Articles, Psychology, Self-Development

Mini-Habits – An Ingenious Strategy for Cultivating Good Habits

Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results is a short book which offers a novel strategy for cultivating good habits. The strategy is based on the premise that the biggest hurdles to habit formation stem from the unreliability of motivation and the limited nature of willpower.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

As Aristotle understood, our habits, good or bad, largely determine our character and thus the quality of our life. In fact, a 2006 Duke University study found that upwards of 45 percent of one’s daily behaviors are habitual. But this does not mean that our habits only impact 45 percent of our lives. Rather, one’s habits, such as whether one exercises, smokes, meditates etc., extend their influence to all areas of life due to their impact on one’s mental and physical well-being. For this reason changing one’s habits – getting rid of bad habits, and cultivating good ones – is key to self-improvement.

Fortunately, it is now well established that people of any age can change their habitual behaviors due to the plasticity of the brain. As Richard O’Connor explained in his book Rewire:

“there is . . . big news in science that is cause for optimism: the idea of the plastic (changeable) brain, the recognition that our brains change and grow physically in response to life experience. New brain cells are constantly being formed; new networks between cells keep growing as we learn new things. Neuroscientists now know that bad habits have a physical existence in the structure of the brain; they become the default circuits when we are faced with temptation. . .But now we also know that we can rewire the brain to develop healthier circuitry.” (Rewire, Richard O’Connor)

Given this knowledge of brain plasticity, the question becomes how does one most effectively promote these physical changes in the brain which allow one to cultivate new good habits?

In his book Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results author Stephen Guise proposes a novel strategy for the cultivation of good habits.

“The Mini Habits strategy is forcing yourself to take . . . “stupid small” strategic actions every day. These actions are too small to fail, and too small to skip for special occasions. They serve dual purposes—to spark you to do more, and to become (mini) habits.” (Mini Habits, Stephen Guise)

Using the example of one who wants to cultivate the habit of exercise, the mini habit strategy dictates that one choose a “stupid small” action relating to exercise and commit to performing it each day. This could be doing a single push-up or 5 jumping jacks. If, on the other hand, one wanted to cultivate a writing habit, they could choose a mini habit of committing to writing 50 words each day.

The mini habit strategy is ingenious in that it addresses two of the most significant problems related to developing good habits. Namely, the unreliability of motivation and the limited supply of willpower.

To understand the problem of relying on motivation consider all those people who make a new year’s resolution to exercise more. Many of these people will purchase a gym membership with the intention of going multiple times a week, and while they may find ample motivation to meet this goal for the first few weeks following the purchase of the membership, this motivation is unlikely to last. Motivation, as most people know, is unreliable and thus cannot be depended upon for habit formation.

This brings us to willpower – when one is not motivated they must rely on their willpower to impel them to perform an action related to the habit they are trying to form. Willpower however, as the psychologist Roy Baumeister revealed in the various studies he documents in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, is a limited resource. After a long day at work, or when one is stressed for example, one’s supply of willpower is likely to be low. The limited supply of willpower makes it difficult for many people to initiate the actions they need to form new habits.

An effective strategy for habit formation must take into account both the unreliability of motivation and the limited nature of willpower and the mini habit strategy is designed to deal with both these issues. Firstly, it is not a strategy which requires one to be constantly motivated. Rather when one is motivated it will be easy to perform their mini habit, but when they are not, and therefore must rely on willpower, the “stupid-small” nature of the mini habits means that very little willpower will be needed. The low demands on willpower to do 1 push-up or write 50 words means that most people will have little trouble meeting their daily commitments.

This leads to the question as to how doing a mini habit each day can help one achieve their ultimate goal of cultivating a more substantial habit. In other words, how can committing to a mini habit of 1 push-up lead to an exercise habit that actually gets someone into shape. Guise explains:

“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. 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, Stephen Guise)

In other words, the mini-habit strategy is so effective because it addresses the biggest impediment to cultivating any new habit – just getting started. Once one begins their mini habit it is very likely they will not stop at the single push-up or the 50 words of writing thus leading them to cultivate the full habits they desire.

To conclude, the mini habit strategy is a novel approach which should certainly be considered by those who have struggled with other methods of habit formation and Guise’s short book is thus well worth the read.