to track your progress. 😉

    At least that’s something happened to me, I simply need to set a daily reminder to remind myself I need to clock the progress of my tiny habits on a piece of Excel Sheet. But if you’re using app, that could be easier. What I know about myself is I tend to forget the app even after I downloaded them, lol.

  8. I understand that trying to add too many mini habits at one time is not a good idea but is there more info on how to go about adding more at a later time and when etc. I have a list of about 20 things I want to start being consistent and on time in doing… most are just day to day normal responsibilities which I do end up doing (some but not all) but at the last minute and flying by the seat of my pants (and feeling like I just can’t get a grip!) I want to once and for all get a grip/routine and do them in a consistent-on time way… any info/help appreciated! I am currently taking mini steps towards laundry daily, exercise, swiping/wiping toilets daily… Not lofty goals but necessary… As I said before I do these things but usually when we run out of clothes, etc You get the picture… This is not how I want to be… Oh and the mini steps/habits are working on the things I’m currently doing! I just want to get the 20 something other things going too but don’t want to burn out or give up because trying to add too much at once YET if I can get some info that there is a way to gradually add the 20 plus others.. then I will be more optimistic that there’s hope in the horizon! Sorry so long! Okay! I’m done…

    • Donna,

      It really depends on how big the habit is. If you have the steps are pretty involved, I really recommend tackling them singly with *at least* 30 days between habits. If they are smaller, like mini habits they can be grouped together to create what I call “habit stacks” which is something I discuss in detail and give some ideas about in my book habit stacking.

      In brief: the idea is to take these small habits and group them together so you will have a prompt to do 4-5 semi related habits all at once and run through them like a checklist. The important part is to have some specific prompts like “before your first coffee” First thing after you return to your office after lunch…etc.

      Hope that helps

    • Thank you for the reply SJ Scott! And yes it does help! I’m just a long time replying because I found myself back here again reading this and had forgotten I’d commented here way back when… 🙂

  9. Hey, S.J. Scott i allso need to change my response to the alarmclock. Instead of feeling horrible and snoozing all morning i want to get up right away to start my routine. For how long and at wich time do u do the alarm Clock practice ? Thanks

  10. I’ve never heard of “Alarm clock practice.” I’ve never even thought about the idea but it would most likely change my life. I’m a night owl whose only shot at being a morning person would be to just stay up and pretend I slept! Have you written anything on the subject or could you recommend some reading?

  11. I thought it was really cool to see how long you’ve been concentrating on those three tasks. I’m doing the same but with six habits. Some of mine are more limited though like quitting coffee and writing a thesis. I hope to do a habit as long as 236 days. I guess the most mind-boggling thing would to eventually see a habit grow to multiple years without missing a repetition. I’ll probably pursue similar ones as you: exercise, reading/writing, language study, morning routine. Good luck with your goals and thanks for sharing.

    • That is awesome. When you do the habits long enough it stops being something you even think about. You just do it. — for example, many people would like to start a daily running habit. For me, this is easy since I have been doing it for over 20 years. It is harder to miss a day than to make it every day. That is the goal and why repeating, even small numbers, every day is so important.

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