“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.
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.
Related: Micro habits are one of the core concepts I baked into The Progress Journal, my personal productivity tracking tool.
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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.
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.
- 1 Pushup
- 1 Squat
- Floss 1 tooth
- Do 1 proactive thing BEFORE email. Feels great!
- 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
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.
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.
Note: I actually created a physical book called The Progress Journal to track these habits and several others on a daily basis.
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.
Let me know what micro habits you come up with in the comments below.