Just One: from Micro-habits to Macro-habits

“Addiction can happen to any of us through a subtle process where the bonds of degradation are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken” – Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack

In deciding what new habits to adopt, I like to think about these new behaviors as future (positive) addictions. Flossing, dieting, and exercise are such cliches and rightly so.

Dr. BJ Fogg (Stanford professor) and Mr. Tim Ferriss (bestselling author) both come from a camp that is cautious of systems depending on a high motivation level that usually dips after the initial excitement. Their philosophy can be summarized in self-control is overrated.

Take “willpower” off the equation by making it small enough

The idea of just one is incredibly powerful. It takes off the pressure of seemingly large tasks.

  • To start working out: do just 1 pushup
  • To start meditating: do just 1 minute
  • To start journaling: write just 1 sentence

But, you say, just one minute or one sentence won’t make any big difference, so why even bother? This idea of very low goals tends to throw off overachievers since they’re used to spending a lot of time at work, studying, gym, etc. The most helpful aspect of these is that they help you get started.

One helpful example is Dr. BJ Fogg’s flossing scenario: there are thirty-two teeth. He suggests flossing only one tooth as a goal. Overachieving to four, sixteen,
and occasionally all the way is much more effective (and satisfying) than doing none because of a low motivation state (late or tired).

The idea is to start small and low impact until the habit is “too strong to be broken“. Then add the increments.

My goal now is ten minutes meditation, but if I woke up late, I’m ok to go back to just meditating for just one minute for that day. For daily habits, if possible, shorten the activity instead of skipping it, it’s not the same as the full habit but it helps to keep the momentum going.

Use existing triggers to make the transition unnoticeable

If you put the new behavior immediately after an existing one, you can use the existing one as a trigger. This means you don’t have to put up post-it notes, you don’t have to set alarms.

So the previous habits become:

  • After waking up, do just 10 pushups
  • After the 10 pushups, meditate just 1 minute with Headspace/Calm or listen to just one song
  • After getting in bed, write just 1 sentence of journaling

I had trouble for months meditating during the weekends because my trigger was “after getting on the train” to go to work. Since I don’t take the train on the weekends, the trigger was gone and so was the meditation.

Choosing a trigger that you do daily and can do anywhere is key for consistency, especially if you travel for work or any other reason. I chose the pushups after waking as the new trigger for meditation and I recently completed sixty consecutive days of meditating for the first time ever.

Bet on it with a deadline

“I don’t need time, I need a deadline” – Duke Ellington, via Mr. Tim Ferriss

We respond to incentives and self-interest. That is not necessarily a bad thing because we can use it to our advantage. Why not use that as insurance when motivation runs extra low?

I have a one-way bet from January to June. If I don’t publish at least one post a month, I have to pay up each time. The amount is high enough that it will sting and get you off your ass but not so high that is financially irresponsible. That bet and deadline are around 80% of the reason started to write this second post after the initial excitement of the first one. The “Stikk” app is one option that I’ve used in the past.

Final thought

I once heard someone say she worked out every day at 5am. Why? her answer: “it’s just something I do”. Start small with micro-habits and in no time you’ll have Trojan-horsed yourself with a consistent and possibly life-changing macro-habit – it’ll be something you just do.

Go to the Source:

Extra credit. Here are examples of daily habits and a starting proposal:

  • Reading: 1 page a day. Audiobooks is a good way to start too
  • Cold showers: 3 seconds after a hot shower
  • Language learning: 1-5 minutes of the free apps Memrise or Duolingo
  • Mental Math: one problem a day on free apps
  • Packing work lunch: once a month if you’ve never done it

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