212: Micro Habits: The Too-Small-to-Fail Plan for Big Results

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

That line from Aristotle may be one of the most overused quotes in history.

But it’s overused for good reason: it’s a good quote. 

At least the first part.

Aristotle was onto something for sure: we are what we repeatedly do.

I agree with that 100%.

The issue I have is with the second part: Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

There’s no such habit called excellence; you can’t wake up tomorrow and start your morning routine with a quick session of excellence before you go grab breakfast.

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about setting new year’s resolutions or goals for the year, which I think is only natural when the calendar flips, but I’ve had a hard time coming up with a SMART goal or set of SMART goals for the year I was really excited about.

It’s easy to pick a number out of the sky, like I want to make $1 million, or I want to reach 100,000 subscribers, or I want to become a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and those kinds of goals are great — if they motivate you and you can reverse engineer a path to get there.

But on the flipside of Big Hairy Audacious Goals like these, to borrow a phrase from Jim Collins, is the micro habit. And that brings us back to Aristotle: we are what we repeatedly do.

I’ve seen the power of consistent execution first-hand; this podcast is probably my best most recent example of that. It started out as an experiment, it cost less than $100, and over the last 3.5 years, I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s been life-changing.

So if you’ve found yourself in kind of the same boat, with everyone around you sharing their resolutions and their ambitious goals for the year and not quite knowing what you should be aiming for yourself, I invite you to consider the micro habit as an alternative.

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Inspiration for Micro Habits

This post and episode draw inspiration from a couple sources. The first is a blog post I read in December called Giving Up My Goals To Focus On Habits.

It’s kind of silly, but in a way, this post gave me permission not to set any concrete goals. Here’s an excerpt:

I think a lot of people are highly motivated when they set goals and probably have a lot of success when they get started on the goal. But Jim Ryun (a three-time Olympic runner and the first high schooler to ever break 4 minutes in the mile) has a great quote about this – “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” I love that.

The second source of inspiration is a book called Mini Habits, which for full disclosure I actually haven’t read yet but heard discussed on Season 1 of Alex Barker’s 66 Day Experiment podcast. 

3 Characteristics of Micro Habits

A micro habit must be:

1. Related to something you care about.

Otherwise, what would be the point? In my case, my micro habits fall under the umbrellas of Health, Wealth, and Family.

2. Something you can do in under 1 minute.

Less than 60 seconds. That’s what makes them micro.

3. Too small to fail.

These are habits so small you’d be embarrassed if you couldn’t check the box each day to say you got them done. That’s what we’re aiming for on these, especially to start out.

My Micro Habits Habits

Here are the micro habits I’ve set up for myself this month. I may change or add to these as the year goes on.

Health

  • 1 Pushup
  • 1 Squat
  • Floss 1 tooth

Wealth

  • Do 1 proactive thing BEFORE email. Feels great!

Family

  • 30 second time

“30 second time” is basically a long hug with my beautiful bride. There’s some data to suggest that even a 20-30 second hug could release oxytocin, improving your mood, happiness, and even your overall health. The research indicates that these extended hugs create biochemical and physiological reactions that reduce stress, lower the risk of heart disease, fight infections, and boost your immune system.

On top of all that, it’s a powerful, grounding, and comforting feeling. Easily worth the 30 seconds.   

And of course for the others, once you’re on the ground, you’re likely to do more than just the one push-up. But one’s the minimum. If you don’t feel like doing any more, that’s totally fine.

Other Examples of Micro Habits

  • Drink a glass of water right when you get up
  • Read 1 page of a book
  • Make the bed
  • Finish your shower with cold water
  • Meditate

The Why

The significance of any of these micro habits by itself is probably negligible, and even all 5 of them added up may not make a huge impact when you look at only the habits themselves.

Where I believe the magic is, is in the tiny feeling of accomplishment in having done them. It’s like a mental hack; I said this thing was important to me, I said I’d do it, and I did it.

I think that can build momentum to bigger and better things, because you’ve taken that first step in convincing yourself you’re the type of person that takes action, follows through, gets it done.

My friend Michal, who’s featured in The Slight Edge, calls it the identity habit, and it’s probably more powerful than any other individual action. I think setting up these too-small-to-fail micro habits can be a stepping stone to building your own identity habit. That you’re the kind of person that does ____________.

Take the cold shower thing for example. Potential health benefits aside, it’s a pretty loud reminder that you’re going to accomplish what you set out to — even if it’s uncomfortable in the near-term.

Why Only 5?

The idea is to set yourself up for success. If picked 25 different things to do each day, all of a sudden that becomes overwhelming and stressful.

Tracking

Previously I’ve tried to keep track of habits in my head or in a Google spreadsheet, but I’m trying something new this time, inspired by my brother.

He recommended a physical sheet of paper taped to the wall by my computer. I can’t help but see it for several hours a day, and it’s a constant reminder of my commitment to these micro habits.

Here’s what it looks like:

The reason I think (or at least I hope) this will be effective is it kind of visually gamifies it for me. If each day has an x by it, you don’t want to break that streak, especially with something as embarrassingly small as missing 1 pushup.

What’s Next?

These are the micro habits I’m working on this month; I may add to them or try different ones for the rest of the year. In any case, I’m excited to give this new framework a shot.

Your Turn

Let me know what micro habits you come up with in the comments below.

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23 thoughts on “212: Micro Habits: The Too-Small-to-Fail Plan for Big Results

  1. Interesting back story on the quote. It’s also the most misattributed quote. It’s actually by William Durant in his book The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers

    He was writing about Aristotle though at the time and the quote seems to carry more impact when attributed to Aristotle of course.

    Thanks for the updates. I truly do appreciate what you do. I am actually out right now talking to local business owners about my own side hustle. Keep up the great work.

  2. Great ideas on micro habits. Micro habits are a good way for people who have a hard time getting started on something to actually get started. Starting is 50% of completing something. If Steve agrees to write one sentence each day, this will hopefully inspire him to write more. I’m going to agree to write one sentence a day for my blog. It will be more than I did in the past week. Plus take one picture each day with my new fancy camera. Since Christmas I’ve been learning more about it, but not taken one picture! Don’t know what my problem is–hope one pic a day with fix me. Ha

  3. Love the microhabit. … taking a page out of your playbook, instead of “pushups to failure” (too painful), I decided to add a pushup a day until I am up to 100/day. I am up to 19 and it has been pretty painless. I am figuring that it will take about 2 minutes to get them done.

  4. This is great!

    Last year I did flossing for my microhabit. I got through about 2 months before I forgot to bring it with me on some trip.

    I “broke the chain” and never jumped back on board :-(.

    What had worked for me up until that point was knocking it out first thing in the morning.

  5. Love the physical piece of paper as your tracking / accountability technology of choice!

    I’ve been using a chalk-board we painted on our dining room wall for our two-year-old. Now the whole family can see if I’m not marking off action steps.

    I really like your regimen of pushups, floss, and the one-proactive thing before email. Going to incorporate those, along with two minutes of meditation, starting today and report back.

  6. My new microhabit, if you will, is eating a salad for dinner and nothing else.

    My established microhabits are flossing and brushing as soon as I get up in the morning, and drinking water before my coffee every day.

  7. Hi Nick!
    Thanks so much for linking to my post – Giving Up My Goals to Focus on Habits. I love the idea of micro-habits. I think it’s the small incremental changes (those tiny feelings of accomplishment) that makes those micro-habits stick too. Your positive framing is key to – focus on what you want to do! I binge-listened to every one of your podcasts last year driving to work (I was a college professor). Love your work and Side Hustle Nation! My side hustles are decision coaching/consulting, freelance writing, adjunct instructor, and landlord. Thanks for all you do to help people, help themselves.

  8. I just heard Steven Pressfield say, “It’s not a habit, it’s your life”. Kind of puts it into perspective if it has real value to you!

    Great piece Nick.

  9. Great episode! Right now I’m using Habitica (it’s a habit tracker that’s like a game, so by doing habits your character gets stronger etc) to track habits like flossing and stretching in the morning, will definitely add some pushups to that too!

  10. My micro habits are;
    1. drink a glass of cold water in morning – saying it useful.
    2. solve 5 of 5 chess puzzles, it easy and just takes 4-5 minutes.
    3. my morning bodily exercise = 20 minutes.
    4. Tell a joke to my niece and nephew.
    5. a blank line for now. LOL
    ———-
    But Nick. I don’t see how a glass of water or chess puzzles can lead me to reach my goals/dreams.

    • The glass of water rehydrates you and it being cold can kick-start your metabolism for the day, both healthy things. And the chess puzzles exercise you mind and get your brain in gear for the day. I think the daily practice of those things can help establish that “identity habit” that you’re the kind of person that does what you commit to and gets results.

  11. Ah, daily Micro Habits bring sanity and order to my life, and I need more, so thanking you for the reminder; I shall add these:
    1. Read one book page
    2. 60 second plank
    3. Give an unexpected kind word
    4. Read one bible verse
    5. Drink water before coffee

  12. Great episode Nick!

    I played the 30-second hug part for Heidi and said we should start it. She said, “Sure, why not?”

    HA!

    But really, along those sames lines as far as healthy relationships is concerned, we were told to not let a day go past where we don’t say, “I love you” to one another.
    Admittedly we sometimes slack on that but it’s a great micro habit with huge return!

  13. My micro Habits are
    1. Drink a glass of water in the morning.
    2. Read one page of something out loud daily.
    3. Add some kind of value and/or attention to my business plan.
    4. Do a couple push ups or sit-ups after my consumption of glass of water in the morning.
    5. Meditate

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