“Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything” – Lao Tzo
There’s an old phrase, “The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” I am pretty sure that no one really wants to eat an elephant, even if it was kosher, but the saying is an important one. Really large tasks, even unpleasant ones, begin with the first step.
In his book Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise writes about mini habits he believes can change your life. What does he mean by mini-habits?
A mini habit is basically a much smaller version of a new habit you want to form. 100 push-ups daily is “minified” into one push-up daily. Writing 3,000 words daily becomes writing 50 words daily. Thinking positively all the time becomes thinking two positive thoughts per day. Living an entrepreneurial lifestyle becomes thinking of two ideas per day (among other entrepreneurial things).
Why does he argue that mini habits are the way to change your life? For starters, he argues that most people overestimate how much self-control they have and therefore create huge goals. When they are not able to reach those goals because they are not disciplined enough to get there, they give up entirely. Guise also smartly points out that doing a little bit every day is infinitely better than doing nothing every day. So, if you start small, then you are actually doing it. Slowly, you can work your way up. Lastly, he explains that doing a little bit every day is better than doing a lot in one day because that little bit continually grows to be a lot whereas the large amount in one day simply ends.
Guise clarifies just how small these small habits should be: “The foundation of the Mini Habits system is in “stupid small” steps. The concept of small steps is nothing new, but how and why they work have not been adequately dissected. Of course, small steps are relative too; a small step for you could be a giant leap for me. Saying “stupid small” clarifies it, because if a step sounds stupid relative to the most you can do, it’s perfect.”
This small-steps habit forming trick is new, but the idea of habits is something that I’ve explored before in my writing. In his bestselling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg argues that most of the choices we make each day may feel like products of well-considered decision making. In reality, they are not. He explains:
They are habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our heath, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
Duhigg’s research not only explains why habits work, but also how habits change. With an understanding of what habits are and then how you can change them, you can truly improve your life one baby step at a time.
The Habit Loop
The process of forming a habit is a three-step circular system within our brains. Habits begin with a cue, or a trigger that signals your brain to go into “automatic.” A cue can be a time of day, sound, smell, or feeling. Once the cue is triggered, there is the routine, or the response, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional. Lastly, there is the reward, which helps your mind figure out if this loop is worth recalling for the future. The following is a diagram of the habit loop:
With time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become interconnected until your brain anticipates the reward as soon as it hears, sees, or touches the cue. In this way, the routine action becomes a habit – a powerful craving for a reward whenever the trigger is activated.
Now, of course, habits are not fixed in stone. Duhigg writes, “Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.” However, habits are so powerful because unless you actively work on fighting that habit, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making and focuses on other tasks. Therefore, unless you create new routines, the original habit (or routine) will progress automatically.
Perhaps without realizing it, Guise is building on Duhigg’s research. If you make tiny small changes to your everyday habits, you will start creating new habits. Each time you alter those habits to be a bit more demanding, you will be getting closer to your goals.