The Secret To Changing Your Habits: Start Incredibly Small

The bigger a project seems, the less likely you are to do it because it seems like too much effort. So if you really want to form better habits start really, really small--one pushup at a time.

In many ways, you are your habits. Research shows that nearly half of our actions are habitual. But habit change is a small deal: the tinier your habit, the easier it is to establish.

If we're trying get better at big picture stuff--like by getting more productive, creative, or generally awesome--research shows we need to make the change as small as possible.

Habits don't start feeling "automatic" until you've done them for about 66 days straight. And before they're automatic, you have to use willpower--which, like a muscle, can get fatigued--to initiate the task. What's more, the bigger a project seems, the less likely we are to complete it, since it seems like too much effort.

What we need to do, then, is to find a strategy that lets us lay the foundation of a productive habit while minimizing the upfront workload. To learn how, let's look at why you should start flossing one tooth.

One tooth, one pushup

After coach/speaker/workshop leader Margaret Lukens found out that the secret to changing habits is to "make them so small that they seem trivial," she decided to put the theory to the test. While she'd always meant to be a regular flosser, she never quite got the oral hygiene habit to stick. So she decided to put her mouth where the motto was: she'd floss just one tooth to establish the habit. Her takeaway:

Don’t try to cajole yourself into action by saying that you’re going to do one tooth then do them all. Just floss one. Do it every day. And watch what happens. I can tell you what happened to me – one day, about three weeks in, I had an itch for completion. I wanted, needed to floss them all. I wasn’t even particularly aware of the change, which seemed natural and unconscious. And now I can’t not floss. Mission accomplished.

In flossing just one tooth, Lukens avoided biting off more behavioral change than she could chew. But once she started flossing just one tooth every day, she worked up an appetite to floss fully. Soon after, the habit became automatic. It integrated into her routine.

Call it "repeated flossing."

The "floss one tooth" example is a classic of productivity, care of Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg, whose research into lazy-smart habit formation we've talked about before. Since the habit is so tiny--like flossing one tooth--you'll feel ridiculous for not getting it into your day. Then, over time, that minuscule becomes a part of your day, rather than no part at all. You could think of that absurdly tiny habit as a skeleton for an extension of your routine--once it becomes "normal" to your routine, you'll glide right into it.

But it's more than floss

The tiny habit hack can be applied across areas: To eat healthier, eat one extra vegetable. To become more mindful, sit for five minutes of meditation. To get more knowledgeable, savor two pages of reading. And to get more active, you could do like Tiny Buddha's Stephen Guise did and challenge yourself to doing one pushup per day:

I couldn't do my 30-minute workout because my willpower wasn't strong enough or was depleted. But I could do one pushup 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.

So if the secret to learning new skills is to do them every day, then the secret to beginning that process is to start small. Like tiny-habit small.

Hat tip: Tiny Buddha

[Photo by Ryan McGuire]

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