Last year I became a morning person, learned a new language and read five times as many books as before. Sounds like I got a lot done, right? But it wasn’t daunting or strenuous; rather, all these outcomes came from doing small things every day over a long period.
This post originally appeared on the Buffer blog.
I’m a big fan of working smarter, not harder and finding small ways to make my work more efficient. As Buffer’s first Content Crafter about two years ago, I got the chance to explore these topics quite a lot.
Now I’m excited to be back to show you exactly how I came by these wins in 2015.
- From a habit of practising French for just 5 minutes a day, I can now read, write and speak basic French.
- From a habit of reading just a page every night, I managed to increase my reading list by five times over the past couple of years.
Basically, I used small, everyday habits to build up into big, long-term outcomes. There are four principles I try to stick by whenever I’m building a new habit. Through everything I’ve tried, these are the principles that seem to work every time.
1. Start Small: Repeat a Tiny Habit Daily
When I first started focusing on building more healthy habits a few years ago, one of the biggest mistakes I made was to ask too much of myself. I would go from reading hardly ever to attempting to read one book per week. Or from getting up at 9am most days to trying to roll out of bed before 6am every morning.
The distance between where I was starting and where I wanted to be was so great that I would fail a lot. And each failure made it harder to succeed the next day.
At their heart, as James Clear explains, habits are about routines. And what I really needed was small wins and visible progress to help me create new routines I could keep at every day. Finally, I came across this idea of starting small. The point is to focus on repeating the habit every day, but not worrying about how effective that habit is. In other words, quantity first; quality later.
A great example is flossing. Say you want to floss every night, but you haven’t flossed for years. If you take up flossing out of the blue and expect to spend 10 minutes doing it every night, you probably won’t last more than a week. It’s a very big ask. But starting small is so effective, it’s almost like a super power. Here’s how it would work for flossing: you take the tiniest part of the habit you can work with — in this case, it would be to floss just one tooth. It’s still considered flossing, but you won’t make huge leaps in dental hygiene this way.
But here’s where it gets powerful: at first, you focus on just flossing one tooth every night. And you stick with it for more than a week. Then, more than two. Then three, four weeks. You can stick with this habit because it’s so easy. There’s barely any effort involved with flossing one tooth, so it’s hard to make an excuse not to do it. And once it’s become easy and automatic to floss one tooth, you start flossing two.
For a while, you floss two teeth every night. Then, you increase to three. And slowly you work your way up, never taking such a big leap that it becomes a chore. By starting small you focus on making the behaviour automatic, before you worry about making the behaviour big enough that it produces a useful outcome.
As Scott H. Young says, we tend to overestimate how much we can get done — especially when we’re stepping into the unknown. Scott suggests planning as if you can only commit 20% of the time and energy you’d like to, in order to be more realistic.
Here’s how I applied the “start small” process to my habits in 2015:
Reading: One Page a Night
I started by reading just one page of a book every night before bed. Often I would read more, but if all I could manage was one page, I would count that as a win. Later, when the habit was already strong, I would put on a timer and read for 15 minutes, and eventually I was reading for 30 minutes before bed and another 30 minutes most mornings.
Just starting with one page added up: In 2013 I read 7 books. In 2014, 22. In 2015, 33. That’s almost five times what I read in 2013. I worked on this habit over about a year and a half. That probably sounds like a long time, but it only seems that way in retrospect.
When I’m working my habit, all I think about is how much I need to read today to count a win. It’s always a small, daily effort that I focus on. But when I look back on my progress, I realise what big achievements those daily habits have developed into.
Learning a New Language: One Lesson Every Morning
I had dabbled in French with before, but I wasn’t very good at sticking with it. When I decided I really wanted to improve my French, I started by building a habit of doing just one Duolingo lesson every morning while I drank my coffee. (If you haven’t tried it, Duolingo is a free web and mobile app to help you learn lots of languages.)
One lesson takes around five minutes, so it’s a tiny commitment, and quite easy to do when I’m sitting around drinking coffee anyway. Eventually I started doing more than one lesson — two, three, sometimes even four or five, if I was enjoying it. I did as many as I felt like, but I always did at least one.
Only one lesson was required to check off that habit for the day, so it was easy to stick to, even when I didn’t feel like doing any more than that. These days I also use Babbel (a paid web and mobile app for language learning) to get a better idea of the grammatical rules and structures of French, and I’ve finished the whole French section in Duolingo.
According to Duo, that means I know about 41 per cent of French! That’s a big achievement from just five minutes a day!
2. Focus on One Habit at a Time
One of the hardest things for me when it comes to building new habits is to not take on too many at once. I always have such grand plans for the things I want to get better at, and so much enthusiasm when I first start out, that I want to build several habits at once.
Every time I’ve tried that approach, I end up failing. Usually a few of the habits don’t stick, but sometimes none of them do. It’s just too much to focus on at once — a bit like multitasking, where your brain has to switch contexts constantly, because you really can’t focus on multiple things at once.
So my new rule is to work on just one habit at a time. Only when that habit is so automatic I can do it every day easily do I start on a new habit. With the example above, I was reading every night before I started focusing on French. And I was easily doing a French lesson every day before I started focusing on getting up early.
Sometimes building a habit can take a long time. Getting up early was one I really struggled to do consistently. I spent around four months focused on that same habit: trying different approaches, tracking my progress and reporting in to friends who helped keep me accountable. I was determined to make it a consistent habit, but that meant not building any other habits for months.
These days I’m glad I committed to building that habit for so long, because I get up early almost every day without even trying. It didn’t come easy, but it was worth the effort.
How long it takes you to build a habit will vary, so four months might be longer or shorter than you need. We often hear the idea that it takes 21 days to build a habit, but studies have shown we all take different lengths of time to build new habits. In one study, the average time it took to build a new habit was 66 days — about two months.
The lesson I’ve learned is to treat each habit differently, depending on how hard you find it to stick to consistently, but also to focus on just one habit at a time so it gets your full attention and energy.
3. Remove Barriers: Have Everything You Need at Hand
I find it much easier to complete my habits when the equipment I need is at hand. For instance, having my phone in my hand already while drinking coffee made it easier to build a habit of doing a quick French lesson at that time. Reading a page of a book every night became a lot easier when I kept the book by my bed.
Malcolm Gladwell calls this the tipping point. It’s that small change that tips you over from making excuses to taking action. One great example of the power of a tipping point comes from a study of tetanus education at a university. The study tested whether trying to induce higher levels of fear about tetanus would encourage more students to get vaccinated against it. The fear level of the education program didn’t seem to make any difference, but one surprising change did: adding a map of the university campus showing the health centre and the times vaccinations were available increased the vaccination rate from 3 per cent to 28 per cent.
The tipping point is that tiny change that makes it easy enough to take action that you’ll actually follow through. I like to think of it as removing any barriers that make it easy to not follow through on my habits.
One habit I want to build in 2016 is to play piano more often. Right now I play whenever the mood strikes me, which isn’t often enough to get a lot better. But I have noticed that I tend to play more often when the piano is easily accessible. Right now it’s in a corner of our lounge/dining/kitchen area, so I can easily sit down and play a little while waiting for something to cook or when I visit the kitchen for an afternoon snack.
Another habit I want to focus on this year is exercising more regularly. I’ve noticed that once I put on my exercise clothes, it’s pretty much certain that I’ll go outside for a run, but until those clothes are on it’s a lot easier to think of excuses for not going out. Getting out my exercise clothes the night before and putting them on quickly in the morning before I can think of excuses tends to help me get out the door faster. This is something I plan to do more regularly when I’m focusing on building this habit.
4. Stack Habits: Build New Routines Onto Existing Ones
One of my favourite ways to build new habits is to stack them onto existing habits. This builds up several habits into a routine, and each habit acts as a trigger for the next one.
The cool part about this is you already have lots of habits you probably don’t realise. Brushing your teeth before bed, getting out of bed in the morning, making coffee at the same time every day — these are all existing habits. So long as you do something at the same time every day without thinking about it, it’s a habit you can stack others onto.
If you do your new habit after completing an existing one, you can rely on the strength of your existing habit to help keep your new habit on track. For example, when I get out of bed, the first thing I do is go downstairs to make a coffee. When my coffee is made, I start my French lesson. My existing habit of making coffee acts as a trigger to complete my French lesson. And when I go to bed at night, I open the book sitting by my bed. Getting into bed and seeing the book act as a trigger to do my nightly reading.
Research has shown a cue to work on your new habit may be the most effective way to ensure you stick to the habit long-term. When you stack habits, you use the existing ones as cues for each new habit you want to build.
Over time you can keep stacking new habits onto your existing ones to take advantage of automatic behaviours you’re already doing.
Building new habits has become something of a hobby for me. It’s exciting to think of all the skills I can gain and improve over time, just by building tiny habits that I repeat every day. It makes huge accomplishments seem much more achievable.
If you’d like to learn more about how I build habits that help me work smarter, not harder, you can sign up for my course, Productive Habits.