When growing a plant, you begin with a seed. You then find a nice spot for it to grow, and once it’s been found, you begin to nourish the source so its roots are established and starts to thrive.
Forming a new habit is like growing a plant. We start with small actions, find a place in our routine to perform said action, and begin to nourish the behaviour, so it’s established in our life and grows over time. Early on in the process of developing a habit, we have limited amount of motivation. The payoffs haven’t occurred just yet, and we’re still finding our bearings between using willpower and our automatic responses. The most crucial stage in habit development is the beginning, which is why it’s not only important, but essential to ensure our behaviours are small.
Complex behaviours require a higher level of motivation, and because we’re early on in the habit development stage, we can’t rely on motivation itself to perform and achieve results.
Small Actions In Reality
One of the most basic examples we can compare a complex behaviour to is cleaning the house. You won’t clean your house unless motivation is high. But each time your home gets out of control, there’s a dreaded feeling- a feeling of forcing yourself to act and hype yourself up to start cleaning. But what if your house was already clean and you only had two plates on the bench to put away? We wouldn’t think twice about it because putting two plates away makes it significantly easier on ourselves as opposed to cleaning two rooms.
As human beings, it’s natural for our motivation levels to dip up and down over time in a particular behaviour. But relying heavily on motivation to create a habit doesn’t work. Instead of using all our willpower, we need to look at starting small. When a behaviour is easy to perform, we often don’t have to think about it. Simple acts like picking something up after dropping it or putting a book back on the shelf aren’t reliant on motivation. For us to get results, we need to shift our focus to making our tiny behaviours automatic.
Think about how an Olympian swimmer achieves a gold medal. The journey began when they first started swimming. They don’t simply wake up each day and swim record times. For years, they have focused on the small actions required, building up to an Olympic moment. The athletes go through several habitual behaviours. For example, waking up at 4 am for early morning swims, recovering after a gruelling session, spending time in the gym outside of the pool, and focusing on the technique of their stroke. Those are the types of behaviours that have kept swimmers moving forward to achieve a dream. Yet when they first put their goggles on, they learnt how to swim on a paddleboard. Over time, their minds and bodies learnt to work in unison to consistently perform automatic behaviours.
The success comes from the small actions each day and is not necessarily a showcase of talent, but a result of dedication to the cause.
How To Apply Small Actions
The consistency in simple behaviours compound over time and can produce incredible results. One thing to acknowledge when starting small is that simple is powerful. It’s effective. Making a habit simple changes our behaviour and leaves us in good stead to achieve results, allowing ourselves to keep motivation in the bank for when we really need it. But how can we accomplish this? How can we continue to build off small behaviours instead of burning all of our willpower? I developed a strong writing habit by using these three steps. Think about how you can apply this to any area of life you’re keen to excel in.
Start with a habit that you can’t say no to and is not that difficult initially.
I would write 250 words each writing session a couple of times a week. I made sure I knew exactly where and when I would perform this behaviour before applying it. This was effectively simple, where it took me only a couple of weeks before I felt I could produce more. Essentially I’m building a capacity to handle a more significant habit of the same behaviour in the future.
For you: Perhaps you’re looking to become stronger. Start with five pushups each day. Choose a time and location, perform the act, and repeat until you notice improvement. Trial and error what habit you can perform which isn’t difficult, but you can consistently maintain.
Increase your habit in a significantly small way.
I increased my word count to 500 words each session and upped my writing sessions, rising from two to three times per week. When I made a minor adjustment, I mentally conditioned my capacity to endure 500 words three times a week without a significant risk in performing the habit.
For you: If you were looking to increase your exercise, add in an extra day, but keep the duration of exercise in line with what you can consistently perform. Ask yourself ‘How can I increase my habit in a significantly tiny way to continue achieving results?’
After increasing your habit, repetitions should remain easy
I’ve built myself up to allow a maximum of 3 hours of writing a day, 5-6 times a week, where the word count is not the focus. I’ve continued writing until I’ve reached a pattern where 2-3 hours of writing satisfies me. Anything more feels like too much. Rather than worrying about the outcome, like producing lousy writing or finishing an article, I focus on the habit of showing up and sitting down for 2-3 hours, 5-6 times a week. I trust that my work will improve through consistency over time.
For you: Once you have found the sweet spot of action and repetition, showing up starts to become automatic. When you’ve increased your habit the right way, it becomes easier to perform. You then begin to see continuous improvement with continuous results. The positive reinforcement starts to then define your enjoyment of the process.
The way I see it, when we take ‘massive action’, the fear of failure is higher, and so is the risk. But if we focus on the foundation of starting small, we begin to see compounded results over time. Of course, we naturally have limited patience for the small steps at first because of the need to see results right away. But that’s when we should shift our focus to the present. Work on getting better at the small actions you take every day. Practice showing up, and as you improve, you graduate to another phase of effort and repetition. Repeat the process and reap the rewards. Enjoyment will follow.