Habit Fragments: Are Your Good Habits Disconnected From Your Life?

FragmentsWe all have habit fragments. 

The word “fragment” has negative connotations as it goes against positive words like “whole” and “complete.” But in the case of good habits, it’s a huge benefit to have habit fragments.

Think about a good habit that you want. It can be something you’re currently working toward or one that you’ve struggled to develop. It could be your dream habit. With this hopeful good habit in mind, are there any individual times that you’ve done it? You’ll see where I’m going with this.

Hypothetically, let’s say that I want to develop a habit of doing 20 pull-ups every day, but that I’ve been inconsistent. What would you expect my problem has been? Based on your experience, what seems most likely of these three?

  1. When I miss, I only do a few pull-ups 
  2. When I miss, I only do 18 pull-ups 
  3. When I miss, I don’t do any pull-ups

Based on observation, I’d be willing to wager that more than 90% of people experience problem #3. That is, they either complete their goal or do nothing. Why don’t humans only do 35% of their target on some days?

The poisonous all-or-nothing mindset is certainly a factor, and there is a reason for it. Habit fragments.

The Pull-up Habit Fragment Exposed!

A habit fragment is a partially developed habit that’s missing the most important element: a reliable starting trigger. Example:

  • When I do pull-ups: I grab the bar from the closet and set it up in my doorway. I do pull-ups.
  • When I don’t do pull-ups: I don’t grab the bar from the closet. Nothing happens.

When I grab the pull-up bar, I’ve already succeeded, because that’s when my habit fragment begins. This habit fragment is strong enough to work every time for me, and I’m sure you have several similar examples of “when I begin X, I’m bound to continue until I do Y.”

If you can identify where your good habit fragments begin, aim for those (it’s MUCH easier). If I want to do pull-ups, all I have to do is grab the bar. That’s as easy as it gets! Compare that to an intimidating goal of pumping out pull-ups until muscle failure. The difference is incredible, but the result of doing pull-ups is the same.

Starting Activates Dormant Processes Of Habit Fragments

If you want further evidence that starting activates dormant habit fragments, when is the last time you only put one shoe on, or put them both on and didn’t tie them? And maybe for you, that habit fragment starts when you grab your shoes or when you move your foot into the first shoe. Habit fragments start at the point that you’re guaranteed to continue. 

Some might say that these are just plain habits, but there’s a key difference.

The subscriber-only message on 2/18/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest.  

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.


Acting as the devil’s advocate, I’ll quote: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
It’s true for me. I’m task oriented. Whenever I achieve my ‘mark’ I tend to chase a new challenge.
It’s also true, that every successful activity expands. For several years I’ve been doing a single set of push ups. Nowadays I do 2-4 of them, 15 minute morning workout and a set of pull ups.
I have several instances of such an expansion. What is more, it’s not a conscious effort. It just happens over time.

Stephen Guise

It’s my firm belief that small goals don’t hold people back. Even if you set a goal of 1 push-up, after you complete it, you can set another small goal and another one until you’ve done a substantial amount.

I think that quote is vague. It could be applying to life goals and dreams or high expectations, in which case I completely agree with it (see my article here). But if it’s talking about daily goals, it’s exactly how most people exhaust their willpower before a behavior becomes habit. And there is no reason to accept failure for 100% achievable things.

Starting a business has some risk—it’s not guaranteed success. But it’s worth aiming “high” for it because it’s rewarding if it works and a great learning experience if it doesn’t. But for something like push-ups, falling short of your high target only discourages you and makes you feel bad. Why? There’s no reason to fail that type of goal.

The only thing it teaches you is to expect failure as a possibility even for doable tasks, which is disempowering. I can approach any new goal with confidence because I don’t fail to do doable things anymore.

Ludvig Sunström

Indeed Stephen,

Starting is of dire importance. Just as you say, it’s usually a matter of tricking yourself into beginning by triggering your habits. Putting on your workout clothes before deciding to work out, and tricks like that. That’s where your concept of mini habits comes in. Great book.

Stephen Guise

Thank you Ludvig. It’s strange that we can trick the brain into doing things, but it works.

Ludvig Sunström

Yeah. If I didn’t have strategies for doing it, my life would suck. It did a few years ago when I didn’t, in fact. To be crass.

Stephen Guise

Haha, I know what you mean. Same story here. Changing for the better feels great.

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