Tiny Habits

  • If you work from home, self-discipline might be a challenge for you.
  • It certainly is for me. I’ve never been the organized type.
  • Habit design is a way to cheat yourself into doing stuff that seems to require willpower without actually using any.
  • You basically push into your brain’s FPGA those routines you want to do in response to certain events, until they’re as automatic as driving a car. No high-level decision-making involved.
  • The Power of Habit is a great book on the subject.
  • The research is good, but the book is not very practical. Its recipe is vague and hard to follow.
  • Tiny Habits is a method by Stanford Professor BJ Fogg that makes habit design a lot more concrete and doable.
  • It has literally changed my life.

One tiny habit

  • Here’s what you do:
  1. Find a trigger. Something that you already do or that already happens in your day which you can anchor a new routine onto.
  2. Decide a routine, which is what you want to do. No longer than 30 seconds, no exertion involved. It has to be effortless. Zero mental barrier to completion.
  3. Choose a way to celebrate. Not with a cake. A gesture will do, like this one.
  • You phrase it like this “After I <trigger>, I <routine>.” (plus a “Yes!” at the end; the celebration is implied).
  • That’s it. That’s a tiny habit. Looks innocuous. But in its simplicity lies great power.
  • Let me give you an anti-example:
  • “After I <have breakfast> I <go to the gym>.”
  • Going to the gym takes longer than 30 seconds and definitely involves exertion.
  • Plus “having breakfast” is a bag of smaller actions. You want to go for the atoms, the description of physical movement itself.
  • Here’s how you could fix it: After I <get up from the breakfast table>, I <put on my gym shoes>.
  • Now your body knows exactly what to do and when.
  • After 5 consecutive days doing the routine whenever you encounter its trigger, Prof. BJ Fogg says your habit is well on its way to becoming permanent. He recommends tackling no more than 3 at a time.
  • During those 5 days, you must track your progress somehow. Below are a few options.

Chaining like Phelps

  • After you have a tiny habit firmly in place, its routine can become a trigger for another habit.
  • Like this: Habit 1) “After I hear the timer alarm, I get up from my desk.” Habit 2) “After I get up from my desk, I spin a powerball for 30s.”
  • You can think of this as “stacking the bricks”. Layer after layer, you build structure into the previous formlessness of your life.
  • My current morning chain starts at “After I hear the alarm clock” and goes on for 19 tiny steps. It feels awesome, Jedi-like even, to glide effortlessly through that sequence.
“We figured it was best to concentrate on these tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers. We worked them into a routine. There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael [Phelps] a sense of building victory.
“If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before the competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step.
All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.” — The Power of Habit

Tools

  • TinyHabits.com, by Prof. BJ Fogg himself, is the best place to get started. You sign up for the Eventbrite event, and it pings you by email every day so you can track your progress.
  • After the first week, you want to keep tracking those habits, especially as you add new ones. Paper is best at first, but everydayCheck is a beautiful alternative.
  • Visualizing your routine is a powerful way to mentally rehearse it and make it sediment faster. I use Anki flashcards for that. On the front of a card I write down the trigger (“After I hear the alarm clock”) and on the back, the routine (“I turn on the light”).

The path forward

These tiny changes pile up like compound interest, slowly but inexorably wrestling control back from your impulses, and steering your life into a course of your own choosing.

They form a differentiable, and achievable, path between where you are now and where you want to be. Every tiny victory stoking your hope and ambition.

What tiny step are you going to take today?

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