From tiny steps to big habits

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Want to develop a regular writing habit? Research from Stanford University says the best way is to start small.

Tiny habits programme

I recently wrote about Kaizen Theory – an approach to goal setting based on taking small steps. I was interested to hear that behaviour change research from Stanford University supports this idea and offers practical advice to develop habits.

B J Fogg is interested in how habits become embedded in our lives. He believes the more you have to remember to do something the more likely you’ll talk yourself out of doing it. Basically, the strength of a habit is defined by the size of the decision involved. He says:

“So if you’re deciding ‘yeah, I’m going to go to the gym today’ it’s a pretty good indication it’s not a habit. Habits are things you do without deciding.”

He has developed the Tiny Habits Programme which has two foundations for turning goals into regular habits:

  • Set a tiny goal
  • Attach it to a behaviour already done

B J Fogg uses the example of flossing your teeth. We know about the benefits of flossing but the reality of flossing all your teeth every single day seems too much for many people. He recommends flossing one tooth immediately after brushing.

Because brushing your teeth is a habit created in childhood and performed regularly it’s the perfect trigger for flossing. By starting with one tooth, it becomes easier to floss more teeth.

Develop a writing habit

Being a clean teeth freak I already have a solid flossing habit, but when I looked at my other habits I found this approach worked. For example, I do my physio exercises when I boil the kettle for a cup of tea. It takes around 30 seconds – a time so small I can’t talk myself out of it. Luckily I drink enough tea to hit my repetition target by lunchtime.

The big habit for me to crack was writing regularly. Setting it as a New Year resolution didn’t help. Joining a writing group and working towards competitions gave me deadlines and a good kick up the ass but I still I wrote in fits and starts. However, for the past nine months I have written pretty much every day.

I made a goal to write first thing in the morning. Now when my alarm goes off, I throw on my clothes, grab an apple and a cup of tea, and I’m at my desk in less than five minutes. The trigger for my writing is the alarm going off. I might snooze it every so often to trade sleep for writing, but the point is that I don’t get up and do anything else but write.

Writing in the morning is my new normal. If I’m at home that’s what I do – weekday or weekend. I have days off, especially if I have early meetings, am away for the weekend or have visitors staying, but I now have a regular writing habit.

Make writing your normal

Once you’ve identified a tiny habit and attached it to an existing behaviour you need to grow it into a bigger habit.

Let’s say your goal is to write five minutes every day after eating your lunch. For the first week you just do your five minutes each day. At the end of that week you’ve written for 25 minutes. You now need to increase the time, perhaps adding another minute each day, so by the end of the second week you’re writing for 10 minutes each day, by the third 15 minutes.

You might like to grow your daily five minutes into a three hour writing habit, but you need to stay realistic. This will stop the overwhelm that comes with having large goals. Also, at some point you’ll hit the limit of how long you can write for – if you work in an open plan office with fixed lunch breaks it might be half an hour. Set 30 minutes as your goal and work towards it over a period of several weeks.

As with all changes in behaviour it helps if you log your progress, you also need to reward yourself each time you do the habit and you allow yourself to slip up. Some days you’ll need to go to meetings or go to the pub with your colleagues but hopefully the days you don’t write will be the exception rather than the rule.

Seven steps to habit success

  1. Identify a habit
  2. Set yourself a tiny goal
  3. Attach it to an existing behaviour
  4. Increase the habit to a realistic level
  5. Log your writing to track your progress
  6. Reward yourself each time you do it
  7. Don’t beat yourself up when you miss a day

Find out more about B J Fogg on his website or register to do his Tiny Habits Programme. I’m signed up next week and will let you know how it goes.

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.