It is counterintuitive, but small commitments are superior to large ones. That’s because they are easier to keep. This fact is as valuable as it is obvious. When we shrink the commitment, we increase our odds of success. If we are overly ambitious with our commitment, we’ll ace our chances of forming a habit. Big commitments lead to inconsistency. We aren’t always going to have enough time, willpower or motivation to meet the commitment. Inconsistency is a habit killer. If we aren’t consistent, then it isn’t a habit.
Small commitments make it much easier to create an unbroken chain of X’s in our habit tracker. Our primitive brain, where habits reside, doesn’t learn through intensity. It learns through regularity. Repetition is the learning language of our basal ganglia. We want to automate good habits, so they become our default. To do this, we must be consistent; that is why small commitments are more effective. Make the habit so small that even on your worse day, you’ll have enough willpower to do it.
Another reason small commitments are more effective than big ones is the sustained motivation they provide. Pep talks and motivational speeches produce a momentary sugar rush of inspiration. They are great at inspiring us to take short-term action, but long-lasting motivation is born of consistent action and progress. Study after study has shown that workers maintain their motivation toward their work when they feel they are making progress on meaningful work. Progress motivates us. It develops our self-esteem. Shrink the commitment small, and you’ll rack-up one small win after another. Most days, you’ll decide to do more than the minimum, but even doing the minimum, will provide another small victory – another step forward. Each step forward is a little more progress made. Small, consistent steps will get you their faster than huge sporadic ones.
Each win inspires us to go for the next. This is the type of motivation we want. Small daily accomplishments provide sustained motivation the way complex carbohydrates provide sustained energy. Complex carbohydrates break down slower than simple sugars because they are more substantial. Motivation brought to life through action is likewise more substantive than that produced by an inspirational speech. Motivation isn’t a reliable foundation for building a habit, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to cultivate it, especially the type of motivation born out of effort and incremental improvement. Every action we take requires some combination of motivation and willpower. The more motivated we are, the less willpower we’ll need. As the behavior becomes more automated through habituation, we’ll need less of both, which is one of the best qualities of habits.
Habits don’t just conserve our cognitive energies; they also preserve our willpower. Habits are an effective long-term strategy for conserving our willpower. They don’t require the prefrontal cortex to decide, which would erode our willpower through decision fatigue. In the case of habits, the decision was made a long time ago, and now the decision is automated. Our basal ganglia, unfettered by conscious thought, execute the routine. Routines feel good because they conserve our mental energies. They leave us more willpower to overcome temptation and make tough decisions.
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