What Are Micro Habits—And Do They Work?

Often, we have these grand resolutions. We want to lose weight. We want to read more. We want to start our own business. But somehow, it never happens.

This is where micro habits come in. By setting the bar incredibly low, we finally stop procrastinating.

Learn why large goals can paralyze us, which types of micro habits there are, and how to best implement them.

Definition: What Are Micro Habits?

Micro habits are things that you do every day to improve yourself. But you intentionally keep the effort low. This is to increase adherence. You are more likely to execute on the desired behavior if it hardly requires any willpower.

For example, you might agree with yourself to read just one paragraph in a business book every day. This commitment is so ridiculously low that you can easily see it through, even on days when you don’t feel like studying.

Most people will sneeze at an effort that tiny. They would rather read 10 or 20 pages a day and blaze through a new book each month. Or so they think. Because in reality, almost nobody goes through with that plan.

I call this the “New Year’s resolution fallacy.” You want too much too quickly. But once that initial enthusiasm wears off, you’ll realize how unsustainable your quota is. You will abandon the new behavior and effectively have achieved nothing.

But if you stay with your one-paragraph-a-day rule, in a few years, you will have read multiple business classics and internalized that valuable knowledge. That knowledge will translate into better decisions and ultimately greater financial gains.

That is the power of micro habits — by keeping them small, they actually get done.

The concept of micro habits has been around forever. But in recent times, it was two authors who revived the idea. James Clear published Atomic Habits in 2018, and at the end of 2019, BJ Fogg followed suit with his book Tiny Habits. Both authors push the idea that instead of “heroic efforts,” you should shoot for tiny, manageable changes. They are right.

Static vs. Dynamic vs. Flexible

There are three important distinctions when it comes to micro habits — there are static, dynamic, and flexible micro habits.

Static Micro Habits

Static micro habits don’t change. They are simple behavior changes, that once implemented, just need to be repeated.

For example, drinking a glass of water in the morning right after waking up is a static micro habit. You drink that glass of water to make sure you are properly hydrated. But you don’t try to build the habit up over time. There is no point in drinking 5 or 10 glasses of water in the morning.

Dynamic Micro Habits

With dynamic micro habits, there is a build-up. You start very small, but then over time gradually improve that effort.

For example, you might start doing a push-up every day. That is obviously a very low effort in terms of working out, and thus, easy to stick with. But once you have established this habit — maybe after two to three weeks — you then go up to two push-ups a day. You give it another few weeks, then increase to three daily push-ups. And so on.

Dynamic micro habits are more problematic than static micro habits. With a static micro habit, there is no room for interpretation. You know exactly what you need to do. The quota stays the same every day.

With dynamic micro habits, it’s much easier to fool yourself. You might start out very low, as you should. But then you increase the quota too rapidly because you want to see gains quickly. After one week of doing a daily push-up, you go up to doing 15 daily push-ups. Now you are back to the “New Year’s resolution fallacy” — too much too quickly.

With dynamic micro habits, you must consciously pace yourself. Before you think about increasing a habit, ask yourself, “Does this new baseline feel as effortless as my old baseline, when I started it?” If the answer is “Yes,” proceed. But if there is the slightest hint of a doubt, give it some more time. Let your current micro habit solidify some more before you increase the quota.

Flexible Micro Habits

There is a third type of micro habit — the flexible micro habit. It combines features of both the static and the dynamic micro habit.

Here, you define a very low minimum quota, e.g., doing one push-up a day. But that doesn’t you can’t only do one push-up. If you feel like it, do 20. If you are bursting with energy, do 100. But the next day, there is no obligation to keep that number up. If you only do one push-up tomorrow, you are fine.

The huge advantage of flexible micro habits is that they allow for fluctuations in available time and energy. Some days you feel invincible, and then you max out. But other days, you feel crawling under a rock and dying. Then you do the bare minimum.

But you still do it. You don’t break the chain. That is key. Because if you start taking days off, you get in the habit of not doing the thing. And then, even when a good day comes around, you will let it pass by.

That is the advantage of flexible micro habits — they make sure you are ready.

Examples of Micro Habits

Here are some ideas for static micro habits:

  • Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning
  • Take a cold shower
  • Always drink water instead of sugary drinks
  • Eat a serving of vegetables with every meal
  • Don’t do anything else while eating
  • Listen to a business podcast while doing the dishes
  • Look at your bank account
  • Floss
  • Go to bed at the same time every night
  • Read the last few minutes before going to bed

Here are some ideas for dynamic/flexible micro habits:

  • Do one push-up
  • Do one pull-up
  • Do one plank
  • Meditate for one minute
  • Throw one thing away
  • Write a sentence for your novel
  • Read a paragraph in a business book
  • Compliment an attractive stranger
  • Clean your apartment for 2 minutes

Why Large Quotas Will Paralyze You

When you start with a large quota habit, you are practically guaranteed to fail.

From 0 to 100

If you are currently sitting on your couch each night, watching Netflix, and then suddenly decide, “I will join the gym tomorrow and train each day,” I can tell you exactly how this will go. You will keep it up for a month or two (if that long), and then be back to the couch.

I used to work in the fitness industry, and we would laugh about this with each other. “Look at all these lemmings signing their one-year contracts in January, only to be never seen again by mid-February.” It sounds mean, but it was a coping mechanism. You can only observe so much blindness in people before you either get angry or start making fun of it.

And it’s not just your fitness. It’s everything. It’s your partner starting a blog and committing to posting twice a week, and then abandoning the project after two weeks. It’s your colleague getting up at 6:30 am to meditate for an hour before work, only to sleep in again next week. It’s your friend exclaiming, “I will talk to 10 girls tonight!” but then getting wasted yet again.

Why We Behave So Irrationally

If you look at this from the outside, you can’t help but notice how irrational these behaviors are (just like me and my fellow fitness workers kept shaking our heads). But still, people cling to this folly. Why is that?

The base problem is that we are high. When we start an exciting new project, we are high on enthusiasm. I mean this literally. This “new project” enthusiasm works similarly to a drug like cocaine. You overestimate what you can do. Everything seems exciting, splendid, and possible. The world is your oyster.

Essentially, you can’t think straight anymore. Projects that would clearly register as crackpot ideas if you observed them in other people now seem like a grand idea to you.

To make matters worse, there is another powerful emotion clouding your judgment — greed. We hate to wait for results that might be years in the making. We want results, and we want them yesterday. So, driven by our greed, we bite off more than we can chew. We do these mega sessions at the gym. We practice the guitar for 5 hours a day (when we never did so before). We commit to studying for our degree 10 hours a day, to get in half the time.

Again — everybody in their right mind would see that this is not sustainable. But we don’t see it in ourselves. We are out of our minds.

Now, this is not just me being overdramatic. I coach people to achieve their goals for a living. As a result, I have had these discussions hundreds of times. I have seen people getting carried away by their enthusiasm and their greed again and again. We are all prone to these follies (myself included).

“But I know this one guy …”

I have also heard the same couple of justifications again and again, first and foremost the following — “But I know this one guy who changed his life overnight. He went from 0 to 100, and now he is a billionaire / a pro athlete / a rockstar.”

I have a couple of responses to that.

First, how well do you know this magic person really? Have you spent several weeks with them? Have you seen them operate on a day-to-day basis? Have seen them under pressure, responding to a crisis? Finally, do you truly know their finances, as in have you seen their bank accounts?

In 9 out of 10 instances, it turns out you don’t really know that person. You probably only know the facade they present to the world on their Instagram account. You have no idea what is true about this person, how competent they really are, and — if they are — how they went about acquiring that competency.

For example, people who are now propagating the “0 to 100” approach often have forgotten how small they actually started. Many of them developed their skills at a very young age. They simply don’t remember practicing the guitar for 15 minutes a day in the beginning, not for 6 hours, as they do now.

Also, a lot of people have no interest in telling you about their slow beginnings. They would much rather sell you the narrative of them being these ultra-driven hustler types. It makes them feel stronger and better than everybody else when most people visibly struggle with willpower.

To be clear — I am not saying that you can become a world-class athlete by practicing twice a week or that you can become filthy rich by working for four hours per week. Of course, you need to hustle. Of course, you need to outwork everybody else. But this is not where you start. You start small, with microhabits. Then you gradually expand your pain tolerance, until working for hours on end each day starts to feel easy (or at least tolerable).

The “Dream Big” Fallacy

There is one last reason why we are so fixated on large quota habits and that is for our cultural conditioning in the West, but particularly in the US. We are encouraged to “dream big,” overcome our limiting beliefs, and go for gold. Bigger is better, smaller is for losers.

A common variation of this is the “shoot for the moon and if you miss, you will land among the stars” logic. By aiming high, you will get further than if you aimed low — or so the argument goes. But in truth, it doesn’t do anything for you. Your lofty goal is so abstract and disconnected from your current life, you just ignore it. It’s as real as some SciFi movie that you saw last weekend — cool to look at, but you can’t take it seriously.

Or worse, yet, you do take it seriously and it paralyzes you. You look at where your life is at right now and then you look at where you want to go, and inevitably, you realize it would indeed take supersonic space travel to get there. So, you don’t even try. 

To be clear — I am not advocating for making peace with the status quo. If you know my content, you know I am about everything but the status quo. But to achieve your unusual goals, you need to start small. You need to gradually build up your willpower muscle over a long time. Put differently — you must put massive amounts of work in to get extraordinary results, but you must start extremely small to develop that work capacity. It’s not as sexy or as easy a message as “Dream big!” but it’s what actually works.

How To Go About Implementing Micro Habits

Here is a step-by-step guide to succeed with micro habits.

1. Choose the Right Type of Micro Habit

As we saw, there are three types of micro habits:

  • Static micro habits
  • Dynamic micro habits
  • Flexible micro habits

You must choose the right type, depending on what you want to accomplish.

If you want to improve your hydration, first thing in the morning, drink a glass of water. That is a static micro habit. You introduce it once, then forget about it. There is no need to keep tinkering with it.

If you are tackling an ambitious goal, then you probably want to go with a dynamic micro habit. For example, if you want to write a novel, write one sentence each day for a week. Then you go up to two sentences during week 2. Then 3 sentences during week 3. And so on.

This one is best if your level of conviction is very high. There is no doubt in your mind that outcome X must be accomplished. You just struggle with the execution. Dynamic micro habits provide the solution.

If a certain habit is a nice-to-have but not a must-have (or if you are already maxed out with other projects), go with the flexible approach. On good days, you invest. On bad days, you do the bare minimum. This way, you are ready to invest more when the next good day comes around.

2. Start Ridiculously Low

The wording I always use with micro habits is “ridiculously low.” Start with an effort that is so low, it is embarrassing for you to talk about it. You don’t want to mention your quota to others because you assume others will think you a weirdo or a loser. Only then have you probably set the bar low enough.

3. Don’t Get Sidetracked

It is very easy to get sidetracked with micro habits. You start doing one push-up a day and then talk to your friend who goes to the gym every day for two hours. You start wondering, “Maybe I should do more?”

This is a mistake.

First, there is a good chance that your friend won’t be going to the gym anymore in 2–3 months from now. If you keep up your push-up habit (and very gradually increase it), you will come out on top.

Second, your friend might simply be further along the journey. They might have started with a very low effort years ago and then very slowly worked their way up to their current, extraordinary fitness routine. That is to be applauded of course. They went about it the right way and now they are reaping the results.

But this is not the place that you are in (not yet). You must start small, like they did back then. You can’t skip to the finish line.

Finally, understand that what people say they do and what they actually do are often two very different things. It is gratifying to claim, “I work out six times a week,” or, “I make 7 figures a year.” But is that really the truth?

I might sound like a cynic, but most people are prone to over-exaggeration bordering on flat-out lying. 80% of the very impressive feats you hear and read about every day (especially on social media) are probably not true. Keep that in mind when comparing yourself to others. Stay the course and stay with your micro habits.

4. Increase Your Quota

This point is specifically about dynamic micro habits, aka micro habits that you slowly build out over time.

For example, you might start with publishing one Instagram reel per month, then go up to two per month, one per week, etc. Eventually, you are recording an Instagram reel every day, amassing tens of thousands of followers for your personal brand in the process.

But the danger is with the spacing. People start small because they understand it’s the right thing to do. But then, over time, they grow impatient. They keep increasing the quota too rapidly. The habit goes from feeling “ridiculously easy” to “manageable” to “overwhelming.” The result — they stop.

How do you know if you can handle the new, increased quota? Do a stress test. For example, on purpose, don’t get enough sleep. Wake up after 5 hours and see if you can still go through with the new quota the next day. If it sucks, but it gets done, and there was not too much resistance, you are good to go. But if it was a close call or you even failed the habit, go back to your old quota. You are not ready to go up yet.

5. Start With One Micro Habit, Not Several

The whole point of micro habits is to make things easy on yourself. By lowering the bar, you are more likely to go through with the new behavior.

However, if you simultaneously add 10 micro habits, then that defeats the point. Each micro habit by itself might be tiny, but in sum, they are a real challenge. The result — you stop doing them soon.

This is another variation of our greed playing tricks on us. We want too much too quickly and that never works.

So, do the smart, boring thing. Start with one micro habit and let it solidify for several weeks. Only then do you add another micro habit.

6. Link Behaviors

It is a good idea to link a new behavior to an already-established behavior.

For example, you might do a pull-up every time you come back from the bathroom. Or you might listen to a podcast every time you do the dishes. Or you might read a paragraph in a business book right after waking up.

This type of anchoring helps with decision fatigue. You don’t need to decide anew every day when you will execute the new behavior. It is already decided.

In the same vein, you can also link negative with positive behaviors, to break the bad habit. For example, to check your social media, you must first do 5 push-ups. This might lead to either checking your social media less or getting really fit — both significant improvements.

7. Track Your Progress

Many people don’t track their micro habits. They think they are so insignificant, it’s not worth the effort. After all, the tracking might take just as long as the actual execution of the habit.

That is a mistake.

First, micro habits compound over time. Yes, reading a paragraph in a business book per day might seem like nothing. But over 5 or 10 years, you will have finished numerous, potentially life-changing books. Small steps still result in progress. And that progress is worth tracking.

Second, many micro habits expand over time (what I call dynamic micro habits). You might start with one pull-up a day, but after a few years, you are doing 20 pull-ups a day. Your original micro habit turned transformed you into a V-shaped beast. But again, it will only do so reliably if you track your progress.

8. Create Accountability

One of the best ways to build new habits is to create accountability. You need someone looking over your shoulder, to hold you responsible.

This is not an empty claim. Studies have shown again and again that when you must report to somebody, you are more likely to do what you said you would do.

For example, a study by The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) found that if you commit to ongoing accountability meetings with a person, your chances of achieving your goal go up to 95 percent. It becomes virtually impossible to fail.

This other person could be a friend that you partner up with. It could be a virtual accountability buddy. It could be a coach that you pay.

Whoever it is, establish a process. For example, each day by a certain time, you must send them a message stating, “Did my 5 push-ups today.” If that message doesn’t come, they must call you to find out what the problem is. In essence, it must become virtually impossible for you to weasel out of your commitment.

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