One (Tiny) Step at a Time

How to use micro-habits to change your behaviors – and your life

There’s a common saying often repeated by motivational gurus that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Guess what? A new scientific study proves that’s a myth. The study, conducted at University College London, examined the habits of nearly 100 people over a 12-week period. Each person selected one new habit they wanted to adapt, ranging from drinking a glass of water each morning to running 15 minutes before dinner.

It turns out the participants took anywhere from two months to 254 days to adopt their habits. What was the differentiator?

Smaller habits, like drinking a glass of water, took only a few weeks for the study participants to adopt, while larger ones (like running 15 minutes before dinner) took months, or were never achieved.

None of this surprises Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach and writer who has spent her career training C-level executives on how to develop winning habits.

Here’s why: “For 20 years, I wanted to be a runner, and I never quite managed to do it,” she says. “Since I’d never done it before, it seemed too daunting. I always thought I’d have to go to the gym and get in shape first, then maybe start running two or three miles outside. It was so overwhelming I sat on my couch instead, annoyed at myself that I was so lazy.”

But several years ago, Nawaz decided to adopt a different approach. She broke the process of beginning to run into tiny, incremental steps that she’d do every day. First, she spent several days just putting on her running shoes. “Even if I didn’t make it to the gym or run outside, I’d give myself credit for that,” she says. When putting on her gym shoes became a habit, she started running 0.1 mile (176 yards) outside. After being successful at that small amount, she very slowly increased the amount, giving herself credit for each day she continued that habit. Two years later, she ran her first 10K – something she never thought she could accomplish. “Yes, two years is a long time to change a habit,” she acknowledges, “but the only reason I didn’t stay on my couch is because I took small steps toward my goal every single day.”

Nawaz is one of many coaches and motivational consultants who advocates using micro-habits (easy, bite-sized actions that are sustainable on a regular basis) to reach bigger goals.

“With micro-habits, you have no excuses,” Nawaz says. “You can’t say, ‘this is too overwhelming. I have too much work to do today, so I’ll start next week.’ Instead, you simply say ‘yes.’”

Experts say adopting micro-habits can be a very effective way to conquer those big, hairy audacious goals you’ve got for yourself but may seem too daunting. The magic of micro-habits lies in their ability to be a catalyst for change, with dramatic benefits that become apparent over time.

And whether your big goals are personal (like improving your relationship with your significant other) or professional (like reaching a stretch sales goal), taking small, incremental steps can help you achieve them.

Sabina Nawaz

Here’s a three-step process to creating life-changing micro-habits.

Step #1

Start ridiculously small

When you’re setting goals, “the inertia is bigger when you feel like you’re pushing against a rock,” says Nawaz. She recently coached an executive who wanted to add exercise into his sedentary lifestyle. “So, he did what most people did, and said that he was going to start going to the gym for three days a week for a half hour,” she says. “I told him, ‘If that was possible, you would have already done it. And when you don’t do it, you feel bad and don’t have the motivation to try it again.’”

In situations like this, Nawaz encourages people to “start ridiculously small.” For instance, she recently coached another executive who wanted to become physically fit, recommending that she start by doing two pushups per day. “She laughed at me at first, saying that was ridiculous,” Nawaz says. But she encouraged the woman to continue doing the two pushups a day until “they became so easy to do that they were boring.” Then, she coached the woman to add just one push-up into her routine at a time, building very slowly. The result? “Ten months later, she dropped on the floor and did 35 perfect pushups without any trouble. By slowing building on her habit, she was able to sustain it.”

To turn a goal into a micro-habit, break it down to the smallest steps you can, Nawaz advises. A good micro-habit will be something that you can do in a minute or two, and something that is too small to fail at. For example, if you want to start reading a chapter in a self-help book every day, start with just one paragraph. If you want to create a journal, start by committing to writing just one sentence per day. “In some cases, you may find yourself wanting to read more than a paragraph or writing more than a sentence, and you can do that, but you don’t get extra credit for it,” Nawaz says. “You don’t want to feel guilty or bad if you don’t do more than you’ve committed to.”

If you’ve got a business goal, break it down into smaller pieces and see what small habits will help you reach the goal, advises Sarah Filman, director of product and people at Topknot, a coaching firm for women. For example, “you may find that making a five-minute call every single day to a mentor gives you the motivation you need to forge ahead,” she says.

The same goes for personal goals, or goals that are less concrete, like “I want to be happier.”
For these types of goals, Shawn Anderson, a national keynote speaker who has twice pedaled a bike 4,000 miles across the U.S. and walked across seven countries, recommends first defining what the goal means to you.

For instance, one couple he worked with wanted to improve their relationship, so Anderson advised them to sit down and make a list of actions each of them could take to improve their relationship, like checking in with one another throughout the workday.

Then, the couple made a list of tiny habits, like making a call to one another at lunchtime, that were easily executable. “They committed to doing a few tiny things each day and things started to change immediately,” he says. “The rest grew organically. In six months, they had a completely different relationship. But again, the key was starting small.”

Nawaz once worked with an executive who wanted to spend more quality time with his wife, who often complained that he was always multitasking when they were together. For his micro-habit, the executive committed to leaving his phone in a different room over breakfast. The effort was successful. “Over time, the less he had his phone in his hand at home, the less he was craving it. And that time multitasking was replaced with some wonderful time with his spouse.”

Step #2

Hold yourself accountable

Once you’ve set a few micro-goals for yourself, it’s important to track your progress. Nawaz recommends keeping a small list of your goals in an easily accessible space, like your computer or on your nightstand, and checking them off at the end of the day. “Just put them on a spreadsheet with every day of the week on it, and check the box when you’ve done it,” she says. “It should take you about five seconds a day to do this.”

You may also want to have an accountability partner, such as a coworker or friend, to whom you send your spreadsheet at the end of each week. “People usually discover it’s easier to just complete their micro-goals each day than waste time explaining to a friend why they didn’t do it,” Nawaz says.

Keeping a chart also helps you recognize patterns. For instance, Nawaz recently worked with a businessperson who diligently checked off the “yes” box showing he’d completed all of his micro-habits every single day of the week except Mondays. Once the man identified the issue, he reworked his routine on Mondays to make time to complete his micro-goals.

In the case where the executive wanted to spend more quality time with his spouse, Nawaz said he not only tracked his progress on a spreadsheet, but he gave himself a “performance review” every year on his birthday. “He was a real numbers guy,” she says, “so analyzing his spreadsheets in this way gave him a sense of accomplishment, and also showed him where he could improve in the future.”

Step #3

Celebrate small victories

One of the most exciting reasons to have smaller goals is that you’ll see yourself succeeding quickly, says Angela Di Paola, an author and self-development coach. “All of that positive mojo is going to put you in a more positive mindset,” she says. “There’s always going to be a voice inside you that says, ‘I’m not doing enough!’ By celebrating small victories, like your first week completing a micro-habit every single day, your inner voice will shoo away that negative self-talk and respond by saying ‘I’m terrific and in control!’”

Speaking of negative self-talk, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t successful with a micro-goal at first. “When some people fall off the horse, they get into a trap where they make it a bigger story about themselves, and say, ‘I’m too lazy,’ or ‘I’m not smart enough to accomplish this,’” Di Paola says. “Those thoughts will not motivate you to continue.”

If you find yourself falling into this trap, Di Paola suggests “treating every day as a clean slate, and an experiment to see what might work for you, rather than thinking you’re a failure.”

This might be a time to adjust your micro-steps. “Maybe you want to exercise but you realize you hate running, so you try jumping rope instead, but still in very small increments,” she says. “The point is to get excited about what you can do, and not dwell on what you can’t.”

Give These a Try

Here are some examples of daily micro-habits you might consider adopting to improve different aspects of your life:

  • Read a paragraph in a self-help book
  • Say aloud one thing you’re grateful for
  • Make your bed as soon as you wake up
  • Meditate for one minute
  • Write a one-sentence journal entry
  • Balance on one leg when brushing your teeth in the morning; switch to the other leg in the evening
  • Compliment your partner
  • Take the stairs (rather than the elevator) at work
  • Drink an extra glass of water a day
  • Walk up a hill in your neighborhood
  • Hug someone
  • Offer praise to a colleague
  • Check in with a mentor
  • Repeat a personal mantra when you feel stressed
  • Write an encouraging note to someone
  • Adopt a one-minute stretch routine every afternoon
  • Turn your cellphone to airplane mode before going to sleep

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