Too Small To Fail

“A mini habit is a very small positive behavior that you force yourself to do every day; a mini habit’s ‘too small to fail’ nature makes it weightless, deceptively powerful, and a superior habit-building strategy.” ~ Stephen Guise

Why Will Power Alone Isn’t Enough

Imagine this. You have a big, shiny new, exciting goal that you have embarked on. Perhaps you’ve decided to drop those extra pounds, or start the business you’ve been dreaming about, or write your memoir, or start a nonprofit, or visit the country you’ve longed to see, or run a marathon, or _____ (fill in the blank). This goal fills you with enthusiasm and excitement. You are energized . . . pumped!

You’ve got your plan in place and you’re ready to do this! For the first few days, maybe even a week or two, you are fired up about your goal and you knock out your daily actions. But eventually, the novelty wears off and your enthusiasm wanes. Those exciting steps toward your destination lose their shine and begin to look like hard work. You tap into your willpower and through sheer determination make it through a few more days. However, soon willpower isn’t enough – you fall back into old habits and your big, shiny goal goes on the heap with all the others you’ve tried for in the past. Your head is filled with negative thoughts about yourself and your ability to achieve anything important to you.

Sound too familiar? That pretty much covers how I used to experience goal setting. Possibly it describes your experience, too. If so, take heart!   You are not the problem. The problem is the various strategies we have been taught about goal setting and the way they work with (or more precisely, work against) your brain.

We know, for example, that contemplating a major change, even a change for the better, can stimulate the amygdala and set off a stressful reaction. In approaching any change — and especially big changes — by deliberately thinking about and making small, incremental improvements, we “sneak by” the amygdala without setting off the warning signals and sending our brains into fight or flight. [Maurer]

We also know from research by Roy Baumeister and others that willpower is a finite resource that gets depleted as it is used throughout the day, much like a muscle tires out from use. Making decisions, suppressing normal urges (such as saying or doing something inappropriate), trying not to think about other things when you need to concentrate, having conflicting goals, all make drains on your willpower “bucket”, leaving you without the strength or stamina to stick with your big goal. [Baumeister]

Stephen Guise, in his best-selling book, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, reveals how he discovered the way around these stumbling blocks of the brain. Guise set a goal to start working out and become more physically fit. However, he was unable to motivate himself to get up off the sofa and do even 30 minutes of a work out. He finally made a deal with himself to get up and do 1 push up. He found that easy and painless. Guise resolved to do 1 push up every day. The push up easily became a habit. He added another, and another. Within months, he was regularly visiting the gym and his fitness routine was firmly in place. And it all began with that 1 push up.

Guise identifies 8 steps to implement a mini-habit. Use these steps to help you get started with your own mini-habit program.

The Mini-habit Eight-Step Plan

1. Make a deliberate choice of what mini-habit you will implement.
List the positive habits you want to develop. Choose one and break it down into the smallest step you can think of. (Guise calls it “stupid small”.) Doing 1 push up. Standing on the treadmill. Writing 50 words. Try it for a week, then evaluate your results. Decide if you want to stick with the one mini-habit or add another one.

2. Ask why you want to develop each mini habit you choose. (The “Why drill”.)
Go deep into the reasons you want to develop this particular mini-habit. One helpful exercise is to ask “why?” five times. Suppose you decide to do 1 push up each day. Ask yourself, “Why do I want to make this a habit?” Your answer might be “to get in shape”. Then ask, “Why do I want to get in shape?” Maybe your answer to this one is “to be healthier”. So you continue with “Why do I want to be healthier?” Keep answering and asking why till you’ve drilled down to your core reason — at least 5 Whys.

3. Decide on what will cue you to perform the mini-habit practice.
Habits can be either time-based or activity-based. Do you want to work out 1st thing in the morning? (Time based.) Do you want to walk after dinner? (Activity based.) A helpful tool to use here are implementation intentions. Implementation intentions specify when, where, and how you will take the actions that lead to goal attainment. They take the form of “When situation x occurs, I will perform response y”. [Gollwitzer 494] For example, when I see my work gloves on Saturday, I will clean out the garage.

4. Decide on your reward.
Most habits don’t have an immediate reward – it takes time to see the benefits. Build rewards into your mini-habit efforts. Make the reward personal and fun – something you really enjoy but don’t do on a regular basis. Don’t make the reward counter-productive to your habit – for example, enjoying a doughnut because you did your morning workout.

5. Track your progress.
A visual record of your successes – for example a string of red Xs on the calendar for all the days you’ve completed the mini-habit — gives you a sense of what you’ve accomplished, and can motivate you to keep going so as not to break the chain.

6. “Stupid small” is big.
One of the major strengths of mini habits is that they don’t require you to expend a large amount of your finite will power. Beaumeister notes that the people we recognize as having a lot of will power hardly use it. They use a little bit to create a habit, then the habit takes over and requires no will power to perform the behavior. Once a mini habit is established, you can easily build on it, such as by adding reps of the behavior. “Stupid small is powerful,” says Guise.

7. Lower the bar.
When you begin exceeding your mini habit goal, you may feel the urge to increase your mini-goal. After all, if you’re doing 25 push ups every day, you’ll naturally feel you can do more and 1 push up won’t be very satisfying. Resist the urge. Feel good about what you’ve done so far, but focus on consistency. You can gradually and slowly amp up.

8. Watch for the habit to take hold, but don’t be too quick to believe it’s there.
As you perform the mini habit each day, you’ll begin to see signs that a habit is forming. You’ll begin to feel less resistance to the action and you’ll begin performing it without too much thought. You’ll probably start identifying a “ritual” that you go through to get started. Eventually the activity will become routine and you’ll start to incorporate it into your identity.

Mini Habits = Too Small To Fail

“Mini habits have made me feel unstoppable.” says Guise. “Prior to starting mini habits, I felt unstartable.”

But remember this important principle: Easy to do can also be easy not to do. To improve your chances of success, follow these mini habit rules:

  • Don’t cheat.
  • It’s OK to pick a smaller step . . . it’s not OK to miss a day.
  • Celebrate when you succeed.
  • Give yourself rewards.
  • Stick with your routine.
  • Step back and go smaller if it gets too hard.
  • Add more reps, not a bigger requirement, when you’re ready.

A few among us are motivated by the excitement of setting and achieving a BIG goal. But for most of us, the excitement and energy of the first few days wanes quickly and we become discouraged and demotivated. This is the beauty of mini habits. They allow us to take small steps, consistently over time, to achieve BIG goals. They make us too small to fail.

And that is Excelerating!

Excelerated accomplishment — achieving meaningful objectives — is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.

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Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. Willpower – Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011

Guise, Stephen. Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results. CreateSpace Publishing. 2013

Maurer, Ph.D., Robert. One Small Step Can Change Your Life. New York: Workman Publishing, 2004