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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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  • Jon D. Andre

    Funny you talk about starting small and then mention meditation. One of the most effective courses out there teaches you to do short sessions (3 min) multiple times a day, and eventually work your way up to 15-20 minutes. It works! (Google "meditationSHIFT" if you are interested).

  • Mark Nabors

    I had a nail biting habit all through childhood, up till the day of my 23rd birthday. I had enough and wanted to quit. I was single and told myself, "what girl wants these hands touching her?" They weren't that bad but I used the idea of it to help. One important part is you genuinely have to want to quit, for yourself. Not for your wife/husband, not because someone else is telling you so.

    I always kept a few plastic straws with me as an alternative for something to temporarily chew on for the mouth fixation. I also always kept a pair of nail clippers on me in case I had one rough edge that just had to be taken care of. That helped to eliminate the trigger.

    After a few unsuccessful earlier attempts to quit, I finally quit on that 23rd birthday. I think keeping a pair of clippers with me was an important key because it helped to reduce the trigger.

    Charles Duhigg has a good book on habits and finding the keystone.

  • Omar Khafagy

    I was first introduced to this idea through a post on Reddit by Stephen Guise, which lead me to his site,

    His book, Mini Habits, has to be one of the best I've ever read on the subject. Though at times repetitious, Guise supports each of his claims with research and makes an excellent case for the value of starting really small.

    I've used it in my own life and have been met with nothing but success.

    Really worth reading.

  • PuzzleSolver

    I'm loving these productivity and personal development things that you guys throw out there.