Micro Habits: The Easy Route to Lasting Change
Your life is essentially the sum of your habits
We make new year resolutions, only to abandon most (if not all) by February.
We set long-term goals with the best of intentions, yet rarely achieve any of them.
Living a healthier lifestyle, developing a robust social life, writing a book that changes lives, running a half-marathon this fall—all these tangible goals have a lasting value or a personal meaning, or both.
So why don’t we achieve them?
The Reasons Why We Fail
Sometimes we’re simply not motivated. The fun of working towards those goals has evaporated with time and hard work, and we give up somewhere between the exhilaration of starting something new and the satisfaction of finishing it.
We’ve also been taught to change ourselves by sheer force of will. When the going gets tough, we must power through! However, research shows that willpower acts like a muscle. It gets tired easily; and while our “willpower tank” can be replenished, our well-intentioned plans evaporate when we’ve used up all the fuel.
Similarly, traditional behavior models rely on decision-making to develop new habits. Many motivational mantras echo this – you’ve probably seen plenty of examples in online motivational content:
“You are always one decision away from a totally different life”.
But as BJ Fobbs, author of Tiny Habits, noted, we tend to talk ourselves out of doing things that require us to make a decision, especially if it’s something we don’t enjoy doing.
On the other hand, habits are things we do repeatedly without conscious thought or decision. The consistency that comes with a solid routine, automated and driven by built-in instinct, makes habits much more powerful than willpower in effecting lasting change and achieving long-term goals.
The Power of Micro Habits
We often focus on the big defining moments of our lives, rarely paying attention to the small, daily choices we make that do much more to shape us.
But when you think about it, your life is essentially the sum of your habits. How healthy you feel, how focused you are at work, and even what you create, are all results of your habits.
As bestselling author and researcher James Clear says,
“What you do repeatedly ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the results you enjoy. … Change your habits and you’ll change your life.”
How do we change our habits?
The process of building any new habit is made up of four things:
- Cue: This tells you when to do the action
- Craving: This provides the motivation for the new behavior
- Response: This is the action or behavior itself
- Reward: This satisfies your craving and teaches you to continue performing that response (to the point of it becoming automated)
Without all four components, a behavior will never become a habit.
But once something becomes a habit, you do that behavior without thinking about the craving and reward at all.
That’s why habits are so powerful. They’re the actions, reactions, and behaviors that have become part of who we are, not just things we decide to do. To achieve anything significant, we must change something about the way we live day-in, day-out.
Here’s where micro habits come in.
Accumulating just one percent improvements each day leads to massive changes in your life over time. Yes, it might take a while–but the results are worth it, and they stick.
Good habits, even tiny, can make that one-percent difference. Instead of focusing on some abstract, intimidating goal, we can routinely accomplish a nibble-sized action or behavior that consistently improves our productivity and wellness.
How a Micro Habit Works
Let’s say you want to do a hundred pushups a day like Emily Saul, who did exactly that every day for ten years.
Just thinking about it makes you tired, doesn’t it? If you roll up your sleeves and hit out the reps all at once, or even all on the same day, it quickly becomes exhausting and difficult for your body and mind.
But that’s not what Emily did. She started with five pushups. That’s not quite 100, but it’s something. Five pushups are manageable, quick, and doable. It’s a micro version of her larger goal that she can—and did—achieve.
Five pushups became twenty, became 100, which became countless reps over the next ten years.
- She used habits she already had as reminders to do this new behavior.
- She didn’t focus on the abstract, big, scary goal, which can have a paralyzing effect.
- She didn’t give herself an opportunity to decide whether or not to get the reps in, but simply transitioned from one activity to another.
- She got in those five pushups anytime and anywhere she could—right after getting out of bed when she was waiting for her microwave, or in the airport waiting for her flight.
- She rewarded herself (even if it was just a pat on the back!) every time she completed a round.
Starting small, connecting new habits with old ones, then rewarding yourself after completing the new behavior reinforces micro habits and turns them into life-changers.
Backed by Research and Real-Life Experience
James Clear, author of the bestseller Atomic Habits, believes that habits form the foundation for who we are and what we do in life.
Research demonstrates that 40- 50% of our actions are automatic, done out of habit. But, as Clear notes in an interview with Freedom, the true influence is even greater than just those actions, because your habits often influence the conscious actions that follow.
“I believe that if you can get your habits dialed in and figure out how to design them to serve you rather than hinder you, then you can end up with remarkable results in the long run.”
Arianna Huffington from Thrive Global brings one message to the world: build resilience, strengthen connections, and improve wellbeing and performance with micro-steps that are “too small to fail”.
Micro steps help us focus on what we can do and what we can control, giving us reason to celebrate each small win. It’s important to know what habits you’re building into your life, however. Huffington says (echoing Greek philosopher Aristotle):
“Over time, as we build new habits, they become more than what we do—they become part of who we are.”
But can small habits really change us that much?
“Tiny is mighty,” says BJ Fobbs. He runs the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford and has invested over 20 years into researching and teaching insights about human behavior – all of which goes into his bestselling book on micro habits.
Here’s how BJ Fobbs defines a micro habit:
“It’s a very little thing that you sequence into your life in a place that makes sense, and you work to make it automatic.”
In a story on KQED, he gives an example of how and why tiny habits work: Instead of setting a big goal of practicing the ukulele for x minutes every day, he dedicates 30 seconds to practicing a single chord sequence right after breakfast. That way, it becomes something he doesn’t have to decide to do–he simply practices that one sequence right after breakfast.
Why does he do it that way?
Abstract goals don’t work when they aren’t tied to specific behaviors, according to Fogg.
To retain new behavior, it needs to be instinctive—you shouldn’t need to remember or decide to do it. The more you need to remember something, the more you’d probably talk yourself out of it.
Micro habits just might be the most powerful way to make meaningful, long-lasting changes in your life.
Micro Habits to Build Into Your Life Today
Below are micro habits you could integrate into your day-to-day to improve your focus and overall wellbeing.
Trying to build a productive and purposeful morning routine through micro habits? Do one of these things right after you wake up:
- Drink one glass of water
- Take one minute to meditate
- Think of three things to be thankful for
- Practice a deep breathing technique
- Journal for five minutes
- We all want to read more. But the time it takes to finish a book can be intimidating. What if you commit to reading just one or two pages each day? Put a book in your car, and read a page right after you put on your seatbelt. Or read a page when you’re enjoying a snack.
- Think of one distraction that could disrupt your workflow, and address it before work. This could be scrolling through social media or having to get up and retrieve something you’ve misplaced earlier (why not make it a micro habit to put things back when you’re finished using them?).
- Stretch and move around every hour, on the hour. Long periods of sitting bodes no good for your body and brain. Get up when the hour strikes and roll your shoulder, touch your toes, stand up, and walk around the room.
- Your attention is valuable, so be sure it’s spent on what’s most important. Before beginning your work session, consider integrating any one (or all!) of these tiny habits to increase productivity:
- Turn on web or social media blockers
- Switch on some focus music
- Use Freedom’s Recurring Schedules to plan deep work sessions
- Close social media tabs, or use apps to control your use of social media
- Turn on “Do not disturb” mode on your phone
- Schedule breaks in advance (to avoid burnout) by using the Pomodoro technique. Make these breaks part of your micro habits regime to increase productivity and find your focus.
- Turn off devices before bed, and escort them out of the bedroom before your head hits the pillow. Unplugging comes with its own list of benefits, including increased productivity, better sleep, and a boost in creativity and focus.
Anchoring and Reversing Micro Habits
All micro habits need anchor points–existing routines that trigger the new behavior.
Anchor moments to pair with new micro habits may include:
- Right after you wake up
- When you brush your teeth
- When you’re heating breakfast
- After a phone call
- After powering up the computer
- After you close the front door
- Before or after a meal
- Before starting a work session
Tip: Consider reversing the process of building micro habits with little unproductive things you instinctively do. Habits like checking your phone as you sit down, clicking onto social media every couple of minutes (and knowing you need a break from it), or rolling your office chair across the room instead of getting up and walking can all be replaced by healthier habits.
Building new habits is as simple as finding an anchor moment, doing the new behavior on cue, and rewarding yourself. Doing this multiple times can cement productive actions into your daily life without you even thinking about it.
Creating purposeful, lasting change in your life is easy with micro steps. As you build a focused, productive, and wellbeing-conscious lifestyle, start with new patterns of behavior too small to fail at. Look for tools and insights to inspire and encourage worthwhile tiny habits, and watch your life change!