The Power of Mini Habits

It’s often thought that big change leads to big results, but this isn’t always the case. You only need to consider the New Year’s resolution phenomenon, where with great enthusiasm people commit to making big changes in their life, only to slide back into their old ways by February. As exciting as massive life transformations can seem, they don’t always last.

You can, however, shift the trajectory of your life by making small changes. By lowering the bar of expectations, you can more easily wire in new habits in your brain that lead to lasting results. Instead of prescribing to ideas like, “Go hard or go home” or “It’s all or nothing” you can embrace the power of small. By adopting mini habits in your life, you can create lasting and sustainable change, and most importantly, do it with self-compassion and care.

Stay Motivated With Small Change

Creating change in your life can be challenging and staying motivated is essential to wire in new habits. Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits, says “A mistake people make when setting goals is not taking into account that their motivation and energy levels are going to fluctuate dramatically.”

You set your goals against the backdrop of your life, and life is ever changing and unpredictable. This means that sticking to habits can be hard, especially if you take on too much, too soon. While you may start out excited and motivated to run ten kilometres a day or write two thousand words a day of your new book, often that motivation wanes and it becomes harder to regularly follow through.

The solution, according to Guise is to make your new habits “So small you can’t fail”. So, what does a mini habit actually look like? Instead of aiming to do thirty minutes of weight training each day, commit to doing weights for just the length of one of your favourite songs. Instead of aiming to write two thousand words of your book each day, commit to ten minutes of writing each day. Instead of switching to a fully vegetarian diet, instead choose to start making vegetarian lunches. Start small.

James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits, goes a step further and talks about setting up daily habits that are so small they can be done in two minutes or less. He says, “You’ll find that nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version…read before bed becomes read one page, do thirty minutes of yoga becomes take my yoga mat out.”

He says, “The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start…because once you have started it is much easier to keep doing it. A new habit shouldn’t feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be a challenge but the first two minutes should be easy.”

Achieve More By Doing Less

Setting up mini habits lowers your resistance to getting started. When your resistance is low, you’re more likely to regularly engage with your habit and begin to change your behaviour and life. By lowering your expectations of what you need to do to get started, mini habits can become the gateway to actually doing more.

While you may aim to walk ten minutes a day, once you get going, you’re likely to walk for a much longer period. In the same way, if your daily mini habit is to read one page of a book, it’s likely once you get started, you’ll read the whole chapter.

Even if you don’t go further than your initial target, each time you succeed in reaching your mini habit, your reward centre is activated and you get a boost of dopamine. This feels great and your brain is wired to repeat what feels good, which is partly how habits are formed. Each day you follow through on your mini habit you’re wiring in a new neural pathway in your brain and changing your behaviour. Starting small is powerful.


Shift Your Identity Through Habit Change

Mini habits set you up for success because they are easy to start and therefore easy to stick to. They remove the pressure that you “should” be doing more, which can be stressful. Each day you successfully follow through on your mini habit, you become more confident. You begin to see yourself as an action-taker; you feel more in control of your life and behaviour; and you begin to truly believe that change is possible. Your new habits change your identity.

Your daily habits have created who you are today and your new daily habits can form who you become. Clear says, “Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” Clear explains that, “The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.” He goes on to say, “Each time you write a page, you are a writer; each time you practice the violin, you are a musician.”

Consistency wires in new habits and gives you more “votes” for the person you want to become. On the other hand, when you set highly ambitious daily goals you may be setting yourself up for failure. If you try to change too much too soon it can be hard to maintain that level of intensity and expectations on yourself. It’s more likely you’ll struggle to follow through and achieve your daily habits regularly. This can have an impact not just on your motivation, but also on your self-belief.

Feeling like you’re failing can mean you give up on the change you want to create in your life and you may even notice negative self-talk creep in, as you think, “I’m so undisciplined!” or “I can never stick to my goals!” or “I’m never going to be able to change!” These negative thoughts can shift your identity in an unhelpful way, making you doubt what you’re capable of achieving in your life. Aiming for more doesn’t always lead to the best outcome.

The Power of Small Change

While at first glance, mini habits may seem like a waste of time because they are so small, they actually create big change through the compounding effect. Jeff Olson, author of The Slight Edge, says “The truth is, what you do matters. What you do today matters. What you do every day matters.” He says, “Little things that seem insignificant in the doing, yet when compounded over time, yield very big results.”

He goes on to say, “Successful people are those who understand that the little choices they make matter, and because of that they choose to do the things that seem to make no difference in the act of doing them, and they do them over and over and over until the compound effect kicks in.”

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit also supports the idea that small change is powerful, saying “Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”

When you’re wiring in new habits in your brain, consistency matters. What you do everyday matters far more than what you do occasionally. It’s better to do less each and every day than it is to do something big once in a while. Setting smaller mini habits requires you to be open to achieving your goals more slowly and sustainably and with a lot more self-compassion.

Setting mini habits, is also an invitation to let go of perfectionism and to re-think what the steps to success could look like. When seeking to create change in your life, give yourself permission to start small, to trust that from small things big things come, and to choose mini habits that will allow you to become the person you truly want to be.

7 Steps To Set New Mini Habits

  1. Start small

As you look at your life, what would you love to change? Who do you want to become? Choose a mini habit that’s small enough you could do any day, even on those days when your energy is low or you’re pressed for time. If you’re feeling resistant to getting started, break down your habit into one that could be done in two minutes or less.

  1. Get specific

Set yourself up for success by being clear and specific about the details — when and where you will do your mini habit? Clear suggests you fill out the sentence, I will [behaviour] at [time] in [location]”. For example, “I will go for a ten-minute walk at 9:30 am after breakfast, at the local park.” This is much better than saying vaguely, “I will go for a ten-minute walk today”.

  1. Make it obvious

Make your mini habit easy to start by creating a visual cue. If you want to start walking, leave your walking shoes by the door. If you want to start eating more fruit, put an enticing fruit bowl on your kitchen bench. If you want to start journaling, leave your favourite notebook and pen on your desk the night before. Clear says, “Making a better decision is easy and natural when the cues for good habits are right there in front of you.”

  1. Make it enjoyable

Studies have found that you’ll have more success when you set a goal you want to achieve rather than those you feel you should achieve. Your brain is wired to want to repeat something that’s pleasurable, which makes enjoyment an important part of any habit formation and lifestyle change.

Make your mini habit enjoyable! For example, if you want to start exercising more, choose movement you love, like walking, dancing or working out at the gym. Truly connect with what lights you up and incorporate that into your new mini habits, as that will set you up for success.

You can also bring more enjoyment into your habit by pairing it with another habit you already love doing. Clear refers to this as “The habit stacking and temptation bundling formula.” This involves combining the habit you need with the habit you want.

For example, you could do a gym work out and then go for a coffee, or you could work for a thirty-minute block of uninterrupted time and then spend five minutes checking social media. By pairing up a new habit with an existing habit you enjoy, you can create greater desire and motivation for your behaviour change.

  1. Track your progress

Consistency is key to creating lasting change and habit tracking can help you stay focused and inspired. When comedian Jerry Seinfeld wanted to improve his joke writing skills, he committed to writing new jokes every day. Seinfeld started to track his new joke writing habit by putting a cross on the calender each day he wrote a new joke.

He found he started to enjoy seeing the crosses each day and he didn’t want to “break the chain” by missing one day. This became part of his enjoyment of reaching his daily goal and fuelled his motivation. Track the days you tick off your daily mini habit to help you see your success. You’ll also get a boost of dopamine and it will inspire you to keep your winning streak going.  

  1. Celebrate your success

As you see the positive change in your life, your mini habit will be a reward in and of itself.  However, in the short term it’s worth considering how you could reward yourself along the way to keep your motivation high. Take the time to celebrate the small wins.

Clear notes however, “It is important to choose short term rewards that reinforce your identity rather than ones that conflict with it.” You may need to get creative and think differently about what a reward looks and feels like when you’re considering your desired identity. For example, if you’re working on becoming healthier, instead of a sweet treat as a reward, maybe opt for a massage, purchasing a new book or catching up with a friend.

This article first appeared in WellBeing Magazine in edition #196.