A predictable pattern would set in whenever I wrote down my New Year’s resolutions, got excited about a new habit I could try out, or whipped up a list of creative writing projects.
The first few days, my dedication would high, and I’d be excited to blaze through my to-do list. By day three, it was already starting to feel like a chore. At the end of the week, I would be skipping days or procrastinating, and in just two weeks, it’d have slipped off my schedule. One month later, I was back to zero–or even worse, because jumping in and starting all over again seemed unappealing.
This was extremely frustrating, given that I did genuinely want to commit to my goals. Still, it’s not exactly an uncommon problem. New Year’s resolutions have gotten a reputation for often not inspiring follow-through. Given all of the personal development material out there, we probably already know what new habits would be good for us–but hardwiring them into our system and making them a long-term part of our lives can seem elusive. It doesn’t help that we’re also going through a global pandemic currently. Aside from the additional time spent indoors, our day-to-day experiences have become much more stripped down, and we’re dealing with both existential and practical anxieties. It’s not surprising that motivation might be barely there–and more than anything, perhaps what we need is closer to rest and self-care rather than pressuring ourselves to be productive.
But whether it’s in the name of accomplishing a dream or simply slowing down to feel better, sometimes we become aware of the need to change something about what we’re doing. This doesn’t need to have a high failure rate–there might simply be something missing from the equation. It finally clicked for me when I found out about microhabits.
Microhabits are also called minihabits, small habits, or tiny habits. These are essentially shrunk down versions of habits. For example, if you want to practice keeping your home clean regularly, a corresponding mini-habit for that would be putting one thing away every day. It’s a fairly well-known concept online, but what compelled me to give it a shot was BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits,” which is based on his behavioral science research at Stanford.
Microhabits: The Slow and Steady Path to Change
Microhabits can be easily discounted because they seem too minor to be effective. Sure, doing one push-up a day or meditating for a minute is probably better than nothing, but that won’t seem to make a dent on your life on the long-term–in contrast to going to the gym every morning or meditating for half an hour. This is the conventional thinking when it comes to goals, but the results also speak for themselves: most people burn out or lose motivation given the regular way that we pursue goals.
In fact, one of the most misleading assumptions today about behavioral change is that we have to rely on willpower, motivation, or desire. While it’s true that motivation can get you up and going quickly, it’s never consistent, even for the goals that we care about deeply. There will be days when you won’t feel like doing it–and drawing up willpower every time to fight through it can be extremely difficult.
So why would microhabits be any different, then?
Microhabits Involve Less Emotional Risk
BJ Fogg recommends microhabits that only take as little as 30 seconds to do. The main reason is that these trigger very little resistance. Unlike regular habits, which can be daunting to fit in a tight schedule, microhabits barely take up time–and mustering up an excuse not to do them feels impossible because, well, 30 seconds is hardly a tall demand.
On a deeper level, microhabits involve less emotional risk. We typically fail to follow through with habits not just because of time constraints but also internal blockages such as a fear of failure, rejection, or change, which is underscored by identity dissonance. How we act is heavily influenced by our identity or image of ourselves, and habits only become lasting when we incorporate them into our identity. Change is difficult because we’re trying to modify our sense of who we are. A person who identifies as someone who doesn’t brush their teeth every night will experience some identity dissonance once they do try to start brushing regularly–and it’s this transition between identities where we get stuck and flounder.
Because microhabits are so small and unassuming, they barely trigger our internal alarm systems. When you agree to make one brushstroke each day, that’s hardly intimidating compared to thinking about creating an entire painting that has to look good. This gets rid of most of our resistance, and so we do the microhabit easily, almost effortlessly.
It’s almost like a trick because once we’ve finished that, the drive to keep going often appears. You commit to one brushstroke, but what happens is you get drawn into it and soon enough, after a week, there’s a full-blown painting. The hardest part of the process is starting, taking that one small initiating step. After that, momentum appears, and you enter a state of flow.
Microhabits then function as the minimum that you can do each day. You’re free to do way more, but it’s also important to remember that stopping here is enough–you’re not obligated to push yourself further. Before you know it, you’ve formed a consistent streak–with less willpower required.
Less Forcing and Striving, More Flow and Ease
My favorite part of microhabits is how they reduce forcing and straining. Somehow, we’ve gotten the cultural idea that we need to make huge, monumental change quickly–and we have to grit our teeth and work ourselves down to the bone in order to do so. If we fail to do what we said we would, then we’re not trying hard enough. But what if it’s actually our method of relying on motivation that’s at fault? What if we didn’t have to push ourselves so much and we could flow into change instead?
Microhabits show that slow, gentle steps can be more effective than shocking our system outright–and even the smallest actions combined with consistency can make a huge difference. Every time you do a microhabit, you also get a sense of accomplishment, which makes it more likely that you’ll do it again the next day.
Funnily enough, this article was actually made possible by my microhabit of writing one sentence per day. Despite feeling self-conscious about my writing, I managed to write down one sentence–and more sentences followed over several days, eventually forming themselves into a complete article. Some other examples of microhabits that might be helpful are:
- Writing down one line on your journal
- Spending one minute outside, under the sun
- Jogging in place for two minutes
- Playing three notes on an instrument
- Meditating for one minute
- Drinking one glass of water
- Deleting one email from your inbox
Micro-habits can get pretty creative, so there’s usually a way to make them work with whatever habit you want to instill in your life. It can also be helpful to use a habit-tracking app to keep track of them (and check them off once you’re done with them for the day).
This might be especially relevant as the pandemic rages on throughout the world. Things are far from normal, and we’re forced to veer away from our usual patterns. More than ever, we deserve to be compassionate with ourselves. Microhabits remind us that the smallest actions can be more than enough, and when done with consistency, they can be a powerful force for change.