I remember when reaching my goals felt like a lottery.
Maybe it's my turn. Maybe I'll stay motivated this time.
All of the books and articles I read told me if I wanted to succeed in my goals, I just had to want it more. If I failed, it was because I didn't have enough desire. To show and ignite my desire, they said, I needed my goals to be like bling--the bigger and shinier the better. The way to success was a known fact: you must set big goals because if they're too small, they won't challenge and motivate you enough to succeed.
This was the story I was told my whole life. This is the story I believed and lived. But everything changed on December 28, 2012. I will never forget that day.
A Motivation Meltdown Leads to Something New
In late 2012, I was in the usual state of mind. I looked back on the year and said, "Oops." It wasn't awful, but it was discouraging to see another year go by without much progress. To be more specific, I wanted to exercise more than twice a month.
Ugh, I'm not going to set a New Year's Resolution. I'll just exercise for 30 minutes now and try to do that every day.
Slouched on my bed, I felt lethargic and defeated already. I knew too much. I knew how it ended: I'd be lucky to maintain this goal for two weeks. Even worse, I couldn't get myself to do it then and there. I was failing to start my first 30 minute workout.
Sometimes our best moments come out of our worst moments, and little did I know, that was about to happen to me. I saw the problem, but I still didn't understand it or have a solution, so I got desperate.
Quite randomly, I tried a problem solving technique I had recently read about in a book called Thinkertoys. The technique is called False Faces, in which you consider the opposite of what you're currently thinking about. The idea is to open your mind to the whole spectrum of possibilities rather than focusing on one end of it.
My idea: do a big, scary 30-minute workout (fear is relative)
What's the opposite of my scary workout? How about doing just one push-up? Wait... what?! One push-up? That's worse than giving up! That's embarrassing. Am I going to go up to a group of ladies and say, "Guess who can do a push-up?" No way. Sheesh, Thinkertoys, your technique didn't work!
So I sat. Motionless. Tired. Defeated. I still wanted that 30 minutes of exercise, but I just couldn't do it. It was as if the entire weight of who I wanted to become rested upon my ability to exercise in that moment, and need I remind you that I hadn't been working out, so I couldn't bear much weight!
Meanwhile, this one push-up idea kept pestering me. Though unwelcome, it invaded my mind with this thought: well, it is better than nothing. Finally, I caved. I conceded my 30-minute workout as lost and accepted my lame push-up as better than zero.
It turned out to be a lot better than zero.
A Spark Ignites
Fire is a fascinating thing, isn't it? A small, humble spark can grow into raging inferno, and faster than you'd think.
I got down into push-up position for my lousy, laughable goal. Before I even lowered my chest to the floor, I paused briefly at the thought that struck me: This is exactly the way I would start a 30-minute workout. Interesting.
I got down and did one push-up. Since I was already in position, I decided to do a few more. I stood up.
My complexion was decidedly redder from increased blood flow. I felt my heart beat faster. I was slowly coming to life, and decided to do another push-up (or seven). I still didn't feel like a superstar, mind you, and so I necessarily gave myself additional small goals to bring my push-up count higher and higher. Then I aimed for one pull-up, and did many more in the same fashion.
I had exercised 20 minutes. Then, as if I had reached the boss at the end of a video game level, I faced the idea of a 10 minute ab-ripping program. It would be the perfect endcap, but I didn't want to do it. I negotiated.
I'll just get out my mat and set it down. Okay.
Now, I'll just sit on it. Done.
I'll simply navigate to an ab video. Alright.
You get the idea. My abs were a raging inferno 10 minutes later. So was my brain, as I had just exercised for 30 minutes. I had accomplished the goal that I thought was impossible in my state. I learned two things that day.
- Low or no motivation can be overcome with strategy
- Small goals don't hold us back, they spark us to bigger things
Leveraging A Superpower
As a kid, I had always wanted to fly. I would wear a cape and jump off of our couch, pretending I was superman, secretly hoping gravity would forget about me for just a moment. I have no idea why, but my catchphrase as I jumped was, "Supermaaaan, peanut butter!" I don't see the connection, but when you're young, anything goes. I loved peanut butter.
After experiencing the power of small steps, I felt as if I had found a real, adult superpower. I realized that by only aiming for big intimidating goals my entire life I was ironically playing small. I was chronically losing big instead of winning small and stacking those wins.
When a superhero receives a power, the first question he'll ask himself is, "Okay, now what do I do with this?"
The day after my one push-up experiment, I wrote an article titled "The One Push-up Challenge." Over the next six months, just as I challenged my readers, I did at least one push-up a day. I rarely only did only one push-up, but it was satisfying to get that easy win on tough days. I remember a couple of occasions of flipping over onto my stomach in my bed to do one push-up just before I fell asleep.
What happened after six months? I started going to the gym three days a week. My resistance to exercising had decreased so much that the gym no longer intimidated me. I wondered why this was happening and researched furiously. What I found was exciting.
I realized I had merged two superpowers. Not only was I using small steps to achieve more, but by stringing them together daily, I was forming a habit. This wasn't a normal habit though. People don't typically do this to form habits. This was something else. It was a mini habit!
The Mini Habit Revolution
It was around the time I began going to the gym consistently that I started to grasp the power of combining small steps and consistency. While I hadn't yet had a name for this technique, I immediately started two more of these small daily goals: read two pages in a book per day and write 50 words per day.
I began reading 10x more books. My writing output quadrupled, allowing me to guest post weekly, and my blog subscribers rocketed from 440 (after 2.5 years) to more than 4,500 in the next six months. This strategy was the gift that wouldn't stop giving, and it was about to give me more than I could have imagined.
At this point, I didn't have a choice. I had to share what I'd learned with as many people as possible. Luckily, I was a writer, I had built a reasonable readership through my blog, and I had been actively thinking about a book topic to write about. It was an easy decision.
The title of my book was Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results. I realized that these were miniature versions of normal goals and habits, and while smaller than usual, they sure seemed to bring people better results (and not just me, as I had gotten feedback from others who had succeeded with The One Push-up Challenge).
I wrote the book using my 50-words-per-day mini habit, and released it on December 22, 2013, almost exactly a year after I did that first push-up. Since then, Mini Habits has become an international bestselling phenomenon, selling more than 100,000 copies worldwide across 12 languages. It is among the highest-rated habit books in the marketplace and consistently generates success stories that sound a lot like the one I just told you.
I write this two years after the book release and three years after I did that first push-up. I still frequent the gym, write every day, and read far more books than I used to read. Unlike a 21- or 30-day challenge, these habits can last a lifetime because they change the brain. Unlike traditional habit formation advice, anyone can start and succeed with a mini habit. The barrier to entry is so low that the lazy, depressed, defeated, and unmotivated can still make real, meaningful progress immediately.
That's the story of how one push-up changed my life, and now thousands more have done it. Many authors will talk about their new book for a few months after launch and then move on to the next one. Not me. I will write more books, but I will never stop talking about Mini Habits, because it's the most powerful and effective behavior change strategy in the world.
To get started, choose one to four mini habits to do every day. They can be anything from pulling one weed in your garden per day, to meditating for one minute per day, to dancing to one song per day. In time, you'll see the power of consistency change your brain. And unlike "regular goals," mini habits have no ceiling. You can always do more than your mini requirement if you feel motivated.