Micro-habits

This month I’ve renewed an old habit that I had let lapse a little lately, starting my working day with a ten minute meditation practice. I have a subscription to one of the many great apps out there so it really should have been easy to keep it up but sometimes we get so overwhelmed with feelings or tasks or just the general everyday business of living, that we lose sight of the stuff that helps us. Or we lose the motivation to keep it up. That’s ok though. Once we noticed we’ve done that, we don’t need to let the inner critic beat us up for not doing it, his voice is the enemy of motivation. We just need to gently bring ourselves back to it again, kindly. That’s what I’ve done this week.

I got myself going again by applying the principle of the micro-habit. A micro-habit is a small habit that you can complete so quickly and easily that you make it harder for yourself to fail but it brings about big change over time. Developing micro-habits can help you change your health, your relationships, your sense of wellbeing, your career direction. Everything you experience in your life can change just by getting started on the small stuff that you can do right now. 

Micro-habits work by focusing on manageable, bite-sized pieces rather than going all out for a big goal which might be too hard for you to achieve immediately. For me, it was ten minutes of meditation a day. You might have something else you want to achieve, it works well with almost any goal.

Here’s an example: you decide that this year you want to read more so you set yourself the goal to read one book a week or a month. You set this goal because you’re not currently finding time to read and you really want to change that. You read a little the first night, and the next but you skip Wednesday and Thursday because you’re having a busy week and by Sunday you’ve only read the first chapter. You feel disheartened with your progress, maybe you beat yourself up a little: “I’ll never manage this, it’s too hard, I might as well give up now.” Then perhaps you give up the whole idea of reading more.

If you approach it as a micro-habit instead, your goal might look something like: I’m going to read for ten minutes every day. All you need is ten minutes and no matter how busy we are, we all have ten minutes somewhere in the day. Therefore, if ten minutes is all you have to do each day, it is harder to give yourself the excuse that you’re to busy to be able to do it. All you have to do is the ten minutes. You can tick that off, feel good that you’ve achieved something and move on with the rest of your day.

Even with this tiny amount of time devoted to reading, you will find that after a month it’s amazing how much you will have read of your book in just ten minutes a day. Plus, you don’t have to stop after ten minutes if you don’t want to. Some days you may find that you want to keep reading. Other days, perhaps you’re too busy, so you don’t have to.

What about a health or fitness goal? A common fitness goal is to exercise for thirty minutes to an hour five days a week. Again, you might be starting from nothing with positive intentions, but it may quickly feel overwhelming fitting this into your current schedule. It can be hard to stick to when you are not already working out on a regular basis. Set that as your goal, you may end up giving up after the first week or two.

Instead, set yourself a micro-habit: decide to exercise for just five or ten minutes a day. Find a five minute work-out you like the look of on youtube (there’s a lot out there) and effectively set yourself a goal to go all out for those 5 minutes. Do it when you get up in the morning. You only have to do it for those five minutes. Then get dressed and get on with your day. Do it for a month, pay attention to how it makes you feel. Even just a five minute workout first thing each day can lead to you feeling better and more motivated for the rest of the day. This small window of movement won’t overwhelm your current body state and busy schedule. Just like with reading, you don’t have to stop if it feels good on a particular day, just add in more time. But if you don’t feel like it the next day, all you need to do is the five minutes.

With a micro-habit you’ve given yourself a goal that it’s almost impossible not to meet and once you’re in the habit it begins to build momentum. Positive micro-habits add up to help you reach your bigger goals with far less effort. So using your fitness goals as an example, once you’re regularly doing the small amounts of exercise, it becomes much easier to add in a little more once you’re ready. So your big goal might be: I want to get fitter this year and the micro-habit is an easy place to begin: I’m going to start with just 5 minutes a day.

Small habits like this can help you reach really big goals and be life-changing over time. The important thing is getting started. Once you get started, it is much easier to stay in motion and keep going. But don’t try to start with too many micro-habits at once because that in itself will be overwhelming. Start with one or two. Perhaps do some journaling about where to start – brainstorm a list of all the things you want to change or try and then circle the ones that feel the most important to you right now. What part of your life needs improving the most right now or what could you start with that would most positively affect all aspects of your life? Make sure that you are working towards a goal or goals that are truly what you want.

From the goals you identify as important to you, choose one that you could easily do right now in some small way in just five to ten minutes. Hand write it out: I will …. for five/ ten minutes every day. If you write it out as a clear intention, you are more likely to stick with the process.

Then spend a bit of time identifying what you will need to do to make sure you do it tomorrow. A phone reminder at a particular time? A book placed beside the chair where you sit down to watch TV each evening? Running shoes and exercise kit laid out the night before?

It can also be helpful to develop a way of checking in with yourself that you’re doing it – a kind of grown up “reward chart”, an entry in your journal or a tick in your calendar. Some way of seeing what you have achieved, to keep you motivated while you’re forming that new micro-habit. After the first month, you’ll find you just do it. Once the habit is already formed and it takes little to no effort, that’s when you can start to build in another habit.

What are you waiting for? If you’ve got five to ten minutes after reading this, why not brainstorm and identify the micro-habit you would like to start with today.

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