Why Micro Habits Are Better Than Typical Habits

One of the most fruitful areas of the human brain is the habit formation ability. The idea of doing something without actually thinking about it is astonishing. Your mind can be tired. But your body is so used to a certain behavior that it seemingly automatically executes. Despite these upsides, we still steer towards bad habits. Why?

Our brains are programmed to chase that dopamine high. When we are introduced to behavior that results in a reward. Internal links are formed in the brain that are triggered when there is a cue reminding of the end prize.

The simplest example is eating.

You probably just ate. But if suddenly a decent-looking dessert enters the living room, your immediate reaction will be to have some.

Of course, this process can – and should – be used to embed useful habits into your life. But the reason we find it so hard to keep a list of good habits around is the amount of energy we have to expend in order to perform even a single good behavior.

  • It’s easy to scroll on your phone while eating popcorn – a lazy habit.
  • It’s hard to get up, get dressed, go to the nearest gym, and train – a diligent habit.

The same reason our ability to form habits is good is also the same reason it’s bad.

The setup that can make a difference in your life is embracing the idea of micro habits.

A good habit that is so tiny, that advertises itself as surprisingly simple to do.

This post is for people who constantly put aside behaviors that have the potential to lead to positive results because they require a lot of effort.

So, if every time you hear the word gym, your body collapses. The concept of micro habits can be the thing you were looking for to steer yourself towards a brighter future where you wear smaller size jeans.

What Are Micro Habits?

Micro habits are tiny routines that don’t take long to execute and have the potential to lead to big results. Since they are relatively easy to start and perform. Your brain doesn’t paralyze when you think about them. It perceives them as something doable.

Usually, when we want to change something in our lives. We typically try to push ourselves toward committing to behavior that is foreign to us.

For instance, a person who never set foot in a fitness center. Can establish a new year resolution to visit the gym daily. However, the magnitude of change in the current lifestyle of the person is huge in this example.

You are basically dooming yourself right from the start if you want to move from “never exercising before” to “exercising daily”.

Your current way of living was not designed for such a sudden tectonic shift.

A much better alternative is the micro habits way.

Instead of trying to trick both your brain and body into doing something you’ve never done before – and expecting that you’ll push through. You can perform something as small as exercising every day for 5-10 minutes in your house. Just stretch. Or just do 20 pushups.

For some, such tiny actions are considered just a waste of time. “Wow! How will 20 pushups help me lose weight?” they ask.

But such folks are missing the point.

Why Are Micro Habits So Helpful?

The simplest implication of micro habits is the following:

Instead of trying to do one activity that requires a lot of willpower, time, such that you will potentially stop doing. Think about this: “How can I introduce 5 micro behaviors that will last for a lifetime?”

Let’s use the example above again.

You want to lose weight – a lot of people do.

If you set a goal to visit the gym. This will require willpower of, say, 10.

Initially, you don’t mind. You are motivated. You have a workout buddy that keeps you accountable. With time, though. When the novelty of the behavior starts to feel like a burden. When you think more about finishing the workout instead of starting it. You’ll likely quit. Reportedly, nearly half of the people who set new year’s resolutions fail.1

Let’s explore how this will look when we take the micro habits approach.

Say that your motivation is the same – get fit.

Instead of going to the gym.

You can start by incorporating 3 to 5 behaviors that are easy to do.

For example:

  1. Get up a bit earlier.
  2. Exercise for 10 minutes.
  3. Eat fruits for breakfast.
  4. Drink a bit more water than you’re used to.
  5. Stretch midday.

For each of the above, we can say that it will require between 1 and 3 points of willpower.

At first, the difference between doing these things and not doing them seems absolutely negligible.

But there are three – potentially even more – upsides:

  1. You will start to feel better.
  2. You are more likely to keep doing these behaviors during a course of a year – and more.
  3. You’ll probably add more healthy habits – or probably do some of the existing ones for longer.

Plainly, if you are not ready. Introducing a typical new habit into your life will probably dissolve after a while. The change that needs to happen in your life is huge.

Conversely, embedding a micro habit. Since the new tiny behavior doesn’t take long to do. This will increase the likelihood of keeping it as part of your daily arsenal of actions.

A graph showing the difference between typical and micro habits when performed after a long period of time.
The graph shows how we typically approach habits. We have an ambitious start, but we soon realize that typical habits are not sustainable. In contrast, if we start small. When we get used to the behavior. We can increase our efforts.

Of course, the concept of micro habits is not faultless. Though doing these tiny things is definitely good. If you want to make meaningful progress, it’s not enough to stay in the micro habits area.

The Downside of Micro Habits

A couple of years ago, when I started blogging. My, sort to say micro daily habit was writing around 200, 300 words a day. This routine allowed me to publish an article per ~10 days. While it was surely better than publishing 0 articles. I was nowhere near where I wanted to be with my blog.

Micro habits are a good starting point. You can use them and never change them for certain aspects of your life. But if you want to make a real difference in certain areas. You need to turn up the notch.

So, I revised my writing routine.

  • I started getting up earlier.
  • I knew what I was going to write about in the morning – which was previously a huge blocker.
  • I improved my overall writing skills.

This resulted in 2 articles being published per week instead of 1 or even zero in some cases for the same period.

As you can sense. My writing habit was no longer considered a micro habit. I now spend around 2 hours a day writing. And yet, it all started as a micro habit.

If you’re not interested in becoming a writing machine or strong as the average person you’ll meet on social media. It’s fine if you just stay with your micro habits. Say, workout daily for just 10 minutes. But if you want to progress. You’ll have to expand.

List of 6 Micro Habits That Can Make a Difference In Your Life

Theoretically, every big habit can be deconstructed and tailored to fit the micro habit idea.

You just pick a certain behavior, and you focus on doing just a tiny fraction of it.

Wondering what to do?

When I was researching the topic. Most of the publications I found online where mentioning micro habits that make you cringe in the knees.

Here is my list of micro habits that have the power to make your life a bit better…

1. Continue Building Your Long-Term Project

In the age of consumerism. The default action of a person is to – wait for it – consume stuff.

Not only new clothes. New tech stuff. But also content related to getting something new.

After all, by scrolling online in the wasteland of social media. You invariably fall in the range of targeted advertising. Every couple of seconds, you are offered something new to buy.

Instead of focusing on what to get. Spend a quarter of an hour a day building something.

Continue building that tree house for your kids. Continue building that website where you can upload your family photos. Continue building your creative skills by practicing for 10 or 20 minutes.

The point here is to commit to a long-term project and set some time daily to make progress.

2. Read For a Couple of Minutes Per Day

The micro habit of reading is probably reading 1 page per day. Everyone can do that.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Reading a page per day will – if we do the math – result in one book per year.2 Still better than zero books. But with this pace, you will never get the chance to indulge in the great variety of books being published in the literary world.

Making it a habit to read for 5-10 minutes will set the mood and potentially expand into 15-20 minutes.

For now, just focus on opening the book. From there, the magical words will do their job.

3. Write Down What You Will Do Tomorrow

At some point in the evening. I write down what I’m going to do the next day. It’s not a complete list. It’s a list of usually 3 to 5 items. The main points that will require my attention.

This tiny habit is strangely productive.

You no longer wander in the morning. Wake up directionless. Think about what you should do. Tackling the uncomfortable thought: “Did I forget something?”

No, you have your action items for the day right in front of you.

4. Reset Your Room

Another small thing I do daily. Is to put things back where they belong.

It’s not only I micro habit I want. It’s a micro habit I need. As a parent of a 3-year-old. Our apartment is often a mess after a Lego session.

But this behavior goes beyond just putting all the toys in their designated places.

I also set my room for the next day.

I get up at 05:00 AM every morning – a habit I’ll surely not call micro. And to prevent myself from wasting time looking for my notebook when I’m still half asleep. I set my working station the night before.

I follow the same pattern with my digital devices. Before calling it a day. I delete files I no longer need and arrange the files I will need in the respectful folders. It doesn’t take long. But it gives you that clean fresh look on the following day.

5. List All of The Things You Said No To

Staying on course is about constantly saying no.

It’s a gentle art that’s becoming more important with each new streaming platform trying to capture your attention – and wallet.

Since you can’t watch every show on the planet. You can’t travel to every destination Instagram influencers obsess about. (Technically you can, but you might go bankrupt.) It’s a good idea to note down the things you said no to today.

For example, a colleague mentioned that there is a brand new episode of (insert popular TV show) that you absolutely must watch. You can proudly write down that you didn’t watch it.

Your mother-in-law offered you dessert after dinner? You can write down: “I refused and broke her heart. I have to make it up somehow.”

This micro habit will not only help you stay on course. But it will also positively contribute to your willpower. By listing how you are not giving to your impulses daily. You will likely improve the so-needed skill of delaying gratification.

6. Have Another Look

Whether you need to send an important email or you are working on a poster design – if say, you are a designer.

It’s amazing how much better the email or the design can turn out if you have a second look after a brief break, or if you leave it for the next day.

It’s not always possible to postpone an email for tomorrow, for example. But it’s absolutely an option to go for a short walk – even only to the restroom. And then have another look.

As a person who writes for a living. I have two modes of writing: The writing part and the editing part. When I write. I just write. I’m careless about grammar. When I’m done writing. I enter editing mode. But what I also do is take a second look at what I wrote the next day.

This probably reminds you of the famous expression: “The morning is wiser than the evening.”

When we make room to think things over. This results in better and wiser decisions.

How Do You Develop Micro Habits?

The world is already tough enough. And your schedule is (probably) already fully booked for several weeks ahead.

And yet, there is still a way to introduce some positive behaviors into your life thanks to the concept of micro habits.

how-to-create-a-micro-habit
Micro habits are tiny parts of typical habits.

The way to make the tiny habits work is by following this path:

  1. State what you want to embed in your life.
  2. Deconstruct the behavior into smaller actions.
  3. State a specific time during the day the behavior will occur.
  4. Remove all barriers that can prevent you from executing.
  5. Keep practicing and make improvements.

Let’s unpack the 5 steps from above.

First, let’s think about the change you want to introduce.

Most people get stuck at this stage and never move forward.

Say that you want to get fit.

What type of activities does getting fit involve?

  • Going to the gym.
  • Eating healthy.
  • Running outdoors.
  • Exercising at home.
  • Rope-jumping.
  • Cycling.

A professional athlete is probably doing all of the above but we’ll only take one small chunk from this heavy-duty list.

Let’s focus on exercising at home.

Now, we need to schedule when we are going to practice the behavior. What will be the cue that will move you to action?

This is based on your schedule but a pointer will be, for example, before breakfast or right after work.

Next stop: Remove all barriers.

What might prevent you from executing the habit?

A potential blocker can be not knowing what to do. Thankfully, there are thousands of workouts on YouTube. You can just search to find a trainer that’s a good fit. Save the workouts for later use.

Finally, you should ensure that you keep doing the activity.

It’s normal for things to change over time. What you decided on day one shouldn’t be considered unchangeable. Keep practicing and keep introducing small changes – new workouts, new regime, new schedule.

Start really small – that’s why these are called micro habits. When possible, increase the efforts.

Some Closing Thoughts

It’s easy to get discouraged when you are constantly bombarded by the achievements of others online.

We see everyone winning and we think: “I will never become like him/her. There’s no point in even trying!”

Or the classic, “I’m too old to try to change my life!”

By no means do I want to make it sound like building new habits and change is easy. Micro habits – while designed to take just a few minutes to complete. Are still work. It still takes effort to exercise, read, or do what you want to do.

The main benefit of these tiny actions is to show you what else is possible. To give you a dose of aliveness in this all-consuming digital world.

You can surely stay away from social media for 10 minutes and do something else with your hands – lift weights, for example.

Micro habits help you do just that.

When small new behaviors are introduced. They start to reshape our old-rooted routines. We become flexible and adaptable. We get stronger, and start not only to endure change. But also welcome it in our lives.

So, what micro habits you can introduce in your life – if not today – tomorrow?


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Footnotes:

  1. Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLOS ONE. On the web: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097
  2. Most books average around 300 pages.
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