A mini habit is a very small behavior that you force yourself do every day.
My second book, How to Be an Imperfectionist, discusses the soul of the Mini Habits ideology—accept imperfect progress in any amount and prioritize forward movement. I was shocked when a reader said this in a review,
“If you want to be mediocre and be happy about it, get this book.”
Mediocre? Huh? Something got lost in translation. Mediocrity is exactly what my books fight against! How did this misunderstanding happen?
How Real Life Kills Dreams
We’re doused with trite motivational cliches from birth. It’s considered good parenting to tell your kid they can become anything they want to be (without any reasoning or strategy behind that statement). We hear phrases like seize the day, you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and the sky’s the limit. Generic motivation is everywhere, and people love it.
We’re taught to think that this dreamy and lofty sentiment is the key to reaching our dreamy goals. But then we’re thrust into a harsh world, where such vague motivational sayings are basically worthless. Sure, they may bring us fleeting moments of determined persistence, but let’s get real… On the whole, life is more like another cliche called the daily grind.
Real life can be a grind.
- Nobody cheers us out of bed in the morning. (If you know of someone, send them to my place.)
- We don’t get credit for many of the good things we do. But the world sure notices whenever we mess up!
- Our return for our efforts may be unfair. Some of the hardest working people are the least compensated.
- Work can be monotonous. Even glorified occupations like athletics and acting have unexciting and repetitive moments of training, memorizing lines, and so on.
This is how dreams die. Since reality doesn’t match our idea of “dream road,” we keep looking. Reality looks more like this guy than the magical door.
Keep this in mind as we go back to mini habits.
“Are Mini Habits Enough?”
Since I released Mini Habits in 2013, it’s become a worldwide phenomenon in 17 languages. It succeeded for one reason—unlike many “inspirational books,” it works in the grindy, overwhelming, “I would but I’m tired” chaos of real life. You can still do mini habits in the midst of life’s worst storms.
But even when people have success with mini habits, there can be a lurking feeling that they’re “not doing enough” or “setting their sights too low.” It’s confusing when you’re experiencing something that feels profound, yet insufficient at the same time. The insufficient feeling is the same train of thought as the reviewer above, it’s ingrained in our psyches from birth by society, and it’s completely wrong. It’s the idea that to reach your potential, you have to push your limits to the absolute max. Anything less than maximum effort is folly and a waste of time.
I’m all for maximum effort, but what if we need more than effort? If only effort matters, why are some of the hardest workers paid the least? Effort alone is not enough to bring results. What’s missing from the equation? Strategy.
Those who are highly strategic with their efforts earn a greater return on invested effort than expected.
Strategy is a modifier of effort. If your strategy is poor, it’s like walking into a valley and allowing your enemy to surround you on higher ground—the greatest effort in the world won’t save you. Good strategy means you have the enemy surrounded and you have high ground. This tactical advantage is going to multiply your efforts tenfold and enable you to be victorious even if you have a smaller army.
As the world focuses on trying harder with the same failing strategy, you have the opportunity to be more strategic. And this insight should change how you view these small, seemingly insignificant mini habit behaviors.
To have a mini habit is to pursue your wildest dreams more seriously than you ever have before.
What’s the best strategy for pursuing a dream? Those who reach their dreams relentlessly pursue them. So the best strategy would enable us to act relentlessly.
If Behaviors are Houses, Habits are Foundations
We don’t go up to construction workers and say, “Hey, dude, why are you drilling holes, pouring concrete, and setting rebar? Nonsense! Just put up the walls already!” We don’t say that because we know that houses need a strong foundation in order to last (and weather storms). Otherwise, they end up looking like this.
Psychologists know that human behaviors won’t last without the foundation of habit, but it isn’t taught often or well.
Instead, we’re told about the benefits of doing XYZ. You should exercise, meditate, eat well, focus on your work, write books, read books, and be kind to your neighbors. But we’re never told that such behaviors require a habitual foundation if they’re to survive even life’s gentler storms.
The foundation of consistent behavior is HABIT. It’s the only one. “Getting motivated” is not a substitute. Like houses, the behaviors that have a foundation (i.e., are habitual) will not only last during a “life storm,” they will be our sanctuary in those times. This is science.
During times of stress, we rely on our habits (good or bad). Based on her study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Professor Wendy Wood says,
“People can’t make decisions easily when stressed, are low in willpower or feeling overwhelmed. When you are too tired to make a decision, you tend to just repeat what you usually do.”
Our reaction to stress is like our reaction to Mother Nature when She’s upset. We’re going to run straight for the sturdiest building. In the case of stress, the sturdy building is our habits.
Can see why I’m endlessly frustrated with our culture’s obsession with motivation? The person telling you that you’ve got to “get motivated” and “want it more” is telling you to build your house on a foundation of clouds and pixie dust. There’s no strategy, no foundation. Just dumb, unfocused effort. You’ll have your house up quicker than anyone else, and it will also be the first to fall.
Oh, trust me, I’ve had motivational spurts too. It’s exciting. I remember epic workout days where I’d go to the gym for two hours. Beast mode! I’d even do it for a week or two straight sometimes. But when I felt that first little raindrop, I didn’t want to go back to that strange, foreign place. The gym was an interesting place, absolutely, but it wasn’t home.
And here’s the thing—because it wasn’t home, sometimes I stopped myself. I’d stir up these brilliant “excuse storms” to keep me from exercising. If life didn’t take my behavior down first, I’d covertly figure out how to sabotage it myself.
Then I started doing one push-up per day, exercise became habitual, and now I exercise regularly. In times of stress, I’m even more likely to exercise (a healthy coping response). Habits make foreign behaviors into preferred behaviors.
Don’t Confuse the Mechanism for the Dream
Small steps are the best strategy to form habits, and habits are the ultimate behavioral foundation. But aren’t we settling for less than our dreams by aiming so low? If you’ve been reading, you already know the opposite is true.
Your dreams are high level ideas of WHERE you want to take your life. Small steps (and mini habits) are HOW you get yourself there. Small steps are about the mechanics of action and habit formation.
- When I was doing one push-up per day, people like that reviewer said, “He’s aiming for mediocrity.” Two years later, I’m still in the best shape of my life, exercising several times a week (up to 3 hours per session). Mediocrity, huh?
- When I was writing 50 words per day, people like that reviewer said, “He’s aiming for mediocrity.” My books that came from this practice are now read all over the world and have given me financial freedom. I’ve written a blog post every week for 2 years in a row with maybe one miss. I write every day, and it’s usually more than 1,000 words. I don’t get writer’s block. Mediocrity, huh?
- Same story with reading. I actually read books now!
This isn’t about me or my success. It’s about how I’ve been achieving my dreams with behaviors like “one push-up per day” and “write 50 words per day.” A great war general will recognize that victory comes from the strategies he employs.
People build foundations for homes because they foresee the final product. The foundation is not being built in vain, but to support something much greater. It takes the same kind of foresight to believe in something like Mini Habits.
The Nature of the Dream
I don’t know your wildest dreams, but I know something about dreams in general. Dreams are not easy to reach in reality, which is why we call them dreams. If they are to be reached, it requires dedication, persistence, and consistent effort.
You can try the hard way of “getting motivated” when necessary to keep your dreams alive. This is a bit like building a house on sand and hoping high tide never comes in to sweep your house away. OR you can build a foundation that can support your dreams for years to come.
Foundations aren’t pretty. They’re functional. Nobody is going to look at a foundation and say, “Wow, that’s gorgeous.” But that unimpressive-looking foundation can support a beautiful home. It’s the same as a mini habit. Nobody will compliment you on your goal to do one push-up per day, but they will compliment your physique that rests on that foundation.
I hope this clarified that mini habits are not something you do instead of chasing your dreams—they’re the best way to actually make your dreams come true. If you want to play small, listen to the people who say you have to “take massive action” and other such nonsense.
If you want to get serious about strategically and systematically pursuing your dreams, the best place to start is by reading the Mini Habits’ books. They’re available as ebook, paperback, and audiobook.
- The original Mini Habits book: For the complete Mini Habits strategy
- How to Be an Imperfectionist: For learning how to thrive as an imperfect person in an imperfect world (with 22 mini habits for different applications)
- Mini Habits for Weight Loss: For losing weight at a rate your brain and body will accept (permanent change)