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Think Small: The Power of Micro-habits

Think big! We’ve all heard that one before, right? While those two words may be meant to inspire someone, the reality of creating sustainable life changes is often the opposite: thinking small.

Specifically, I’m referring to the power of micro-habits.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, micro-habits are small, incremental changes that add up to significant results. Essentially, these slight modifications disrupt the negative habit patterns that are standing in the way of our progress.

We, meaning all of us humans, are habit-powered machines. Each day approximately half of all our actions and decisions are made on a subconscious level. Put simply, we are on autopilot while our super-computer brain executes the commands we have programmed into it over time. Without getting too far into the weeds, a straightforward understanding of this is that the brain is always attempting to create efficiency by automating repetitive tasks to minimize wasted energy and divert brain power to the tasks we need the most focus on. When our brain recognizes behavior patterns repeating over time, it steps in and says, “I got this; from now on, you worry about something else.” For example, when was the last time you gave a lot of thought to the process of brushing your teeth or tying your shoes? It’s automatic behavior. That’s the same reason that when we’re heading out of the house in the morning, we may stop to think: did I put deodorant on (or turn the stove off, feed the dog, unplug the iron, etc.)? Simply put, a lot of daily cruise control is going on in our minds.

Think about it like this: the house we live in today is built from the bricks of all of our yesterdays. A summary of the process could be choices becoming actions, actions becoming habits, and habits becoming lifestyles. It’s important to note this cycle is an equal opportunity for positive or negative habits. Our subconscious brain does not care one way or the other about the outcome of the habit in our lives; that’s a different department. It only seeks to eliminate the conscious thought process of repetitive actions, ensuring we do not have ‘analysis paralysis’ in the face of endless daily mundane decisions.

Habits are as simple as they are powerful, and thanks to some neurological research at MIT back in the 90s, we clearly understand how they operate in our minds. Essentially, it’s a 3-part loop: cue, routine, reward. An easy example would be you’re feeling bored (cue), so you go to the kitchen to find a snack (routine), and you get the taste enjoyment of the snack (reward). Virtually every habit we have can be dissected into those three parts. Just like the Magic Eraser we use in the kitchen: surprisingly simple but persistently powerful.

Habits are also very sticky. Once established, the brain wants to continue to run that learned program. This stickiness is why we run into trouble when it comes time to make changes and turn over a new leaf in areas we are not happy with.

We need to look no further than failed New Year’s resolutions for examples of habits overpowering our wish to change our behavior. The wish is free; the results cost extra. The cost of change is a strategic approach and alternate method to how we approach implementing the changes in our life that deliver the results we aspire to. Part of the reason that so many New Year’s resolutions fail is that they are not realistic and sustainable.

For example, if someone has not exercised in years and their goal on January 1st is to run 4 miles a day, five days a week, for the next 12 months, it’s statistically improbable that will happen. As the quote goes, overnight success often takes a long time, and small incremental success is the foundation on which significant results are built.

A wish with a plan is a goal, and this is where micro-habits can be an enormously powerful tool in selectively re-writing the code that we have slowly and steadily programmed into our brains.

Below is a starting list of ideas of micro-habits for some of the common goals that so many of us have pursued or are currently working on. This shortlist is the tip of the iceberg to show the concept of starting small and letting the routine take shape. Remember that healthy habits are built the same way as bad ones: lots of practice!

I need more time in the day…

  • Take 5 minutes in the morning to write a list of your top 3 priorities for the day and cross them off when you finish them. Small successes in managing your time increase personal accountability and create the habit of being more mindful of task focus.

  • Set a screen time alert on your phone to inform you when you’ve reached an hour. In 2022 the average American spent 3.5 hours on their phone daily; that’s 24 hours a week waiting to be reclaimed!

I need to get better at keeping in touch with friends…

  • Go through your phone contacts or address book once a week and list three people you will call, text, or write to that week that you have not spoken to in a while.

I want to lose a few pounds…

  • Stop adding sugar to your coffee or tea.

  • Move all the snacks and junk food to a different place in your house that is more challenging to get to (maybe in a storage container in a basement closet). Wandering into the kitchen and grabbing something is a significant part of the typical habit routine of overeating.

I want to exercise more…

  • If you are already doing an activity, add 10 minutes a session to it.

  • If you want to start exercising, start with a 5-minute walk per day (and put it on your daily list of priorities!)

  • When faced with an escalator or stairs, take the stairs.

  • Take the parking space as far from the store as possible.

I need to get more sleep…

  • Whatever time you usually start getting ready for bed, set a time or your phone alarm 20 minutes earlier and increase by 10 minutes a week until you get into bed a full hour earlier (or whatever other sleep goal you have).

  • Keep off your phone for at least an hour before that planned bedtime.

  • At the start of each week, use a calendar page to write down the time you want to go to bed each night, and when you are getting into bed, write down the actual time. That way, you can end each day with another success in achieving a goal for the day!


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