Shrink the Commitment – Build a Habit

“Stupid small” steps work better for me than larger goals. Be the person with embarrassing goals and impressive results instead of one of the many people with impressive goals and embarrassing results.” -Stephen Guise, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results

We all have a reluctant Elephant Whenever we step outside our comfort zone like when we are creating a good habit, it can be difficult to convince our Elephant to begin. The First Rule of Behavior Change, Shrink the Commitment helps us to overcome our Elephant’s resistance. The further we plan to step outside our comfort zone, the greater the resistance. Big commitments trigger big resistance.(Learn more about the Elephant and Rider Analogy HERE).

Fortunately, we can reduce this resistance by reducing the size of the commitment. When we plan to step just a little bit outside of our comfort zone, no alarms are triggered. Our Elephant doesn’t put up any resistance. Once you get started, you’ll discover it requires a lot less effort to keep going because we have already overcome the strongest resistance, which is to begin. Once in motion, momentum is working for us, instead of inertia working against us.

Marla Cilley, the creator of the 5-Minute Room Rescue, found an ingenious way to help your Rider to overcome your Elephant’s reluctance to clean a messy room by saying, “All I am asking for is a five-minute commitment, after that we can stop.” Of course, after starting, it is much easier to keep going. The same strategy can be applied to working out when you just are not motivated. Tell your Elephant, “let’s get changed, grab a cup of coffee, and warm-up for five minutes, and if we still are not feeling it, we can quit.” Once you get started, it is unlikely your Rider will not be able to motivate your Elephant to finish the workout because you have already overcome the hardest part of working out, which is showing up and starting. Even if you stop after five minutes, you have reinforced the habit.

One of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the modern era, Twyla Tharp, has spent decades performing to the delight of audiences around the world. She attributes her phenomenal longevity to one simple daily habit. “I begin each day of my life with a ritual,” she writes. “I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirt, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go, I have completed the ritual. It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habituates it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.”[i] Instead of focusing on the two-hour workout, she shrinks the commitment to getting into the cab. Once she is in the cab, this gateway habit shapes her next two hours.

[i] Twyla Tharp and Mark Reiter, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life: A Practical Guide (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

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