A 30 Day Experiment with Mini Habits

Today's post returns to the elegant ideas of Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits and How to Be an Imperfectionist. I wanted to share with readers the results of a month-long experiment I ran to test out the usefulness of mini habits, a cornerstone of Guise's unusually creative approach to personal development.

A quick word on what mini habits actually are--and the best way to describe them is by explaining what they're not. They are not aggressive resolutions like "READ 200 PAGES EVERY DAY!" or "RUN 10 MILES EVERY DAY!!!" or whatever. Those are exactly the kinds of unsustainable goals that don't become habits. They're too hard. They drain your willpower. And you'll resist them and eventually quit on them.

A mini habit operates under completely different incentives. The idea is to make the habit so small, so easy, that you have no resistance whatsoever to doing it. Guise gives his own amusing example of building a surprisingly robust workout habit based on the mini habit of doing one pushup a day. If he does his one pushup, he "worked out."

You might snicker at this at first, but once you think through the psychology of it, you'll realize the sheer elegance and intuitiveness of such a laughably easy goal.

First, put yourself in the place of someone who never was able to make fitness a regular habit, as Stephen Guise was for many years. A "one pushup" mini habit was a device that got him to start doing something. What typically stops us from doing things (and produces procrastination as well as frustration with ourselves) is our resistance to getting started.

This is particularly true if the goal has some enormity to it, like READ 200 PAGES TODAY! Unfortunately, the subtext to a goal like this is: AND IF YOU READ ONLY 199 PAGES YOU ARE A COMPLETE LOSER!

In stark contrast, the mini-goal mechanism lowers the entry fee. The goal is something easy--hilariously easy--to do. And because it gets you started, you sidestep procrastination and inner resistance.

And, all along you have the option to continue or to quit. You can do your one pushup and stop. Or you can do a few more, if you want. Or a lot more. It doesn't matter! You've met your goal already so it's all gravy. It takes away all the pressure.

This totally altered Guise's mental construct of what "working out" meant, and it changed his image of what it meant to build an exercise habit. Moreover, setting the bar so low annihilated his exercise perfectionism which had been a substantial obstacle between him and fitness.

Contrast this with a person who does 80 pushups but feels like a failure because he "failed" in his goal of doing 100. As somebody who tried (a few times) to follow the 100 pushups workout (and for whatever reason I never was able to get much above 70 pushups in a row), this resonates with me. I would do 74 pushups yet feel like a putz because I couldn't do more. Sad! It just goes to show how rubber our yardsticks can be when we measure ourselves.

Note also: It shouldn't be a surprise that under this kind of self-imposed negative reinforcement, I kind of... slipped out of the habit of doing pushups. Which takes us to the key psychological takeaway here: it's impossible to build a healthy and sustainable habit out of something that's a source of failure and frustration.

Okay. Clearly, there are many reasons why the mini habit concept makes intuitive sense. But I still wanted to test it for myself. And what I didn't know was there was yet another gigantic advantage to this seemingly innocuous mental hack. I'll get to it in just a minute.

So, I picked two imperfectionist-friendly mini habits and trialed them both for 30 days, just to see what would happen. My mini habits were:

1) Write for 20 minutes
2) Read 25 pages of any book

The thing is, lately, I haven't been reading as much nor writing as much as I would like. Entire days would go by where I wouldn't write at all, and I'd often go a day or two not really reading much in the form of long-form works--like books that really teach you and change your thinking in ways short-form reading cannot.

I wasn't satisfied with this. At all. There's so much to learn, so many insights to gain out there... and yet I seemed to be passively letting myself waste time consuming useless information like the news, or peoples' political rants on Facebook.

So, I set goals that, for me, were the equivalent of "do one pushup." After I reached them, I'd permit myself the freedom to stop, yet grant myself the success of having met my goal and taken a small step forward.

I'm guessing readers conversant in the psychology of goal setting already know where this is going.

Had I merely met the laughably easy minimums for each day, over 30 days I should have read approximately 750 pages (30 days x 25 pages) and I should have written for about 600 minutes, or 10 hours (30 days x 20 minutes). This is nothing to be ashamed of: it's actually quite a decent amount of reading and writing.

But what actually happened was I read a grand total of 1,195 pages and wrote for about 1,200 minutes. I exceeded the reading mini habit by some 60% and crushed the writing goal by 100%. More importantly, it felt easy. Weirdly easy. A lot easier than I expected.

We mentioned before the central idea that these mini habits served to get me to sit down and start. In both domains, reading and writing, it often got me into a groove, but not always. Some of those brief writing sessions ended the minute the timer went off: I wasn't feeling it so I quit. But that was okay too: I met my minimum, so I was cool with it. I didn't castigate myself. (Side-benefit: no negative reinforcement!)

On some days however, I kept going. Sometimes, while writing, I never even heard the timer go off as I slipped effortlessly into a glorious flow state. Interestingly, I never knew which type of day it was going to be until I sat down and started. Which meant there was a strong positive incentive to try each and every day.

The same thing happened with reading: many of the days I read just the minimum, and that was okay. But on other days I'd get engrossed and read double, triple or even five times that minimum page count. And once again, I never knew which day was going to be which.

This was an unmitigated success, and I recommend to readers to try out their own mini habits in domains they wish to explore. Who wouldn't want to easily fit 20 hours of writing and the reading of some 5-6 books into a given month, and have it feel easy? These mini goals, they really work.


Unknown said...

I'd argue your mini habits are still a bit aggressive.

Starting Jan 1, I, too, have started with a couple mini habits and it's working very well.

Cagey (Kelli Oliver George) said...

I have been doing mini-habits since last fall and now, each month I set some new ones or switch some around. It has been ridiculously successful.