“The easier a behavior is to do, the more likely the behavior will become a habit.” BJ Fogg
It is counterintuitive, but small commitments are better than 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 obligations cause 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 a lot easier to create an unbroken chain of X’s in your habit tracker. Make the habit so small that even on your worse day, you’ll have enough willpower to do it. Repetition automates good habits, making them our default behavior. Small commitments also provide sustained motivation. Pep talks and motivational speeches produce a momentary sugar rush of inspiration. Progress produces enduring motivation. It also develops our self-esteem. Study after study has shown that workers maintain their motivation toward their work when they feel they are making progress. Small, consistent steps will get you there faster than huge sporadic ones.
Each small win inspires us to go for the next in a positive reinforcing loop. 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 as reliable as willpower for developing habits, 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 requires some combination of motivation and willpower. The more motivated we are, the less willpower we’ll need. As the behavior becomes 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. Decision fatigue drains our resolve, but you aren’t struggling with a decision in the case of habits. You are responding to a contextual cue. No decision, no decision fatigue.
Creating an unbroken chain of X’s in your habit tracker is the fastest way to create a habit. Many people will scoff at the effectiveness of a five-minute workout, but it is infinitely better than doing nothing. If it develops into a habit, you have something that matters — habits, big or small, matter. Every time you exercise, you reinforce the habit and cast another vote for a person who exercises regularly. Every workout is another small win that will contribute to your self-esteem.
The reason habits matter should be obvious. Habits are behaviors we perform every day. If you read for five minutes each day, you would read approximately ten books a year. That is more than double the median number of books the average American read last year. That is ten more books than the 27% of Americans admitted to not reading a single book in the past year.[i]
Assuming you were never motivated to read more than five minutes each day, in ten years, you would still have read 100 books and amassed a small library. We overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year. Patience and persistence allow us to accomplish much more than the people always chasing quick results. If more people exercised patience and perseverance, they would realize how powerful habits are. Tony Robbins says, “It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.”
Habits channel the power of persistence. It is a shame more people don’t read. Reading is a superpower because if you can read, you can solve almost any problem. One book can change your life and save years of frustration. Everyone has something they want to learn more about, and books are still the best way to learn about any subject. So why do you think people don’t read more? Nearly all of us know how to read, so it isn’t a lack of ability. I believe mental exhaustion is to blame.
We are all a little lazy, but we often attribute laziness to inaction when subjective fatigue is to blame. Non-readers don’t read because they evaluate the time commitment and become overwhelmed. They convince themselves they will never have enough time to finish, so they never start. “The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control. And when people exhaust their self-control, what they’re exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure. In other words, they’re exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change. So, when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that’s just flat wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: Change is hard because people wear themselves out. And that’s the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” [ii] Chip Heath
[i] Erin Blakemore, 27 Percent of U.S. Adults Didn’t Read a Single Book Last YearSMITHSONIANMAG.COM, OCTOBER 23, 2015.
[ii] Chip Heath, and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Crown Business; 1st edition (February 16, 2010).