Why Good Habits Are Tiny Ones
Good habits are those that lead you to achieving your goals. But good or not, year after year, many of us simply do not create the habits we need to get what we want out of life. Perhaps rather than trying to do more, we should do less by making our habits tiny.
Why are good habits tiny ones?
Simply because tiny ones lead you to accomplishing your goals, and habits that do that are good ones.
A plan to climb a mountain serves as a fine metaphor for expressing why good habits begin tiny. Such a plan might include assessing how far you can climb in a day, the sites for camping overnight, what to carry in your backpack, where to get water, and what equipment you’ll need.
But no matter how good and comprehensive your plan is, none of it will help you achieve your goal to ascend the mountain if you don’t take the first step. Then another. As the adage wisely says:
A journey of a 1,000 miles begins with the first step.
When you seek to climb a mountain, one step is so teeny tiny, and yet there’s no other way; and in fact, after you’ve made your mountain climbing plan, focusing on doing just these first steps reduces the resistance that such a huge goal — to climb a mountain!
This all makes sense, right? And you probably know all this already, and yet, year after year — particularly when the New Year is about to begin — you repeatedly return to that same ole goal that languishes out of reach. This begs the question:
What can I do differently so I can attain my goals?
To answer this, let’s first tap the insights of habit-making expert James Clear, and then expand our look at making good habits to a few other experts.
James Clear wrote a wonderfully useful book entitled, Atomic Habits. His advice about how to begin to establish a new habit is to first establish a new identity. The current one isn’t working, because you’re not making the right choices. For instance, perhaps your current identity doesn’t see you as athletic, so you don’t exercise; or doesn’t see you as health-minded, so you don’t choose healthy real food.
This “new identity” aspect is important to consider, as it dovetails nicely with self-awareness, and to get that, you must be mindful about who you are, and how you came to be you.
An example to drive home this perspective is an extraordinary journey that fitness trainer Drew Manning went on a few years ago when he purposely went from very fit to very fat and back to being very fit again. This circular journey was chronicled in his book, Fit2Fat2Fit.
Here’s three pics of Drew showing his body composition before he got fat, once fat and back to becoming fit again:
Notice that it took only six months to get fat (mainly by eating junk food) and another six months to return to being fit again (mainly by eating real food and exercising). How come he can do this and you can’t? A quick answer — MINDSET.
Drew’s mindset is set to think of himself (his self-awareness) as a person who is fit, and he relied on that self-imposed identity to take the steps needed to get back to being fit once he was fat.
If becoming fit was your goal, Drew Manning’s mindset would get you fit in six months. You would be able to look in the mirror, and although that fat body would be in bold relief, in your mind’s eye you’d be seeing a fit person, and this mindset would enable you to choose the steps — those good habits — that line up with your plan to achieve your goal.
As James Clear underscores in the 12-minute CBS interview below:
Every action you take is a vote on what kind of person you want to become.
Remember these three core ideas taken from the video:
- Every action you take is a vote on what kind of person you want to become.
- You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems:
- Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your reading habits.
- Your bank account is a lagging measure of your financial habits.
- Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits.
- Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits.
- Sustain your habits by recreating your environment, which means:
- If you want to read more, put a book on your pillow after you make the bed to build better reading habits.
- If you want to eat better, buy real food and leave food like apples on the counter so you’re reminded to eat them to build better eating habits.
- If you want healthier gums, floss one tooth.*
- Hang out with those that have the habits you want, so you’re joining a group where the desired behavior is the normal behavior.
*That floss idea — why one tooth?
To establish the habit of flossing your teeth, behavioral psychologist B. J. Fogg suggests you begin by flossing just one tooth. You put the floss next to your toothbrush and after you brush your teeth, your objective is to floss one tooth. Dr. Fogg refers to this as a “tiny habit”.
Tiny habits are an ingenious way to kick-start a bigger one for two reasons:
- Less Resistance — There’s less resistance to doing it; after all, people, it’s just one tooth!
- Simple — Because the tiny habit is so silly simple, you’re likely to do more, like floss all 32 teeth (if you still have that many).
B.J. Fogg has coached more than 40,000 people, and he’s written a book about his techniques that cracks the code of habit formation: Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.
A few tidbits from the book:
Myth: Change is hard. Reality: Change can be easy if you know the simple steps of Behavior Design.
Myth: It’s all about willpower. Reality: Willpower is fickle and finite, and exactly the wrong way to create habits.
Myth: You have to make a plan and stick to it. Reality: You transform your life by starting small and being flexible.
The Right Method Ends The Madness
At this point, you realize that how you approach the making of good habits is the essential ingredient to make them stick. The habit-making method you employ is the one that can help you end the madness of trying to form the habits you want year after year, but failing to do so.
Remember yet another adage, this one credited to Albert Einstein:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
Good habits will be those that are formed by small steps, or tiny habits, that when practiced day after day grow into formidable processes that will inevitably enable you to realize your goals.
Next up, I’m going to quickly review some good habit methods of four masterful habit-making experts. I’ve ready touched on James Clear and B.J. Fogg, but will expand on their techniques a bit. The other two are the brothers Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the excellent book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.
James Clear — How To Build Good Habits
Mr. Clear’s four stages to build good habits are:
- Doing, and
I wrote the details behind these in the article James Clear: “How To Build Better Habits”.
Essentially, you do this:
Notice if your plan or how you’re working your plan is muddled and ineffective. You can increase by two to three times your odds of complying with your intentions if you have a specific plan. Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is CLARITY. Your plan needs to stipulate what, when and where.
If you really want something set up your life in a way that enables it to happen consistently. Make your environment support your desires.
Researchers at Harvard University wanted to experiment with how to entice more people to drink water in a cafeteria. All they did was make water more available throughout the cafeteria. They put bottles of it on various carts displayed around the cafeteria and added water bottles to dispensaries containing soda.
Result: Over the course of six months, 25% more people drank water and 11% drank less soda.
Interestingly, the researchers did not exhort cafeteria dwellers to drink more water or less soda, nor did they display signs indicating that water was more available than before. When asked why they were drinking more water/less soda, no one said it was because they noticed that water was now more available.
To get something, you gotta do something, and that “doing” needs to be done a lot.
if you want to build stronger legs by squatting, you need to put in the reps. Whether your exercise sessions have you doing many reps with few sets of light or moderate weight, or few reps with lots of sets with heavy weights, the cumulative volume must add up to something significant if you’re to get strong with the squat, or any other exercise movement, or with anything else for that matter that’s hard to do that you want to achieve.
As James Clear puts it:
The only reason that we repeat behaviors is because we enjoy them, because we like the reward. If we don’t enjoy the experience along the way we’re unlikely to stick with it and that means that you need to figure out ways to bring a reward into the present moment.
If there’s too large a gap between the “cost” of acquiring or being consistent with the habit relative to when the reward will happen, then it’s unlikely a habit will be formed. There’s no escaping that there will be some pain to get the gain, but the challenge is not to make the pain too great to be able to persevere to get to the promised land.
This means you need to figure out how to bring some part of the reward sought by the habit into the present moment, otherwise you’re unlikely to stick with it.
Seth Godin says that the best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback. He’s right. So whatever you endeavor to do consistently enough to make into a good habit, find a way to get positive short-term feedback.
If you like the cut of Jame Clear’s jib, do yourself a favor and read his book:
Note the word “Atomic” in the title. Yes, atoms are tiny but make big things; so do tiny habits.
B.J Fogg — Your Tiny Habits Will Yield Big Results
Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps
I wrote the details about this in How To Make Tiny Habits Big (and a back-up plan).
The article begins like this:
Wanting something is not the same as planning to make that something happen. The difference could be tiny habits. Tiny habits tied to already established routines are easy to do and can grow to help you make big deal beneficial changes in your life.
And concludes like this:
- Choose something simple that’s along the path you want to tread (flossing one tooth leads to flossing all of them).
- Connect the action to something already habituated (brushing your teeth).
- Do it till you just naturally want to do more (floss two or more teeth).
- Look to extend your new habits (apply lotion to my face after flossing).
- Know your IF/THEN substitute (gargle).
Intriguing? Read my article about the book, or, better yet, read the book:
Chip and Dan Heath — How To Change When Change Is Hard
Chip and Dan are the brothers who wrote an exceptional book that uses the metaphors of the Rider, the Elephant and the Path to describe that the primary obstacle to getting what we want is a conflict that’s built into our brains.
I wrote about their work in Why Change Is Hard — The 3 Reasons We Get Stuck. Chip and Dan say that the three reasons we get stuck, making change so hard to do, is because of the lack of:
- Emotional Stability
To overcome these three things — and to deal with your current mindset, which might be preventing you from achieving your goals — the brothers begin with the Rider, the controller of your mental state. As I wrote in my article summarizing their book:
The disempowering thoughts and beliefs that make up your attitudes need to be replaced with those that support the acquisition of new behaviors, actions and habits.
For your Rider to make change happen it must be directed:
- Follow the bright spots (discover and clone what’s working).
- Script the critical moves (starting with small steps).
- Point to the destination (know where you’re going and why it’s worth it).
The Elephant is your emotional self. It’s a very large part of you, and it likes comfort, and safety; moreover it’s instinctive, skittish, lazy and seeks the quick payoff.
No matter how adept the Rider, if the Elephant doesn’t want to move, it doesn’t, and no change happens.
For your Elephant to allow change to happen it must be motivated:
- Find the feeling (knowing is insufficient; it needs to feel)
- Shrink the change till it no longer spooks the Elephant
- Grow yourself (cultivate a “can do” identity and instill a growth mindset)
The Path must be shaped so that it makes sense to the Rider, and comfortable and safe for the Elephant. That means that the Path can’t be too hard or treacherous. If it seems that way, well, the Path simply needs to be reshaped, or a different one taken, but it must be one that can get you the change you seek.
For your Path to be traveled it must be shaped:
- Tweak the environment (changing the situation changes behavior).
- Build habits (once a habit, new behavior doesn’t tax the Rider).
- Rally your buddies (behavior is contagious, so help it spread).
There’s much more about the Heath brother’s work that I share, so please read my article about it. And, of course, there’s the book:
Remember these four things:
- Change is hard, because we’re all wrapped up in some identity that might be antithetical to the change we seek, so we first need to rewire our identity.
- Maintaining wanted habits is hard, because often times the habits we try to adopt are too big and come too fast. This eventually causes resistance. Resistance wears you out, and the habit disintegrates.
- Plan the attainment of your goals into tiny habits, like that first step that leads to the mountaintop, or flossing the one tooth that leads to flossing them all.
- In addition to breaking your goals down to the process of doing tiny habits, make sure that you address your mindset (the Rider), emotional baggage (the Elephant) and roadmap (the Path).