I am a big fan of self-improvement. I like to experiment with different approaches to improving different areas of my life, as well as read books on the subject. Not too long ago I read through Tim Ferriss’s new book Tools of Titans. The massive tome is essentially a compilation of a bunch of interviews with people that he has learned from over the years on the topics of health, wealth, and wisdom. While the contents were a little hit and miss for me, it was still a very interesting and enjoyable read. There was one excerpt in particular where one of the interviewees mentioned the idea of doing just one push-up before bed (I may be remembering this entirely inaccurately, but I don’t feel like spending the next hour finding it in that giant book). The point was that simply starting to do the smallest possible change can be a huge catalyst for positive improvement of a larger scope.
The concept stuck with me, and is a good reminder that a small positive change that you actually do consistently is better than a large change that you can’t sustain. Perhaps a guiding question for this kind of self-improvement is this:
What is a change I could make that is so small, I would never choose to skip it?
Maybe an example will make it more concrete. Say you want to try to exercise more, so you decide that you are going to run three times a week. After a couple weeks, you find yourself not quite reaching your goal. You remember that you should go for a run, but think to yourself, “I really don’t feel like doing that right now.” As a result, the initiative fizzles out and you find yourself back where you started. The problem was that the change was large enough that you felt enough resistance to make want to skip it.
Now suppose instead you decided you were going to do 10 push-ups before going to bed. Again, you come across days where you don’t really feel like doing it, but this time, a different thought will pop into your head: “Oh, well it only takes about 15 seconds, it’ll be over before I know it.” The change requires so little effort, that you are much more likely to form a consistent habit.
Am I proposing that people shouldn’t try to make large positive changes in their life? Absolutely not! But looking for opportunities to inject positive change into your lifestyle in such a way that it doesn’t require much effort or elicit much inner resistance can help you form extremely consistent habits. And here’s the kicker: the small changes are often the launching pad for big changes. If you are doing 10 push-ups every night, you might think to yourself, “what if I did 15 push-ups instead? It is hardly any more.” Because you’ve already formed a habit, it no longer requires effort and willpower to do the 10 push-ups. So now that effort and willpower can be redirected to just increasing the habit incrementally.
But what kinds of small changes are worth making? One approach is to pick an area where you want to see improvement, and then ask that guiding question: “what is a change I could make that is so small, I would never choose to skip it?” And don’t worry, you can calibrate it as you go. If you find that you are consciously skipping it, you know that you need to make the change even smaller.
Here are some examples of habits that I have adopted that require low enough effort that I am able to execute on them with extreme consistency:
15 Sit-ups and 15 Push-ups Before Bed
This one comes straight from my example, and is also a good example of how a tiny habit can grow. When I started out, the goal was to just do 5 push-ups before bed. I quickly realized that there was no resistance to me doing this, so I decided to increase it to 10 push-ups. After a little while I thought, “it would be really easy to add in sit-ups as well,” and I changed to doing 10 of each. Later a similar thought came of how it wouldn’t be much harder to do 15 of each, and I have been doing that ever since. Now, are 15 push-ups and 15 sit-ups going to do wonders for my physical physique? Probably not. But it isn’t going to hurt, and it definitely sounds more substantial when you consider that it is 5475 push-ups and sit-ups each over the course of a year. And who knows, maybe pretty soon here I’ll decide to increase it to 20,,,
Taking the Stairs at Work
I work on the sixth floor of a building in downtown Denver. Every day, I used to take the elevator up to my floor. One day I thought to myself, how hard/annoying would it be for me to take the stairs? The answer was, “not very hard and not very annoying.” Walking up six flights of stairs is just enough to get my heart rate going, and then I go to my desk all of a minute later than if I had taken the elevator. Neither the time lost nor the physical exertion is severe enough for me to skip it, so I have now done it consistently for all of 2017. Again, a small change, but one that is easy for me to do and will result in 1300+ flights of stairs climbed each year.
Reading on My Commute
I use the city light rail to commute to work each day, with the ride being a half hour in each direction. Since that time was going to be lost regardless of what I did, I figured it would be a good opportunity to start reading more (mostly non-fiction, see my favorites from last year here). In the two years since I started that simple habit, I have effortlessly read well over 100 books. Without much strong discipline required (I’m there for a half hour whether I like it or not), I am able to get a guaranteed 5 hours of reading every week. Just like the other changes, there was no massive lifestyle overhaul required; simply a conscious use of an unused block of time.
As I have experimented and thought about these micro-changes, it has reminded me how the key to any kind of self-improvement is consistency. New Year’s resolutions come and fail every year, and it is often simply because the desired change is too large. So, reader of this post… what tiny changes could you start in your life today? With proper scoping it can be effortless to get started, and it will sure feel good when you have a long streak of consistent behavior under your belt.