Sometimes, the first days (or rarely weeks) of learning something new feel easy and almost effortless. That is true especially when the subject at hand is actually interesting to the learner, and not just a must-learn topic. In the beginning, there are high levels of motivation and excitement, which in turn create that nice feeling that learning is easy and fun.
But, we already know that learning is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. (Tweet this.)
We’ve seen before that motivation and self-discipline are really unreliable forces for humans. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that most people struggle to keep up with their learning process. Procrastination kicks in, and, soon after, studying feels like a chore.
This is where transforming your learning into a habit plays a hugely important role (read more about the anatomy of a habit).
But even then, most people find it very hard to transform their learning process into a habit. That’s somewhat expected, as people tend to set very big expectations of themselves in the beginning. For example, people that don’t exercise at all, when they want to get in shape, they set goals like going to the gym 4 times a week. This is extremely unrealistic. What you need to easily form habits is to start small.
But, how small? This is where the concept of mini habits comes in.
What are mini habits?
The concept behind mini habits (or tiny habits) is that you can actually achieve more by doing less. Mini habits are “stupid” small actions that you do on a daily basis, which are so small that you don’t really need any willpower to perform them. Honestly, they can be so small that they sound stupid, hence the characterization above.
A classic example of mini habits can be found in exercise. If you want to start exercising and getting in shape, setting big goals (like going to the gym 4 times/week) is extremely unrealistic. Instead, you have to think small. What would happen if you committed to doing 1 push-up every day? Sounds ridiculous, right?
Well, it isn’t. Rather, it works wonders. As you commit to that daily push-up, there is a great chance that you’ll do a few more. Maybe, before you get up and move on with your day, you will do a set of crunches as well. Before you know it, you’ve done a full workout!
But the best part is that, if you only do that 1 push-up, it is perfectly ok! That is actually the point: committing to one “stupid” small action, and nothing more. In fact, I can’t emphasize enough that you must not start unconsciously planning to do more every time. If you do, you will make it harder to get started, and eventually will have the opposite of the desired results.
Sidenote: The concept of mini habits was popularized in the same-titled book by Stephen Guise.
Why do mini habits work?
You need really, really little willpower
The whole idea behind mini habits is how easy it is to complete them. As we’ve seen, humans are horrible at self-discipline, so we are bypassing this by committing to something really, really small. The amazing thing about willpower is that, once you get started, you need much less of it to keep going! (Tweet this.)
This is also deeply connected to procrastination. As we’ve seen in the article on how to beat procrastination, when we want to start a task we perceive as unpleasant, our actual pain centers light up. By having to do something so small, like just 1 push-up, we completely change our perception of the task, making it a lot easier to get started.
Feeling of achievement daily & easily
Who doesn’t like to feel like they’ve done something towards their goals every single day? Through mini habits, you get to easily feel that sense of achievement, even if it is just that 1 small action. Of course, if you end up doing more, the feeling will be stronger, but remember, it does not matter if you don’t!
That sense of achievement is extremely rewarding, and will further assist in sticking with the process.
Consistency is king – Forming habits
The most important thing, and the reason you should use this technique, is to form habits. Humans are creatures of habit, and it is through them that we can overcome our need for self-discipline and actually achieve stuff.
Mini habits allow you to be consistent on working with your goals daily, and therefore that daily, small process becomes a habit. Long after the habit has formed, you can leverage that to build upon the process, e.g. by adding more to the daily action.
How to create mini habits
As with everything, in order to create mini habits, there is an effective process to do so. Apart from reading on, make sure to check out the very successful Udemy course on mini habits. It is the official course based on the book, and it can help you further in building your mini habits. Now, let’s dive into the process.
1) Choose your habit
The first step is to choose the subject you want to learn, or the habit you want to form. It is important that you have a reason why you want to achieve this goal, in order to increase the chances of you sticking with the process. Make sure it is something relevant to your life right now, and if it isn’t, make it as relevant as possible.
2) Choose your mini habit
It is now time to form your mini habit. Keep in mind that it should be “stupid” simple. Do not worry about how much you can achieve with such a simple action, as the results tend to add up very quickly.
You should choose quantity goals (like 1 push-up), over time-based goals (like push-ups for 20 seconds). It is way easier to measure and tends to produce more sessions where you go a little bit over your set goal. In the next section, you can find a lot of examples of mini habits to draw inspiration from.
3) Attach to your existing routine
One of the most important parts of a habit is the cue, the signal that gets you to do the actual part of the habit. This is even truer in mini habits, where it’s easy to forget it in the early days. The best way to ensure that you do it is to attach it to your daily existing routine.
To achieve that, find a habit in your existing daily routine (e.g. brushing your teeth in a morning) and use it as a cue to do your mini habit. Note that some people prefer to use phone reminders over this, but this tends to produce the best results.
Use the following format to make this process easier:
- “After/before I do ____, I will do my mini habit.”
So, for example:
- After I brush my teeth, I will do 1 push-up.
- Before I sit down to eat lunch, I will read 1 paragraph off my book.
4) Track your habit
In building habits, tracking is extremely important. It adds a form of accountability that is really hard for you to trick, and that is also true for mini habits. For at least the first 2 months (I do it for 3), track whether you did the mini habit, but nothing more. The point is to actually do the push-up, not to see how much more exercise you did.
You can track it on paper, for instance by marking each day that you complete the mini habit on a calendar, or you can use an app to track your habit. There are many available both on iOS and Android for you to choose from. Personally, I’ve used Habit List, Today, and Way of Life.
Mini habit examples
Let’s see some more examples of mini habits in various subjects. Note that these are just suggestions, and if you think of any other that follows the rules of mini habits, feel free to use that.
- Language learning: My personal recommendation is doing 10xp on Duolingo per day (2-3 min) or 1 review in an Anki deck (2-5 min). You should also check out this amazing article on mini habits in language learning from Katie of Joy of Languages.
- Guitar: Open Yousician and play 1 song (~4 minutes). Some people like to go even smaller than that and just commit to getting the guitar out of its case and strumming a few notes.
- Reading: Read 1 page or 1 paragraph per day.
- Exercise: Do 1 push-up.
- Writing or journaling: Write 50 words per day.
- Sports (e.g. basketball): Shoot 10 3-pointers a day, or go even simpler: just put on your basketball clothes (seriously).
- Coding: Do a small coding challenge (e.g. on Codewars) or read an article on coding. This is an example of a hybrid mini habit, where you can complete it by doing 1 of 2 things.
- Productivity/Business: Write down 2 ideas per day.
You can find even more ideas here.
There are a few common problems people face when trying to work with mini habits. In this section, we’ll see what those are and what to do about them.
I am too busy – I can’t find time
When this happens, it is almost certain that you’ve built too big a habit. Remember, you need to think small. The solution here is to reduce your habit to the point that it takes just a few seconds to complete.
If, for instance, you had set to do 10xp on Duolingo as a mini habit, which takes 2-3 minutes, transform it to just opening the app. That should only take a few seconds, which you certainly have time for.
I am procrastinating on the habit
This is almost always a result of planning to do more than you’ve set for your mini habit. It is normal, and it happens unconsciously, but you need to fight it. Remember that you’re committed to something small for a reason, and don’t feel bad if you only do the 1 push-up. Instead, celebrate it. If you remember that doing the small action is what is important, the procrastination will easily go away.
I forget to complete the action
In that case, you need to build a better attachment to your existing daily routine. Identify again things that you do on a daily basis, and connect them with doing your mini habit. You’ve probably used a bad trigger (or none at all), so put your focus and energy on fixing this.
In general, you should try and combine various techniques to increase the effectiveness and efficiency in your learning (just not too many). A great pair is combining mini habits and stakes. Introducing stakes will make sure that you stick to your mini habits (which is really important) and thus that you will actually form the desired habit. Read my article on stakes, and figure out ways to combine them to maximize results.
Creating mini habits is a great way to build a habit, as it requires minimal willpower and effort. On the other hand, you will often find yourself doing more than you’ve set to. Eventually, you will reach your goal much faster than if you had set a bigger goal from the beginning.
Just remember, you must not start planning to do more every time. If you do, you will make it harder to get started, and that beats the whole purpose. Note that this might even happen unconsciously, and try to keep yourself committed to doing just that one “stupid” small action.