2. Big intentions are worthless if they don't bring results. For example, I can say that I will exercise for two hours every day, but if I never do it, the size of the intention doesn't matter. In fact, intention without action harms self-confidence. People have been shown in studies to chronically overestimate their self-control ability. These two simple points reveal why so many people struggle to change. They have big ambitions, but overestimate their ability to make themselves do what it takes to change. It's a mismatch between desire and ability.
3. Doing a little bit every day has a greater impact than doing a lot on one day. How much greater? Profoundly so, because a little bit every day is enough to grow into a lifelong foundational habit, and those are a big deal, as you'll see.
4. This book exists because I did one push-up on December 28, 2012. My ability to do 16 pull-ups in a row and my improved physique result from that same push-up. I read and write every single day because of that push-up. That one push-up was the first step that led to all of these great changes in my life. Every great accomplishment rests on the foundation of what came before it; when you trace it back, you'll see one small step that started it all. Without that one push-up, I'd still be struggling to get motivated to go to the gym, and to read and write consistently. That push-up lead me to discover this new strategy, which turned into these great benefits. Are you ready to hear the story of the one small action that changed everything for me?
5. How It Began: The One Push-up Challenge I'm thinking about naming it “the golden push-up.” It was December 28, 2012 and the new year was near.
6. Ever since my later years of high school, I had tried to make exercise a habit. But for ten years it never stuck, despite my efforts. Those aren't the types of results that instill confidence in oneself! My motivational bursts to change would usually last me about two weeks before I'd quit for one reason or another. Sometimes there was no reason; I'd just stop. Wanting to do something before the arbitrary January 1st starting point associated with resolutions, I decided to start by exercising right there on the spot for 30 minutes. But I stood motionless. I couldn’t get motivated. I went through my usual “get motivated” routine. Come on Stephen. True champions put in the extra work. I tried listening to up-tempo music, visualizing myself with a great beach body, etc. Nothing worked. I felt out of shape, lethargic, and worthless to the point that I couldn't do anything. A 30-minute workout looked like Mount Everest. The idea of exercise was wholly unappealing. I felt so defeated, and I was. It wasn't just the time or the effort of a 30-minute workout that intimidated me, it was the total amount of work I needed to put in to reach my fitness desires. It was the vast distance between here and there. A year's worth of workouts weighed on my mind. I felt guilty, overwhelmed, and discouraged before I had even done anything! The Turning Point Months earlier, I had read a fantastic creative thinking and problem-solving book called Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko. One of the creative thinking “toys” he talks about is called False Faces. In False Faces, you consider the opposite of what you're currently thinking, and see what creative ideas emerge from that. A crude example: instead of building a skyscraper, what if you built a structure deep into the earth? This generates creative ideas by forcing your mind to zoom out and see the spectrum of possibilities. I had a problem to solve, and this technique popped into my head, so I thought about the opposite of a 30-minute workout. Eating ice cream and watching TV would be one opposite of exercise. Then I considered that a full 30 minutes just seemed like such a huge challenge in that moment (i.e. Everest). Another opposite, I decided, could be the workout’s size. What if, instead of this big 30-minute commitment of sweat and discomfort, I did a single push-up? I would have no requirement to do more—just one push-up.
7. The true opposite of my Mount Everest workout. I laughed off the idea, literally. How pathetic! One push-up isn't going to help anything. I really need to put in more work than that! But every time I switched back to my first plan, I couldn't do it. After I got tired of failing to do the 30-minute workout, I thought, Whatever, I'll do one push-up. I got down on the ground, did one push-up, and changed my life for good. *** When I got into push-up position, I noticed it was exactly the same as the start to an actual 30-minute workout. I did my push-up; my shoulder popped, my elbows needed WD-40; it felt like my muscles were waking up from a 24-year nap. But I did a few more since I was already in position. Every push-up was an annoyance to my underused muscles and stubborn brain. As I stood up, I concluded that it was better than nothing. Mind you, I still felt like quitting at this point. But then I had the idea to set another small challenge of one pull-up. It was too easy to turn down. I got my pull-up bar set up and did one. Then I did a few more. Interesting, I thought, this is hard, but not as hard as I was making it out to be. My muscles were warming up. My motivation to do more had definitely increased, but it was so low to start with (and I was so out of shape) that I still had plenty of internal resistance. I continued on with the same strategy, going as small as necessary to continue. During one push-up session in my workout, I had to set seven micro goals like so: ok, one more, ok, two more, now one more. Every time I baited myself with a beyond-easy challenge, I met or exceeded it. It felt nice to hit my targets, however small. When I finished, I had exercised for 20 minutes, and felt great about it.
8. Mini habits are for good habits only—adding positive behaviors to your life to enrich it for years. Breaking bad habits and making good habits do have the same goal—replacing a default behavior with a better behavior. With bad habits, your primary motivation for change is an away response from something bad. With good habits, your primary motivation for change is a toward response to something good. Mini habits focuses on the toward response.
9. A mini habit is basically a much smaller version of a new habit you want to form. 100 push-ups daily is minified into one push-up daily. Writing 3,000 words daily becomes writing 50 words daily. Thinking positively all the time becomes thinking two positive thoughts per day. Living an entrepreneurial lifestyle becomes thinking of two ideas per day (among other entrepreneurial things). The foundation of the Mini Habits system is in “stupid small” steps. The concept of small steps is nothing new, but how and why they work have not been adequately dissected. Of course, small steps are relative too; a small step for you could be a giant leap for me. Saying “stupid small” clarifies it, because if a step sounds stupid relative to the most you can do, it's perfect. The power of the Mini Habits system is in the application, mindset, built-in positive feedback looping, naturally increasing self-efficacy, and of course, leveraging small steps into habits. This will be explained, but it's also built in; it's a simple system with a complex, smart backing. The way we act on these mini habits is by using a small amount of willpower to force ourselves to do them. It doesn't take a lot of willpower to do one push-up or come up with a couple of ideas. The benefit from following the Mini Habits system is surprisingly big results. First, there's a great chance that you'll do “bonus reps” after you meet your small requirement. This is because we already desire these positive behaviors, and starting them reduces internal resistance.
10. The second benefit is the routine. Even if you don't exceed your small requirement, the behavior will begin to become a (mini) habit. From there, do bonus reps or scale the habit up. Another benefit is constant success. A bank may be too big to fail, but mini habits are too small to fail; and so they lack the common destructive feelings of guilt and inadequacy that come with goal failure. This is one of the very few systems that practically guarantees success every day thanks to a potent encouragement spiral and always-attainable targets. Mini habits have made me feel unstoppable; prior to starting mini habits, I felt unstartable. To summarize, a mini habit is a VERY small positive behavior that you force yourself to do every day. Small steps work every time, and habits are built by consistency, so the two were meant to be together. Hey, it’s still a better love story than Twilight.
11. To summarize, a mini habit is a VERY small positive behavior that you force yourself to do every day.
12. A Duke University study concluded that about 45% of our behavior is from habit. They are even more important than this 45% stake suggests, because habits are frequently repeated behaviors (often daily), and this repetition adds up to big benefits or big damage in the long run.
13. The most-cited viable study on habit formation duration was published in 2009 in the European Journal Of Social Psychology. Each participant chose an “eating, drinking or activity behavior to carry out daily in the same context (for example ‘after breakfast’) for 12 weeks.” And what did they find? The average time for a behavior to become habit was 66 days. But the range was wild, from 18 to 254 days, showing that there is huge variation in people's time to reach habit automaticity, and that it can end up taking a very long time in some cases. 21- and 30-day challenges are popular, but they're highly unlikely to form many types of habits. Drinking a glass of water every day could fall into the 21-day window, but something more challenging like 100 sit-ups daily could take a couple hundred days or more to become habit. That's the bad news. The good news is that habits aren't snap on, snap off—if you do 100 sit-ups for 60 days, day 61 will be much easier for you than day one was, even if it isn't completely automatic yet. Building a habit is like riding a bike up a steep incline that levels out, peaks, and goes down.To start, you have to push with all the force your legs can muster. It gets progressively easier after that, but you must keep pedaling until you reach the top of the hill or you'll go backwards and lose your progress.
14. Repetition is the language of the (subconscious) brain.
15. So really, the two keys to habit change as far as the brain is concerned are repetition and reward. It will be more willing to repeat something when there is a reward.
16. Stress has been shown to increase habitual behavior—for better or worse! Two experiments at UCLA and one at Duke University found that stress increased people's gravitation toward habitual behavior. Based on her study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Professor Wendy Wood argues: “People can’t make decisions easily when stressed, are low in willpower or feeling overwhelmed. When you are too tired to make a decision, you tend to just repeat what you usually do.” This holds true for both good and bad habits and is a crucial insight for their importance in our lives.
17. The human brain is slow-changing and stable; it has routines and a framework that allow it to respond consistently to the world. Having a slow-changing brain is frustrating at times, but overall, it's highly beneficial. Imagine if your personality and life could transform overnight—you would go crazy!
18. The only way to create habits is to teach the rest of your brain to like what the prefrontal cortex wants. The prefrontal cortex is what resists chocolate cake (if at all possible), wants to learn French, wants to be fit, and would like to write a book someday. It's the conscious part of your brain that you'd identify as “you.”
But the problem is that it tires out easily. Perhaps more accurately, because its functions are so powerful, it's an energy hog that tires you out. And when you tire out (or are stressed, as we covered), the repetitious part takes over. The basal ganglia isn't conscious or aware of higher-level goals that are unique to humans. But it is an efficient pattern-repeater that saves us energy. So while it may not be “intelligent” like the prefrontal cortex, it is an incredibly important part of the brain. And once we train the basal ganglia to do positive behaviors automatically, we're really going to love it.
When motivation is at its peak (lower right corner), willpower cost is zero or negligible. That's because you don't need to force yourself to do something you already really want to do. But when motivation drops to zero, strong internal resistance means that the willpower “cost” is high (upper left corner, where willpower cost is 100 and motivation is 0).
20. A destructive habit to have is believing that you have to be motivated to act.
21. The five biggest factors found to cause ego depletion were effort, perceived difficulty, negative affect, subjective fatigue, and blood glucose levels.
22. Result with mini habits: very little ego depletion.
23. Many times, I have planned to “just write my 50” and ended up writing 3,000 words. As I mentioned earlier, I once wrote 1,000 words with a headache and no energy. I felt like Superman after doing that. I looked back on the times I was completely healthy and energetic but wasted time, and then saw what I did with a headache and no energy, and got even more excited to share this book with the world.
24. Another interesting and encouraging anecdote in favor of mini habits is related to Allen Carr's book titled The Easy Way To Quit Smoking. Carr’s book has produced greater-than-expected results for helping people quit smoking. And do you know what the basic technique is? Do you know what the difference between Carr’s book and most other quit smoking strategies is? Rick Paulas discusses the surprising success in his article about the book: What’s most shocking about the book’s contents is perhaps what’s missing. There are no stats about lung cancer, heart attacks, or strokes.
25. Carr’s five-hour seminar based on the book has a 53.3% success rate, and that absolutely blows other methods out of the water (other methods have a roughly 10-20% success rate). It’s surprising, because it’s just information. It isn’t hands on. It’s not a patch that delivers nicotine to the bloodstream. And the secret? The key ingredient? The magic? He gets smokers to believe, consciously and subconsciously, that quitting smoking is easy. When you believe, as many do, that quitting smoking is so hard—doesn't it make sense that maybe your own mind is making it difficult? Mini habits make you believe that adding healthy behaviors is easy.
26. Be the person with embarrassing goals and impressive results instead of one of the many people with impressive goals and embarrassing results.