We all go through periods in our life where we feel like we need to make a change. For a lot of us, that’s what our new year’s resolution is all about. While that might be the most cliché time to pick up a new habit, these changes don’t need to occur on January 1st.
The best way to keep a new habit is to break that habit up into smaller and more manageable habits; these are called Micro Habits.
You Are What You Repeatedly Do
Whether you’re picking up a new technical skill or starting your fitness journey, there are some great ways to make sure that you stick with your new habit rather than burn out after 2 weeks!
You are what you repeatedly do, and habits are literally actions you repeatedly take without thinking, which is why they’re the first place we tend to start when we want to make a big change in our lives. But we all know the deal, Rome wasn’t built in a day and your six-pack isn’t going to pop up overnight. We need to stick to our habits longer than just a week if we want to see any substantial changes.
There are countless articles and videos out there about creating SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. SMART goals are objectively a good way to approach goal-making, but I think it overcomplicates the process, and the more complicated anything is, the more difficult it is to stick to.
Minimum Viable Product
In software development, we have this concept called a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Instead of spending weeks or months putting together a completely fleshed-out project that will inevitably have issues, we try to put together the most basic version of the product possible. What is the simplest version of this product that gets us moving in the right direction; this is the idea behind an MVP.
The idea is that something is better than nothing and that the best way to move forward with a complex project is to break it down into its simplest components, and continuously improve that product through incremental improvements. This allows the flexibility to make changes when needed and leads to several iterations of the product, each better than the last.
When it comes to forming new habits, the biggest problem is having an all-or-nothing approach.
- “I need to run ten miles every day”
- “I’m going to learn to code three hours every day”
- “I’m going to write 1000 words every day”
Going with the MVP metaphor, these are massive projects. Whenever I initially have these kinds of giant scary goals, I like to think about what the most basic component of those goals are and start there. What is literally the minimum thing that I could do that will start to achieve this goal?
When we think about our goal of “running ten miles every day”, we know that can be daunting, but when we start breaking it down, we can find much more manageable tasks that are easier to turn into habits, that will give us a better shot of keeping up with.
One of the best ways to really stick to a new habit for the long term is to incorporate micro habits into the mix. Microhabitats are just what they sound like, habits but just, smaller habits that you can reliably perform every day.
Maybe running ten miles is scary (or painful), but how about running one mile. How about just a walk? But even going for a walk every day can be difficult. You need to find the time, you might need to change your cloths, what’s the weather like? With all of that, you might get overwhelmed simply thinking about everything involved to the point where you just sit on the couch with a glass of wine thinking about running. So we can break it down even further.
Maybe instead of forcing yourself to run three miles, you simply put on your walking shoes and stand outside. That’s easy! There’s nothing else to worry about. You can put on your walking shoes and stand on your porch with that glass of wine thinking about what running might be like. But here’s the thing, that’s not what’s going to happen.
When you put on your walking shoes and go outside, you’re going to want to take a short walk. When you’re already out walking you might want to walk further. If you’re out walking further you might want to walk up a hill or make it a bit more difficult. Before you know it you’re out for a 15-mile run in the rain and all the motivation you had to muster to get there was to put on your shoes. That’s right, we just went full “If you Give a Mouse a Cookie”. That book was not based on nothing.
Just One More Step
Micro habits allow you to take advantage of that “just one more step” idea. Running a marathon is hard, taking just one more step is easy! But a marathon is made up of hundreds of ‘just-one-more’ steps! Okay, probably more like tens of thousands of steps; clearly I don’t run marathons. This type of habit-forming process can be used in all areas of our life. Cleaning the kitchen might be a giant endeavor, but just taking out the trash is easy, and might lead to you filling up the trashcan before taking it out. Want to write your memoir? That’s daunting, but sitting down and writing just 100 words a day is easy.
If you end up just writing 100 words? That’s fine! You’ll still end up with a few thousand words after a month. The magic happens when tomorrow you sit down to write your 100 words, but you actually write 500. The next day you sit down to write those 100 words and you write 5,000 words! If you had set out to write 5,000 words every day you’d probably find it overwhelming and never keep to it, but writing 100 words is easy.
Reduce the Stress, Improve the Output
It’s that unintimidating micro habit of writing 100 words in this example that gets you ACTUALLY DOING the thing when you might not have much motivation, and you’ll find that you naturally tend to do a bit more every day once you’ve gotten started. It’s also a way of managing your expectations to a point that you feel good about what you’ve accomplished every day.
When you feel good about what you’re doing, you want to do more of it. We tend to set ourselves up to fail by setting unrealistic goals and always feel like crap when we inevitably fall off the wagon. This kind of behavior is not only unproductive but also ruins our confidence for the next time we want to take on a new habit. Show yourself that you’re capable of reliably and consistently sticking to a habit, ever so small, and that will give you the confidence to improve upon that habit until you’re miles further than you ever really expected yourself to get.
So if you want to run a marathon, just put on your walking shoes every day for a month and see where it takes you. Probably further than if you set a goal to run 10 miles every day and quit after a week.