“The benefit of a habit isn’t the magnitude of each individual action you take, but the cumulative impact it will have on your life in the long run.” – Tynan
“100% is easier that 99%.” – Jack Canfield
What’s the secret to creating habits and routines that stick? Consistency.
Whether it’s performance changes in the gym, a calmer mind, an improved diet, removing negative habits, becoming better artists/musicians/writers, or you name it – results are produced by regular practice. But, you’ve heard that already.
So what’s the secret to consistency? Making a non-negotiable pre-commitment to ridiculously-tiny, impossible-to-fail goals. Or, as author Stephen Guise calls them, mini habits.1 “A mini habit is a VERY small positive behavior that you force yourself to do every day,” writes Guise, in a mini book (126 pages) called Mini Habits. “Small steps work every time, and habits are built by consistency.”
Make it impossible to fail, and go all-in on the commitment, and we create the conditions that all but guarantee success. Here’s how.
Step 1: Eliminate The Decision: Pre-commit
Every decision that we make takes at least little bit of energy. Eventually, depending on the types of decisions we’re making, and how difficult they are for us, we run out of energy to make good ones. Willpower is finite.
Yes, someone on a diet can prove that they’ve got serious discipline and mental strength by walking through a pastry shop or ice cream parlor without sampling anything. And, someone who is sober can demonstrate the depth of their resolve by going to a bar and not ordering a drink. But wouldn’t it be easier to avoid the temptation and decision altogether?
My experience has taught me that if I’m putting the full responsibility on myself to make the “right” decision in the moment, there are times when I’m going to fail. But, if I pre-commit, creating a clear “bright line” or rule to follow ahead of time, I remove the burden of choice and make it easier to follow through.
Pre-commitment has a long history. As Roy Baumeister & John Tierney share in their book, Willpower:
“Precommitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast, [his men] plugged their ears so they couldn’t hear the Sirens’ songs. They prevented themselves from being tempted at all.”
Likewise, as Kelly McGonigal shares in The Willpower Instinct:
“Cortés knew that when they faced their first battle, the crew would be tempted to retreat if they knew they had the option to sail away. So according to legend, he ordered his officers to set the ships on fire. […] Cortés burned those ships to guarantee that his men didn’t act on their fear. He left the crew—and all their future selves—with no choice but to go forward.”
Step 2: Create The Conditions For Success – Go So Small That You Cannot Fail
Our commitment is only as strong as our ability to keep it, and a great way to do that is to make it easy to win. Benefits are greatest when they accrue over time, so by picking an action that is laughably tiny, and we do it every day, we create the conditions to be successful over the long run. As Tynan writes in Superhuman by Habit, “your results will be commensurate with the consistency with which you execute your habits, not with the magnitude of their one-time impact.”
What’s the positive behavior change or practice that you’d like to cultivate? What’s the smallest possible version of that? For example, if you want to floss more frequently, make the goal to just floss one tooth. If you want to start running, make the goal be to just put on your running shoes.
It may seem silly, but appearances can be deceiving. “A mini habit’s ‘too small to fail’ nature makes it weightless, deceptively powerful, and a superior habit-building strategy,” writes Guise. “Mini Habits will better equip you to change your life than 99% of the people you see walking around on this globe. [… They are] a pretty simple brain trick at the core, but also a life philosophy that values starting, letting action precede motivation, and believing that small steps can accumulate into giant leaps forward.”
How I’m Currently Practicing: Breathing
One of the ways I’m currently applying these ideas is with the Breathe app on the Apple Watch. It’s a pre-installed app that has various levels of guidance for mindful breathing, in sessions of between one and five minutes.
I know that as little as one minute of mindful breathing can clear the bloodstream of cortisol and that our bodies are built to have regular breaks and micro-recoveries. I was excited to have an app that could alert me with reminders to stop and consciously breathe more regularly throughout the day.
So, I set up the watch to vibrate and show a reminder to do a session every hour.
The problem was, I didn’t actually do many sessions. I found myself dismissing the alerts more often than I followed them. I’d tell myself I was just too busy, or that the time wasn’t right.
So, I recently set the reminders to a frequency of one every 5 hours, and I’m committed to not dismissing a single one. To “win,” I just have to do one minute – 4 breaths – and I can return to whatever I was doing with a little more energy and clarity. Even if I’m with someone else, I’ll invite them to join me.
I haven’t missed since.
What Win Are You Going To Commit To?
- Guise, Stephen. Mini Habits. 2013 [↩]