The Science of Starting Small

In an effort to think small, focusing on a single task feels incredibly limiting. But breaking down a large task in to small wins, you're able to finish quicker and be more productive.
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Starting positive habits and breaking bad ones are two of the oldest and most challenging practices for people. In fact, society seems to be on even more of a habit kick lately, evidenced by the popularity of Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit, and Making Habits, Breaking Habits, by Jeremy Dean. The science and research of habit change and formation is growing rapidly, as people look for ways to gain that crucial edge in an ever-competing world.

Every person has attempted to start a new habit and failed at some point in their life. There are a myriad of reasons why, but one of the biggest reasons we struggle is because our habits are too audacious. There are times we need to establish a big, hairy, audacious goal, or BHAG. But in the case of proclaiming "I want to lose 50 pounds!" or "I'm going to wake up at 5 a.m. every day!" many people end up right where they started.


Maybe it's precisely because we're thinking too big. Our failure often lies in the fact we're not thinking small enough.

One Is Better Than Zero

Let's do a little personal research, okay? Think of the last time you worked out. Maybe today, a few days ago, or weeks. Rather than beat yourself up over it, try and channel your inner drill sergeant, pushing yourself to "drop and give me ONE!"

"Well that just sounds ridiculous," is what we say in our minds. But is it really? Consider doing simply one push up per day -- it accumulates to 365 pushups a year. Think about that for a moment. Did you do 365 pushups last year? What's more likely is that when you get down and do one, you think: "I guess I could do one more... one more... one more..." Extrapolate the number to five push ups a day, and you've done 1,825 pushups in a year. More than last year? Probably.

Change that to writing, coding, playing music, anything you can do without much preparation or equipment. If I commit to writing just one word every day, I will inevitably write more.

The takeaway is simply to start. The crazy part is the answer becomes obvious! We all know it but fail to act.

Just Start

Doug Lisle, director of research at TrueNorth Health Center, recommended this technique for a woman looking to kick her caffeine habit.

"Go get out your tea, bring it over to the sink while we are talking, and get some scissors," Lisle said. His patient laughed nervously. "I can't believe you are making me do this!"

She goes on to cut up the bags and dump the leaves down the drain. Two weeks later, she hadn't bought any more. Lisle goes on to say that too often we overcomplicate the process of change. We wait for the big inspiration, lowest of lows, a turning point, and never actually begin. Starting small help build momentum for bigger changes.

Your Goals Are Too Big, Even the Small Ones

BJ Fogg is the director of research and design at Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab. He's the guy who asked people to floss one tooth a day for a week. Like one push up, that sounds ridiculous. But Fogg emphasizes you must only floss one tooth every day for a week, and afterwards congratulate yourself. Why?

You must declare victory. Like I am so awesome, I just flossed one tooth. And I know it sounds ridiculous. But I believe that when you reinforce yourself like that, your brain will say yeah, awesome, let's do that.

Do you want to get in the habit of running? Simply put on your shoes. That's it. For five days.

Fogg calls these tiny habits and has been running thousands of tests with willing subjects. In fact, you can get in on the course by signing up for Tiny Habits. But why limit yourself to such a microscopic act? Fogg's research has shown that people who start by flossing one tooth last longer than people who floss all their teeth. Why? Because the first day you don't reach your goal, you feel sad and guilty; and those feelings snowball the same way positive feelings do. In fact, negative emotional feelings tend to elicit quicker, stronger responses than positive emotions, and also are sub-conciously given more attention.

Find Your Anchors

Fogg goes on to explain that one of the main reasons habits fail is because we're not attaching them to strong anchors. What is an anchor? An action that you take every day, no matter how simple it is. Our most powerful habits. Here are a few examples.

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Going to the bathroom
  • Opening your front door
  • Feeding your pets
  • Waking up

The key is to attach your new habit to an anchor, doing it immediately after the anchor habit. Why after? Because then you're not relying on memory, but piggybacking the automatic behavior, which is already present. It also helps if the anchor is present around the same time each day, which can make meals a little unreliable.

Another important way to strengthen your habit is to design your environment around it. If you want to exercise in the morning, set your clothes out the night before. Place the book you want to read next to the coffee maker.

Quantity is not the purpose early on. The purpose is to train your brain to recognize a pattern of action and reward.

Don't Be Intimidated

Starting a business is a fantastic goal. But the big picture of any startup business is intimidating. There's the product, marketing, hiring, and customer service, to name just a few. But once again, how small can you start? Even before you build a product?

The most basic question to ask is: "Would people pay for my product?" Don't simply ask your friends and family, which normally results in the confirmation bias, or in everyday terms, they're telling you what you want to hear. In their book Decisive, the Heath Brothers have an even simpler analogy for the confirmation bias: "No one is going to tell you that your baby is ugly."

So test your product in the market, as simple as you can make it. Eric Ries of Lean Startup fame refers to this as the Minimum Viable Product. Enough to function, but not so developed you're married to the design and structure. That way it will be easy to pivot when changes need to happen.

So instead of getting worked up over your future IPO, start with one email, one sale, one dollar. You will save lots of time, money, and build a business you know is in demand from the start.

Break It Up!

Many people get stuck in the beginning stage of habit formation, successful with a tiny habit of 10 pushups or one paragraph of writing. But we still struggle with finding the time to work out for 30 minutes or write three pages.

A recent study at Arizona State revealed that breaking up your exercise in to three 10 minute blocks can be more beneficial in lowering blood pressure than one 30-minute session. It helped keep blood pressure steady throughout the day, instead of spiking. A 2011 study by PLoS One showed the time could be even less for children, showing results with intervals as brief as 5 minutes.

The Simple Gym, a fitness and habit formation blog, designed a workout around small blocks of time during your day. Set a timer to of off every 30 minutes. When it beeps, do five pushups, or even 10! When the timer goes off the next time, do 10 squats. At the end of an eight-hour work day, you've done 80 pushups and 80 squats! This type of activity won't get you in the Olympics, but the cumulative effects of small bursts of energy throughout the day have shown to be effective in reducing muscle pain and headaches, while increasing energy and focus.

Practice Small Wins

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of Olympic champion Michael Phelps. Phelps goes through same routine of tiny habits before each training session, and before each race. Each successful accomplishment builds on itself, creating a powerful feeling of self-confidence whenever Phelps enters the pool.

Duhigg calls these small wins, and like Fogg's tiny habits, encourages readers to celebrate small wins in physical and vocal ways. Allowing yourself to appreciate these accomplishments wires your brain to expect a positive outcome.

In the health care field, researchers showed that a strategy of small wins often produced visible results in their work.

Small wins concurrently marked progress along the way and shifted attention and energies to the next areas of action ... In this regard, small wins were easily overlooked. However, their accumulation resulted in noticeable achievements, representing powerful symbolic markers of progress.

What's a small win you can celebrate each day? Duhigg suggests making your bed, citing research that correlates bed-making with better productivity, a greater sense of self, and even sticking to your budget. It what he calls a keystone habit, and though they seem small, are the building blocks of widespread change.

Do One Thing at a Time

One habit we all need to break is our addiction to multi-tasking. When we spread out our brain processes across multiple tasks, it actually takes us more time, and our performance drops. In fact, Rogers and Monsell showed (1) the effect could result in four times as many mistakes!

Multi-tasking is simply our brain creating the illusion of getting things done, because we just get a little done on lots of tasks and struggle to finish just one of them. It splits the brain and creates "spotlights" on different tasks, and your brain has to frantically switch back and forth.

In an effort to think small, focusing on a single task feels incredibly limiting. But breaking down a large task in to small wins, you're able to finish quicker and be more productive. After you rewire your brain, you'll find you can get a lot more done with both spotlights shining on a single task.

Leo Widrich, CMO of social app Buffer, wrote an illuminating post on multi-tasking. For now, try and work on one task at a time, no matter how frustrated you feel. Keep one browser tab open, plan out your daily tasks, and maybe even turn your internet off for a while.

Have you seen small habits snowball in to big successes in your own life? Do you believe tiny habits are simply too microscopic? What are some other tactics you have used to initiate habit change?


1. Rogers RD & Monsell, S (1995) Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 124(2): 207 - 231

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