If a habit you set yourself is initially small then doing it each day doesn’t seem so daunting. But how do you ever achieve bigger things?

Starting small

For about six years now, I’ve worked on establishing good habits in my day-to-day life. But it’s only in the last year that I took up the meta-habit of actually tracking how I’m doing.

In my previous post, I talked about how I explored different ways of tracking my habits.

In doing so, I’ve come to learn that for habits to be successful, they need to be small. So small as to seem trivial, in fact…

Modest success: outdoor running

When I started running, I literally wrote in my tracker “Get outside and run”.

All I had to do to tick this one off was:

  1. Put my running kit and shoes on,
  2. Go outside, and
  3. Run to the end of my street and back.

That was it.

I would do this first thing in the morning before I showered and dressed for the day. And I still do. Only now, each time I go out, I run about a mile and a half.

The habit started small, and so it wasn’t daunting: it was easy to step outside in my kit, whatever the weather, come back indoors, and tick it off my list. Even though I’ve increased the distance I run over time, my goal is still simply to get out and run.

This leaves room for me to keep the run short if I’m pushed for time and can’t do it. All I have to do is to step out. But once I’m out, I always want to go further…

A failing: meditation practice

By contrast, my attempt to meditate daily failed.

A couple of years ago, I used have a goal simply to sit and meditate once a day. I’d use the Headspace app to help with this, and I’d set my timer for ten minutes.

This seemed achievable – and it was. I successfully persisted for months, fitting some calm into my day, before I’d even set off to work.

One day, however, I decided to increase my timer to twenty minutes. I managed it two or three times. But, as days and weeks went by, I found that I’d stopped meditating altogether.

Obviously, the problem was that I couldn’t fit twenty minutes into my morning routine without running late or failing to do something else, like have breakfast or clean my teeth. Invariably the meditation habit, being less important, was the thing that got sacrificed.

The lesson I learnt from this, for myself, was to be realistic about setting daily goals and habits. Set the bar too high, and you risk setting yourself up for repeated failure.

Chunking: my accounting habit

Here’s one more example.

In the last year or so, I’ve been getting better at tracking financial incomings and outgoings.

I used to have a habit in my tracker simply called “Accounts”. The idea was to make a note of my account balances every day, so that I could both track them over time and categorise any spending to see where the money was going. But I found I couldn’t do it every day.

And because I couldn’t do it every day, the picture I was looking to build over time was incomplete, and virtually worthless for my purposes. I almost gave up altogether.

Instead, I decided to try splitting this one goal in two.

I kept a daily habit of simply recording my account balances, which enabled me to build up a comprehensive picture over time.

But I also created a separate and less frequent habit of categorising my spending, just twice a week. Now, as long as I take the time to update these records just two days in every seven, I can tick this one off too.

It seems obvious to me now but it was a bit of a revelation: if a habit’s not working, break it down into smaller chunks, so that you’re more likely to achieve part of it continuously instead of giving up.

Unthinking and stacking

I haven’t read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, but I have read reviews of it. This particular quotation stood out:

Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity.

Part of that clarity is knowing what’s achievable day to day. I’ve now become well practiced at setting daily goals, meeting them, and eventually establishing them as unthinking habits.

That “unthinking” part is important:

  1. For example, whatever the weather, I now always go for that run – I don’t wonder if I should or not, since I’ve already determined that I should.
  2. This in itself frees me up to think about more important things, if I need to – I’m not dithering about what to do or regretting doing it, since I’ve already decided.

The thinking and deciding still happens but not at the moment I should be doing something. Instead, I take time each fortnight to reflect on what’s worked and what I might set myself next.

And, if I want to set myself a goal of running further, I won’t abandon my very simple habit of getting into my kit and getting out of the door – I’ll create an additional habit about the distance I run. That way, I can always succeed with the easy, established habit while striving to establish the more difficult one.

How do you achieve bigger things with small habits? One answer, I think, is that you gradually add more small habits to your list.

Another quotation from that book I haven’t read (but probably would if I wasn’t too busy getting through lockdown devouring novel after novel):

One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking.

Habits over time

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about longer term goals – for the quarter and the year ahead, for myself and my team, for work and my personal life.

But, in the spirit of chunking things into a smaller, more achievable pieces, I realised that one of my bad habits in the past has been writing overly long posts. So I’ll leave this reflection here and come back to my thoughts later.