There’s an interesting tactic that has transformed Michael Phelps into one of the most extraordinary athletes that has ever jumped into a swimming pool, which you can try out for yourself.
That sounds too good to be true right? I didn’t believe it either, until I bumped up my meditation habits from once a week sporadically to 20 minutes everyday, finished 5 books in a month while working a full-time job and side hustle after that...and this is only the first month since I applied this tactic in my life.
The weird thing is: I didn’t even plan to achieve these goals at all!
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall back to the levels of your systems.”
That quote should be a rude awakening for all of us when it comes to setting goals.
What James meant by that is everyone has big goals, so writing down the commitment is not the deciding factor in changing how we live our lives.
The differences lie in your habits: what and how you spend almost 50% of your lives doing.
But you have probably been aware of you need to build better habits and have tried multiple times, right?
Habits form through consistent repetition. Those are the two factors: a repeatable action and a consistent frequency.
With more and more repetitions, your brain needs less and less cognitive resources to perform the task. So to form a habit is that simple: you do them enough, the actions become easier.
But you still are not running 40 minutes, eating healthy meals, meditating for half an hour and journaling gratitude thoughts every day right?
Reason #1: Unclear actionable steps.
Did you decide that your habits from now on will be To be more Grateful? Act with more kindness? Be more Mindful during the days? Be more Financial Responsible?
All those sound really nice, but if your desired habits can not be boiled down to a simple, actionable routine, you can not track how consistently you are doing them.
One thing that I learned from my previous failures in setting goals is: buzzword doesn’t show how to form a habit. Being more grateful or acting with more kindness and compassion are buzzwords because we aren’t informed on the frequency of the actions and the action that we have to repeat.
Being more grateful is only habit-worthy when broken down into “write 5 things that I’m grateful for everyday” or “saying what you appreciate of at least 3 persons per day” or “calling my parents every weekend to say check up on them and say thank you”.
Those are actionable steps with a clear frequency, which can be formed and tracked as a habit.
“What gets measured gets managed.”
Peter Drucker’s management wisdom transcends into the field of making-good-habits-stick also.
So the first reason why good habits fail to stick around is that you never know the frequency, the action steps and how consistent you have been with the habit.
Reason #2: The habit is too demanding.
What usually happens is we stop doing the things we should be doing after the motivation runs out or when life drags you down with school work and a 9-to-5 job.
It takes too much to run for 20 minutes after a long day at work.
It takes too much to power your way through 20 minutes of doing nothing, meditating.
It takes too much to prepare for healthy meals every Sunday.
So the action is too difficult to perform, then you can’t find enough willpower to follow through. Hence you never repeat them enough times. Consistency isn’t there. So the habits never stick.
Wait a minute. Touch your nose right now. Trust me, I will explain later. Have you touched your nose yet? Cool.
I guess you have failed many times.
Too many times that you are starting to think that maybe there is something wrong with you. Maybe you are just not disciplined enough. Maybe you don’t have what it takes to actually change. I have been at the same place in my life: doubting myself and wanting to stop trying altogether.
So I can’t express how in-awe I was when I finally found a way that works!
Say hello to Mini Habits, a method that has been written about by best-selling authors in recent years.
What Are Mini Habits
Mini habits are exactly what they sound like. Your usual habits, but much smaller.
Let’s go through some examples.
Do 1 push up a day for your fitness goal.
Make your bed for your productivity goal.
Open your notebook for your journal goal.
Take 3 deep breaths for your meditation goal.
Essentially, they are small little steps that you take every day towards your goal.
However, these are all steps towards adding positive habits into your life and could also help you removing passive negative habits such as laziness or procrastination. But if you are seeking for ways to remove bad habits such as watching porn, mini habits isn’t the optimal strategy.
Why Mini Habits Will Stick
1 minute earlier, did you touch your nose as I told you?
Nice, if you manage to do that, you have passed Stephen Guise’s test and qualified to be a mini habit builder. So stop thinking you don’t have what it takes to build awesome habits!
The starting point of a mini habit should not require more willpower to act than simply raising your finger to touch your nose.
You can not rely on the fleeting nature of motivation to build habits.
And you can’t rely on the exhaustible nature of willpower to build habits either.
The action has to be easy, too easy to fail, which then ensures you have a 100% success rate of building a consistent, repeatable process, which then ensures you have formed a new habit in your life.
Once the habit is established, we can start slowly ramping things up.
Easy mini habits turn into lasting good habits
But how can these tiny actions help us achieving those desirable goals?
Mathematically, if you manage to do 1% better than yesterday, you would be around 37 times better in one year.
Also mathematically, if you fall off 1% comparing to yesterday, you will end up at almost 0 in one year.
Over time, the fact that you manage to do just a tiny bit better than yesterday will lead to huge improvements.
Also, when you are starting to do something well, your brain would automatically want to carry on the streaks of success, turning mini habits into a sequence of bigger habits then become your daily, perfect routines.
Once you always trust that you can perform the habit at the minimum levels, then every repetition after that is a bonus rep that gives a sense of over-achievement and success.
Manage to do 5 push-ups, why not 5 more?
Write 100 words already, why not 100 more?
Let’s do some quick math:
If you read 2 pages a night and increase 1 page per night. You will end up reading 510 pages in 30 days: that is almost the size of 2 nonfiction best-selling books in your first month!
Just imagine the possibility
Step 1: Define the end goal for the habits
Michael Phelps is an extraordinary athlete, who have managed to break records after records. When interviewed on his extraordinary career, people start knowing about his visualization technique, his calmness before any big competition, his well-tested stretching routine and his diets, alongside with the genetic lottery of a swimmer.
But few people know Phelps started with a technique very similar to the 2 minute mini habits.
When he was still a teenager, he would go to bed nervous, anxious about the upcoming races ahead, but Phelps was instructed by his coach to imagine all the stress in go into his hand and clenched a fist, then slowly opened his palm and imagine the stress goes away.
That helped young Michael Phelps relaxed and ready for competition. But that also was the beginning of his Olympic-medal-winning routines.
So for you to start, you have to think about the kind of big routine that you will end up embedded into your life. You may not be as competitive as Phelps, and you don’t need to be for this strategy to work wonders in your life.
Define for yourself what areas in your life you want to improve with a better set of habits. Is this exercising for better health? Is this learning, reading books to broaden your knowledge? Is this getting more confidence to excel more in relationships?
This would serve as the vision for sticking to your habits and knowing how on track you are during the long run.
Step 2: Minimize with the 2-minute rule
From the goal, choose the starting action of your mini habit.
A good thing to keep in mind, it should not take you 2 more minutes for your first step.
If you want to start running to be healthy, choose the first habit is to wear your running clothes every day. That’s it. No more. Then if you feel like running, run for as much as you want. But wearing your running shoes are non-negotiable.
If you want to put meditation as part of a daily routine to calm yourself, choose the first habit of taking deep breaths for 2 minutes every morning. This is what I did to make meditation stick for more than 30 days straight now. Every day would start with 2 minutes of deep breaths, if I don’t have more time, then that’s enough. But what usually happens is I would go for another 10 minutes of meditation.
If you want to start the process of self education more, consider picking up the habit of journaling your research and new learning points. The 2 minute mini version of this habit would be to set a reminder on the phone for the same time everyday and list down one new thing you have learned for the day.
The key here is to establish the minimum standard for yourself, the standard which you will always be able to reach no matter the condition. So even though the action itself is really easy, you will still have to track yourself on the consistency of these mini 2 minutes.
Keeping track of these 2 minute versions can be made simple and entertaining with a Habit Tracking app. It will remind you when to get down and do 10 push-ups, keep track of your consistency and present with your graphs on each and every habits.
Again, to avoid burning out, ensure that you can stick with the simplest task.
Identifying the right time to scale up from the 2 minutes rule can differ with each habit, so let’s dig deeper into how these 2 minutes mini habits can transform into complete daily routine of yours.
Step 3: Slowly scale up
The scaling up process from the 2 minutes rule into full sized routine should take into consideration of 2 things:
That means if you feel like you can go from the 2 minute rule after 5 days to the 5 minutes version, feel free to scale up. But the 7th and 8th day you weren’t able to complete the habit, scale it back down and rearrange your pace. You are moving to fast.
If you feel like you 20 minutes of meditation is too difficult, split them into 7 minutes in the morning, afternoon and at night.
If you find yourself exhausted from the running routine and skip the next 2 sessions, that’s a sign you are reaching a bit too far from your current capacity.
My personal rule for scaling up is to never miss twice.
Miss once and let that inform you how to rearrange to set up a new streak and adjust your pacing. Miss twice means that you are not following this strategy properly.
Be patient and move forward slowly but surely. Each habit with each 2,3,4,5 minutes versions will only get better and better day by day. I would recommend scaling up 1 habit at the time, instead you decide to push forward 5 different 2 minutes mini habits.
To make good habits stick, you need to understand that habits form through consistent repetition. So if the repetition is too difficult at first, the habit is never formed.
With the Mini Habit strategy, you start with the most simple repetition which is fail-proof, ensuring consistency at all times. You will always manage to form mini habits with ease.
Slowly, the mini habits will compound into routines and lead to huge improvements forever.
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This article was written by Peter Vu, CEO, and co-founder of Unstatic LLC., brining the Habitify app to more than 700.000 users who improve themselves every day through habit tracking. Peter enjoys learning about history, business and shares his findings through Habitify Blog.