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How Simple Mini Habits Can Change Your Life

Jogging

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” ~Alan Watts

It was late 2012, just after Christmas, and like many others I was reflecting on the year.

I realized that I had ample room for improvement in too many areas of my life, but knowing that New Year’s Resolutions have a poor 8% success rate (University of Scranton research), I wanted to explore some other options. I knew I wanted to start before January 1st too, because arbitrary start dates don’t sit well with me.

On December 28th, I decided that I wanted to get in great shape. In the previous days and weeks, however, I hardly exercised at all and felt quite guilty about it. My goal was a 30-minute workout, and it seemed impossible.

I wasn’t motivated, I was tired, and my guilt was making me feel worthless. Feeling stuck, I remembered a technique I learned from a book, and little did I know that this technique would change my life in a big way in 2013.

The technique is from the creativity book Thinkertoys, and it is to consider the opposite of an idea you’re stuck on. So I looked at my 30-minute exercise goal, and my giant fitness plan to get in great shape, and I thought about the opposite.

You could say the opposite is eating fast food and sitting on the couch, but the opposite that came to my mind was one of size.

What if, instead of carrying around this overwhelming fitness anvil on my shoulders, I just did one push-up?

Initially, I scoffed at the idea. How absurd to do a single push-up and act as if it means anything! But when I continued to struggle with my bigger plans, I finally gave in to the idea and did one, and since I was already in push-up position, I did a few more.

After that, my muscles were warmed up, and I decided to try one pull-up. Just like you guessed, I ended up doing several more. Eventually, I had exercised for 30 minutes.

My mind was blown—did I just turn a single push-up into a full workout? Yes, yes I did.

The One Push-Up Challenge Is Born

From here, I challenged my blog readers to do at least one push-up per day for a full year. People have had great success with it, and here’s what it turned into for me: For the last 3+ months, I have gone to the gym three to six times per week to exercise and I’m in great shape because of it. Now I know why it works.

I have always held a keen interest in psychology and neuroscience, and I study them for my writing. So when I read about the studies on willpower that show it’s a limited resource, everything started making sense.

I couldn’t do my 30-minute workout because my willpower wasn’t strong enough or was depleted. But I could do one push-up and segue into a 30-minute workout because it only required a tiny amount of willpower to start, after which my body and mind stopped resisting the idea.

Of course, this concept does not only apply to fitness, but to any area of your life you wish to change. And I believe I’ve found the perfect way to leverage this technique – habits.

What’s More Important Than Your Habits?

Nothing. Habits form about 45% of your total behavior, according to a Duke University study. Not only that, but they are behaviors that you repeat frequently, which compounds their significance in your life. Habits are your foundation, and if this foundation is weak, you won’t be happy with the way you live.

The reason people fail to change their lives, and fail to instill new habits, is because they try to do too much at once. In simplest terms, if your new habit requires more willpower than you can muster, you will fail. If your new habit requires less willpower than you can muster, you will succeed.

The calculation can’t just be for one instance, however, but also for when you’re tired and your willpower is zapped. Can you continue it then?

One thing I’ve been wanting to do more is write. It’s therapeutic for me and I write for a living, so it’s fairly important that I practice. When I found that I wasn’t writing as much as I should, I found out how to combine the power of The One Push-Up Challenge with a habit plan.

How To Change Your Life With Mini Habits

Mini habits are exactly as they sound. First, you choose a desired habit or change you’d like to make—it could be thinking more positively, writing 1000 words a day, or reading two books per week. I’ve had success doing three at once.

Next, you shrink these habits down until they are “stupid small,” a term I made up because when you say the requirement out loud, it is so small that it sounds stupid. Here are mine:

1. Write 50 words per day (article, story, etc.)

2. Write 50 words per day (for the habits book I’m writing)

3. Read two pages in a book per day

Easy, right? I could complete this list in ten minutes total. So far, I’ve met these daily requirements 100% of the time, and then much more.

I’ve actually written one to two thousand words and read 10-30 pages per day, for these 12 days in a row and counting. Prior to this, I wasn’t reading at all and writing very little.

It works because your brain falls for the bait.

“Oh, only 50 words? I can write that.”

And then you start. And you’ll find, like I have, that once you start, good things happen.

Ten Daily Mini Habit Ideas

1. Compliment one person

2. Think two positive thoughts

3. Meditate for one minute

4. Name three things you’re thankful for

5. Do one push-up

6. Write 50 words

7. Read two pages

8. Do ten jumping jacks

9. Go outside and take 100 steps

10. Drink one glass of water

You can change nearly any area of your life; and at one mini habit at a time, it’s easier than you think.

When you remove the pressure and expectations, you allow yourself to start.

What mini habit(s) will you start today?

Photo by Digo_Souza

Avatar of Stephen Guise

About Stephen Guise

Stephen Guise is the author of the Amazon bestseller, Mini Habits—an effective strategy for adding healthy habits to your life. His writing can be found at his blog, Deep Existence. To receive exclusive life improvement tips from Stephen every Tuesday, sign up here.

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  • james

    This is a beautiful article and the timing is perfect. I’m in my final year at university and this is perhaps the best piece of advice I have came across; I find that I have hit a wall when writing an assignment and have therefore put off doing it. By having a stupid small goal I will definitely overcome this weakness.
    Thank you SO much Stephen!

  • Veronica Lopez

    What a great article! It’s been a difficult year for me, I’m a bit deppressed and struggle to do even the simple things, so this idea seems perfect for me. Thank you so much for sharing!!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Veronica, Mini Habits are the perfect strategy for depression. I’ve been writing Mini Habits (the book), and from researching studies, I’ve realized that depression is such a problem because it causes a lack of motivation and saps willpower too. This isn’t a problem with Mini Habits.

    The basis of Mini Habits is not in “getting motivated,” but rather using a tiny amount of willpower to start, which can spark you into living the life you want to live. It’s been a life changer for me, because I have weak willpower and couldn’t sustain meaningful behaviors.

    There’s more to it, of course. The book will be released next month if you’re interested. :-)

    Cheers,
    Stephen

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    James, it really works. I’m really happy you can see that and I hope you start some Mini Habits, or at least use the stupid small technique in daily life to do things. Since I’ve started using it, I feel as if I can get myself to do nearly anything. It’s great.

    For more depth on this subject, the Mini Habits book will discuss how many Mini Habits to pursue at once, implementation strategies, pitfalls to avoid, and the science that supports the Mini Habits concept.

    Best of luck with your schoolwork, James!

  • http://www.thoughtbrick.com/ Clare

    What good ideas — I love the idea of just taking things one step at a time. Taking on too much can be overwhelming and means you never end up starting.

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Me too Clare. It works so well. Whenever you feel resistance, it’s a sign that you’re thinking too big. Shrink the first step to get started, and you’ve overcome the hardest part of the process. :-)

  • Autumn

    Thank you for this great piece, it was the great reminder I needed of this technique, which I started using several years ago to get better at keeping household chores done. I would tell myself, just do three of the dirty dishes, or just pick up and put away three things, and before you know it, the room was clean. Using that method consistently has helped me to maintain a clean house pretty much effortlessly. I’d like to apply this method to my writing, exercise and meditation.

  • Trizzt

    What an amazing article. It’s been a challenge to start eating healthy again and work out. I’m totally going to start using this in my life. What a great post! Thank you.

  • Bhavana Chadaga

    Hello Stephen!! I am so glad that i came across this article today!! just what i needed to modify few of my habits! Such a simple thought yet so powerful! we usually show more interest on complicated things rather than few simple ones.This one reminded me that a simple thought can be powerful enough to improve yourself! :) gonna start ‘my modified routine’ tomorrow morning!!

  • Tracey

    This is wonderful advice, and definitely came to me at a time when I needed it desperately. Thank you!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Nothing has worked better for me. Always remember to make it too small to fail, and you won’t. :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Hi Bhavana! It’s true that we often look for the “complicated secrets,” when often the answer is right in front of us and it’s simple. As for Mini Habits, there are some of the more complicated concepts in play like willpower limitation, willpower usage, the problem with motivation, etc.

    BUT you don’t need to know all of those details to benefit from this concept. On the surface it’s exceptionally simple – think small. When you look at the science, and really examine what this strategy accomplishes, it all makes sense. All of these interesting details and implementation strategies will be in the Mini Habits book (wink wink!). :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    You’re welcome Tracey!

  • Ellie

    It’s a very good post, and I am going to try to follow up on my list. I made one for things to do in a week, since I don’t want to force things. I’ve been dealing with a burn-out/depression for nearly ten months, but I’ve been getting better by doing things one step at the time.
    People tend to say that internet does a lot of harm, but in my case, sites and blogs like this help me feel better and get better every day. Thank you for sharing!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Autumn, that’s exactly it. And when you use this technique to make those behaviors habit, that’s when you experience real life change.

    As for my personal success, I’m now of day 61 of my reading and writing Mini Habits. I haven’t missed a day yet, because well, it’s too easy. :-) From the One Push-up Challenge, I also have an exercise habit of going to the gym 3x a week. I might create a Mini Habit of 1 minute of foolish dancing for those other days to make sure I stay active. :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Thanks Ellie. As I told Veronica, Mini Habits are ideal for depression because they don’t require motivation and require so little willpower that you can always do it. One time I ended up writing 1,000 words in my book despite being tired and having a headache. It was only because I had to start, and once I started, I had more to say that I thought!

    Wishing you the best with your burnout/depression. And I agree – the internet is a tool that can be used for harm or good.

  • growthguided

    I love the message in this post Stephen. Let me know if you would like to do a post for GrowthGuided.

    Have a great day!

  • Karla McEvoy

    In the past, I have struggled with trying to get past resistance that pops up despite being motivated. The resistance didn’t make sense to me. The next time resistance appears I am going to use it as a guide to shrink the first step. So simple. Thank you, Stephen!

  • Sarah

    This is a wonderful technique. I have adopted a similar way of incorporating positive habits into my life. This is a wonderful reminder to me that here is yet another way! Thank you for the motivation!

  • Joie

    Sometimes you just read something that really resonates with you….and this is one of those articles! Thank you! I have a very very busy life; raising incredibly busy teenagers, helping aging and ill parents (3 sets due to a divorce & remarriage), relocating 2 or the 3 sets, driving all over the province to our kid’s sporting events, tending to our business, bookwork and the everyday chores that we all have to deal with. Sometimes I am just so overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work that must get done, that I find myself unable to start anything! Fortunately for me, the nature of our business requires strict adherence to due dates thus forcing me to do certain jobs in a timely manner. Every time I eventually sit down with the looming due date taunting me, do the work and complete it, I am astonished at just how much less time and how simple the task actually was! It leaves me wondering why I make such a big deal out of these things however, to give myself a break, I DO juggle a LOT and there is nothing on that list that I can delegate….about a year ago I did manage to get rid of several jobs that were adding more pressure to my already challenging days….that was a small relief! Anyhow, this technique is a great one…just getting started is the toughest part but when you break it down into “stupid small” pieces, it really does alleviate that huge pressure we all feel.
    Thanks for this….I really needed this reminder.

  • Stephen

    Great article, Stephen! I am currently reading The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg and cannot put it down! Keep up the writing…and working out!

  • Simon

    Great post Stephen, getting past that initial hurdle has always been a challenge for me. When you think about the scale of the whole task it’s so easy to make excuses or find distractions because it just seems too big an ask. It’s a bit like the old joke – How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. You put forward a great idea of just focusing on that first bite and not putting the pressure on yourself that you have to finish to whole thing in one go. I applied this approach to launching my linked in profile. I had been putting it off for literally years. I thought, lets just upload the photo and before I knew it had written the profile text and launched the site. I have already been contacted by someone I haven’t spoken to in years and I only started work on it about 3 hours ago. I have even done a few push ups tonight too. I realise that the real trick is in sustaining a bit at a time over a long period of time. I liked your suggestions, I already think of 3 things that I am thankful for each day. It can be particularly useful in linking the new habit to existing habits. For example I always think of the 3 things to be grateful for just before I get into bed each night. I will use this technique for many other things in future. Cheers!

  • Juliette

    Hi Stephen, thanks for this inspiring article!! One question though: You say that we should set up a mini-habit that requires less willpower than we can muster in order to succeed. However, “succeeding” = doing what we had planned in the first place (doing more than what our willpower can muster, eg. the 30-min exercice). So when you start doing your mini habit, you still have this objective in mind, and if you don’t manage to reach it (if the “trick” does not work and you remain at one push-up per day) you feel guilty and depressed eventually… don’t you??
    Sorry for the question but if you can understand my concern I would appreciate your opinion as this thought is bothering me.
    Thanks and good luck to you!

  • http://www.prettyawesomefitness.com/ Aqilah Norazman

    Thank you for this inspiring article. I agree so much about mini-habits and how important it is to keep it one at a time. As a fitness trainer, I always remind my clients to set it up that way, and those who implement mini-habits strategies almost always succeed better than those who didn’t. Thank you!

  • lv2terp

    Love the strategy, smart! :) Thank you for sharing your formula of creating a habit with us!!

  • ellie

    I feel like taking on mini habits kind of frees the mind from its want to do things to change who we are and to have a goal of doing something so that we can attain an image of something in the future. If you take that image out of the picture all you have is the present moment. In the present moment if you want to do something to improve yourself, you do it then. Small steps.

  • Edna Sprinkle

    I call this “the five minute game.” Whatever I am procrastinating doing, I do for five minutes, then I reward myself. Works everytime…

  • http://www.sixsimplerules.com/ David Singer/SixSimpleRules

    Excellent Stephen. Breaking down big goals into small pieces is the way to achieve the
    big goals we want. Thanks

  • jamiet

    This is awesome. Great idea man. Thank you so much!!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Great question. The answer to this question is pretty involved, which is why I’m writing a book about this. But I’ll do my best to answer it concisely here.

    First of all, to the question of being disappointed that you don’t do more than the small requirement is not valid, because starting small gives you the best chance to do more. So we’re back to saying, “one push-up is better than no push-ups. But doing that first one is very powerful.

    As I like to say, there’s nothing more motivating and inspiring than seeing yourself take action, which is what Mini Habits accomplish. After you begin doing something, you’ll find that your resistance to it decreases GREATLY. This means that further attempts to do more will require far less willpower. This is really important.

    Willpower is not based on the amount of work you do, but on how much internal resistance you have to overcome. Since starting very small costs very little willpower and also decreases resistance, it is absolutely the best strategy in every case.

    But what if you only meet your requirement, day after day, and never do extra? That’s still great news. You will still form a habit! And this Mini Habit is the absolute best “foundation” to build off of and do extra, since habits require ZERO willpower and are autonomous. But again, this is hypothetical. Most people are going to exceed their Mini Habits from day one because they want to do more.

    Again, the book goes into much more detail about why this seems like an issue, but isn’t at all. I hope that helps. Cheers!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    My pleasure!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Absolutely. Thanks David!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    That’s a great rule. I also like the “two minute rule” from David Allen. If something would take you less than 2 minutes to do, just do it (this is a great habit to have).

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    You’re right. It does free the mind and let’s you live in the present. It has given me considerably less stress, overwhelm, feelings of inferiority, etc. It’s a revelation!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    You’re quite welcome. :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    You’re welcome, and I’m glad to hear you’re already applying this strategy!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    That’s great Simon! Those are fast results.

    You really hit on an important point of sustaining behaviors over time. Consistency beats intensity 90% of the time. It is a great idea to string habits together too, you’re right.

    I’m building up a list of Mini Habit ideas at minihabits.com. It won’t be ready until next month, but it will be helpful for deciding which Mini Habits to pursue.

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Thanks Stephen (nice name!). That book is on my to-read list. I just finished reading Jeremy Dean’s book on habits (Making Habits, Breaking Habits).

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Wow Joie. You have my permission to take a vacation. :-P

    This should be very useful for you, since you have no shortage of things to do, and this strategy doesn’t ever seem to fail. Thanks for the comment. Cheers!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    My pleasure Sarah. :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    It was a mystery to me for a long time as well, but…mystery solved! :-)

    Cheers Karla!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Thanks very much and for the offer!

  • KB

    Haha…………….I read this and shared on Facebook this morning and since then have done push ups and back exercises ( I,ve had a really sore back for months now, but the exercises help) and a few other small chores around the house…………………………….your theory works !!!!!!!

    I think it may be along the same lines as making a short list of things to do, and just work thru them one at a time, its a great feeling to score one of the list after completion !!

    Thank you for the inspiration !!!!! :)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    I know it works! That’s what I’m trying to tell everyone! :-)

    You’re welcome KB, and I wish you continued success. Cheers!

  • Karen Sharp

    Great ideas. Thank goodness for Scranton and Duke universities for their studies on human behavior to back up one man’s idea on how we sloths can get motivated. Where would we be without them? Aren’t failed exercise programs and diets just mini versions of the big ambition? If so then they aren’t failures.
    All’s well then. Yayy!

  • ERBithaca

    This article reminded me of my step-father, who painted ONE side of the house every year so that the task was not all-consuming, and the house never looked like it needed to be painted. He also took ONE pail of gravel to fill in spots in the driveway after dinner every night. That way he avoided ever having to have the driveway re-surfaced, and it always looked perfect. I do my best to follow this mini-habit of doing everything in small stages, so that no task is ever overwhelming.

  • Mr Fox

    Really enjoyed reading this, thank you. I hope you’re aware that this almost certainly will impact a lot of peoples lives positively as they move into the future :)

  • Steve Myers

    Great article Stephen! How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. This is like one nibble at a time. Trick your brain, brilliant! :) It truly is all about the daily habits. Create your habits and they will create you. Thanks Stephen. I’m a fan.

  • Bob Sutherby

    I think the point is to focus on the small goal, keeping in mind that it is very “doable” as opposed to the bigger goal which seems far off and daunting. I personally keep getting caught up in fearing the amount of effort required in achieving the big goal, and it stops me in my tracks. I think this advice is very helpful, and practical even. Don’t let that thought bother you!

  • Erica Horowitz

    This is so simple and brilliant, Stephen. Absolutely love the idea. I actually already do create mini-habits for myself and it is helpful. I love how you explained the process though and the sentence, “It works because your mind takes the bait.” Great stuff.

  • Anand Gupta

    Hi Stephen, There cant be any more workable technique than the “stupid small” one. I am sure it will help me as well as others to bring the desired change in them. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece.

  • smrls

    I feel like this was written for me. :)

  • Donka

    Amazing article. Thank you so much! I will use these techniques in my life. :)

  • Doodle

    Thank you so much for this piece. It has come at exactly the right time for me, and will hopefully help my motivation with some things. I once read somewhere (might have been on Tiny Buddha) that milestones can be broken down in to inch pebbles, which makes things much more achievable. This advice breaks things down much further.

    Thank you again!

  • MaryDunlop

    Stephen, This is great!

  • Ahum

    Thanks for an insightful and helpful article, Stephen. Extending the scope of the article a bit, would you like to comment on how your ideas can be applied to overcome bad habits? This could, for instance, be something as benign as oversleeping, or more difficult, as trying to overcome an addiction to pornography.

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Ahum, bad habits are a very different beast. I haven’t yet thought about how it might be applied to those, or if that’s prudent or possible.

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Thanks Mary!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    You’re welcome!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    My pleasure!

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    You know it. :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    You’re right Anand. Nothing works better and this applies to everyone. It’s my pleasure to share this. Cheers.

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Absolutely! One subtitle I considered for the book was “Trick Your Brain Into Lasting Change.”

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Thanks Steve! :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    I’m quite aware of that Mr. Fox! It’s exciting. :-)

  • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

    Thanks Karen!

  • gooseberry

    :)

  • Iqbal Ismail

    I know what you mean. And I can attest to the practicality of what you are suggesting. I do all those things that you have suggested and they work! I am 73 years old with diabetes and totally fit.

  • Inspired by YOU!

    I just read this article and I am going to start doing this right now. THANK YOU for the awesome awesome advice! this is fantastic… I know this will help me.

  • Kathy

    Terrific idea! I’m definitely going to try it!

  • Charlotte Nauert

    Any ideas on breaking habits with this technique? Sometimes I find *not* doing something harder than actually starting to do something new. Maybe a mini habit for healthier eating could be to eat one less bite of dessert, or to wait 10 minutes before giving in to a junk food craving. Thanks for the great read!

  • http://laurahoussain.com/ Laura Houssain

    I call it taking consistent baby steps Stephen. It’s a great strategy. It works. By doing that you’re building one major habit; being consistent. This also increases your self-esteem which motivates you to do more…. Awesome.

  • davidbcrowley

    An interesting approach, thanks for sharing! I definitely gravitate toward the “trying to do to much” so will think about how I can apply this. On a somewhat similar line of thinking, around New Years 2012, I wrote about focusing on “Green Lights” instead of resolutions. The idea being to consider things we are doing well, that we want to continue and/or do more of in the coming year.

  • Donna

    This is an amazing trick Stephen… I have been told so many times that habits make or break a person and that we should improve our habits to improve our way of lives… But what about the question of fear??? Like I am fearful of changes and at times tend to shy away from them. I want to change this habit… :(

  • Lee Sauer

    Brilliant! Thank you so very much for your sharing your wisdom.

  • Prasanth Gupta

    thank you Stephen :)
    great article………
    thank you Stephen :)

  • Spartan Unicorn

    i’m in college, and the problem with most students is that they don’t want to commit a lot of time to study, so what i’ve always done is tell myself that i’ll just study for five minutes today, and then it just snow balls from five minutes till whenever i get tired. and hey, even if it doesn’t become a long study session, at least i did something! i’ve also given a similar advice to my friends who are living on their own for the first time; it’s called the one minute rule. if it takes less than one minute to do it, then just do it, there’s no reason to put it off, because then it’ll grow from a one minute task to a thirty minute drag!

  • Spartan Unicorn

    p.s. i love the ten daily minute ideas haha! i’m gonna give them a try :) it’s winter break now and i have exactly a month to reinvent myself!

  • mi

    thank you! This made me realize why I can’t seem to finish anything at all.

  • Manish Kapoor

    My mini habit goal was to write 50 words a day. On the very first day, I ended up writing 648 words.

    This is Amazing. Thanks for this great advice.

  • Debbie D’Aquino

    Stephen, I love this article! I tend to set goals far greater than is real then when I fail to reach that goal I excuse myself because it was such a far reach anyway. Your reasonable explanation for mini habits applies nicely for work projects too. I will share with my team. THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

  • William

    Thanks for writing this, I didn’t realize anyone else was writing about mini habits. I used that idea for my first blog article a week ago to finally start a blog, http://www.sett.com/williamhallman/minihabits . Your article is well written and I appreciate the concept of the one push-up challenge. Many people would be more successful in their goals if they used this concept. Mahalo!

  • Joseph Brown

    This is a fantastic post that demonstrates that ANYONE can completely change their life simply by doing small things differently, consistently. For example, commit to saving $1 per day…transfer $1 each day to your savings account. You may be surprised at how much you end up saving.