One of my favorite things in reading and learning is finding tangential ideas about stuff. Ryan Holiday (who has a great newsletter) finds his next book from the index of his current one. In the Gamification course I’m enrolled in, Professor Kevin Werbach (who taught a great course) mentioned a lot of additional resources, one of which was Professor BJ Fogg’s blog. Heading over to the blog, I saw that he offers a Tiny Habits course. What is that about I wondered?
Habits are something that interest me because of the wide swath they can occupy. One hundred random people on the street would have one hundred different habits for when they wake up but none of them would be considered odd. In some ways, habits are how we align ourselves around a norm but the aligning can cover a great distance.
But how much did a course on Tiny Habits have to teach me? I’ve read The Power of Habit that suggests habits are a three station cycle; cue, routine, reward. If I wanted to create new habits or understand them better, I could plug them into that template and do it for a few days and viola, new habits.
Tiny Habits wasn’t like that. The course required you read a few pages of notes and then create three new habits and each habit had to take less than 30 seconds to accomplish. When I read that requirement I nearly closed my internet browser. What can I get done in that amount of time? Probably nothing of substance.
Well, it turns out that wasn’t the case.
My tiny habits were these:
- Be excited for the day when you wake up.
- Get out a notepad to jot ideas when you finish making your coffee.
- Take a moment to be grateful when you first get in bed at night.
Easy right? The first and third I did each day, the second I missed one day and only wrote notes on two of the three days. But that was fine, because my habit wasn’t to write lists or notes, it was to just get out the notebook. This reminded me of Scott Adam’s insistence on systems rather than goals.
I drive to my local gym, walk in, look around, and see how I feel. About 95 percent of the time this set of cues will put me in a sufficiently energetic mood to go ahead and exercise, and that in turn boosts my mood. But sometimes— and this happened perhaps five times this year, which is typical— I get to the gym, look around, turn, and leave. As I drive home I am not thinking I failed. In fact, I feel exactly the opposite. Failure is for people who have goals. If my goal is to exercise, leaving the gym without breaking a sweat looks and feels like failure. But what I have is not a goal; it is a system. And the system allows leakage. It is designed that way. As I drive home from the gym, a seemingly wasted trip, I never feel defeated. Instead, I feel I am using a system that I know works overall.
Tiny habits work in the same way, they are so small that they give a chance for leakage in the system. Professor Fogg wrote that one of his habits is to do three chin-ups.
What are my takeaways from a week of tiny habits?
A. Size doesn’t matter
I was skeptical of tiny habits. I wanted big things, large changes. That never works, and even when we thing it does it’s because we don’t see the small changes that happen regularly. In Be Excellent at Anything the writing team says that regular 10% improvements are what really adds up. In an interview with James Altucher, Good Morning America weekend co-anchor Dan Harris says 10% is the same magic number. Other people say 4% is the improvement percentage. The exact number doesn’t matter so much as the size. It’s small and regular that matters.
B. So do something
It’s amazing that it took a course, no matter how small it was to start. Ze Frank says that going from 0 -> 1 is the hardest part, and it is. You and I need a spark to get us going, the Tiny Habits course could be the spark and in the habits there is always a trigger. My habit triggers were just arbitrary events I selected to serve as the catalyst.
C. Find a good trigger and cling to it
My most effective trigger was for my first habit, be excited for the day. I had this thought each day while brewing my coffee and it left me feeling excited. There were days I forgot to eat, like a child on Christmas morning gets so excited for gifts that they forget breakfast. My other habits I was less firmly consistent with because there were other things associated with those triggers. I often read at night so my gratitude was weak there, but it’s been good in the weeks since then because my new trigger is when I’m brushing my teeth.
D. Ride the wave of accomplishment
The feeling of excitement in the mornings fueled me so powerfully, that I forgot to eat. I was excited bimodally, from the actual habit of feeling excited and from doing the process of completing the habit. Both of these were good fuel for my entire day.
E. Celebrate the reward
Professor Fogg suggests more celebrating than I did, but with each habit I gave myself a small pat on the back. I knew that I did something I wanted to do and that made me feel good, no matter how small it was.
F. Thinking about the habits made each day feel more purposeful
It’s easy to get into habits that don’t feel purposeful, days you get up and go through the motions and by the time the kids go to bed you don’t feel like anything substantive happened. With the habits it makes you feel like you’re making progress and getting better at something.
G. Think in terms of the underlying structure
In the initial email from Professor Fogg he writes, “my goal is to help you practice the skill of creating new habits.” Participating in the course wasn’t so much about getting into a particular habit, but rather, understanding how habits work. I learned that my triggers for habits need to be very clear and not already exist as triggers for other things.
H. Tiny habits can be the leverage to start
Even if you only did each tiny habit each day, your life would improve in large steps once that habit began to compound over time. Imagine how drinking black coffee instead of sugar and cream filled coffee would reduce calories from your diet. Sometimes though, the tiny habits were a piece of leverage that got me to do a whole lot more. Just starting and going from 0->1 made me also want to go to 2, 3, and 4. Ramit Sethi uses the analogy of flossing one tooth, saying that if you commit to flossing just one, you’ll often floss more.
That’s what I learned from the Tiny Habits course. It was free and very noninvasive and if you give it a chance let me know how it worked for you.