Updated: Sep 15, 2021
When it comes to embedding new habits, many of us have bad technique and we’ve been given the wrong instruction manual.
If you’re interested in driving positive change in your life then you need to understand the importance of Purpose-led Habits and why “micro is magnificent”.
To borrow an analogy from BJ Fogg, when it comes to behaviour change it’s like you’ve bought a bedroom wardrobe from IKEA, then when you get it home and open the box, it has a piece missing and an instruction manual for a chest of drawers...
How’s that going to work out for you?
In this article I'm unpacking two critical components of the "right" instruction manual, that once you understand and apply, will enable you to easily embed new habits.
Let’s start with micro first, because in this case it’s definitely not the motion of the ocean that counts, it’s size that's important.
In 1969 on July 20th some guy said “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” About 2,600 years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Confucius said “A man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
Sticking to that theme, nowadays partly thanks to James Clear, small steps and atomic habits are popular. But before James published Atomic Habits, BJ Fogg PhD was using tiny habits in his behaviour design programs at Stanford University. I love Atomic Habits, however, if you’re interested in creating and breaking habits, I think BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits offers a clearer roadmap and more actionable insights.
An elephant is the opposite of micro, now hopefully no one is eating elephants these days, however, if they were then they’re not sitting down at the dinner table and devouring the whole carcass in one sitting. They’re tackling it one bite at a time.
My point is that it does not matter whether you call your new habits bite sized (gross), micro, atomic, tiny, mini or nano. What is important, is that you make them really small so they’re easy to start and finish.
Here are some insights on why micro is magnificent:
Micro habits rely less on willpower to start and finish. If your new habit is micro, chances are it’ll take you less than 1-min to complete, and for most of us we can drum up the courage to spend a minute doing something new
Because let’s be honest, many of us fear the unknown and change (the ‘new’). So, if we make our new habits micro, it removes some of the mystery - the newness - so that they become less intimidating 😊
In addition, often doing something new means that you must learn a new skill (increase your ability). Learning a new skill can take time and be difficult, time and difficulty are sure-fire ways to get demotivated and distracted. Therefore, if you make your new habit micro it’ll mean that you only need your current skill level to finish it.
Decision fatigue is a term for being stressed out because you are having to make too many decisions within a limited timeframe. It’s caused by having to use too much of your brain's hardworking executive function (which is a limited resource). Like me, most of you will experience decision fatigue. Quick Tip: it’s one reason why most behaviour change experts talk about the importance of creating a simple morning routine to finish before all those important decisions you have to make come flying into your inbox. Micro habits are great because they combat decision fatigue by not needing to use executive function to start them. So, even if you are suffering from decision fatigue after a long day, you’ll be able to find the energy to write that single sentence in your journal. Quick Tip: Keeping a journal is a great daily habit to get into, and a proven way to improve your mental health and happiness.
Micro habits use compounding interest to become transformational habits. As an example; if you invest $100 and apply daily compounding interest of 1%, by the end of one month you have $135, by the end of six months $615, and by the end of one year you have over $3,778 in the bank account. That is the power of compounding interest and it’s critical that you remind yourself of its power as you’re embedding your new micro habits. Why? Because your ego is a sneaky trickster who will try to trip you up by increasing the difficulty, quantity, or frequency of your new habits too soon. If you increase them too quickly, you’re more likely to trip up and fall.
To wrap up the ‘size issue’; micro habits are super-powerful due to compounding interest, and because you do not have to rely on willpower, learning a new skill, or thinking too hard to get them started.
Let’s move onto the importance of making those Micro Habits "Purpose-led". I’ll start with the concept of ‘living with purpose’ because it may not be what you think it is.
I could write a book about the importance of uncovering your purpose, of peeling back the layers of the onion that is you, so that you are living a more contented life. Importantly, if you don't understand your purpose and values, it's a little like being the CEO of a company without knowing it's vision, mission, values and culture. It's not going to work very well.
Purpose is about knowing how you want to live, who the person is that you want to be. If I were to use a sporting analogy, it's knowing how you want to be remembered as a player once you’ve walked off the pitch for the last time. Do you want to be remembered as a competitive animal, team player, inspirational coach, caring manager, or a combination?
Living with purpose is about how you want to play the ‘game of life’.
Importantly let's look at what a purpose is not, so you're not setting yourself up to fail before you've even started. Your purpose is not saving the world, becoming a thought leader (what does the mean anyway?), an inspirational Fortune 500 CEO, start-up founder, or gazillionaire… Those are all goals, rather than purpose statements. They're focused on the "what", rather than the "how". Goals are good, but they're not your purpose.
Quick Tip: For 99% of us those goals are also too aspirational. Very few of us will ever get close to becoming the next Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey, and that's OK. They are the 0.0000001%, so let's set the bar a bit lower please.
Once you get a handle on what your purpose and values are you’re on the right track. However, you have only just started because you need to be able to connect your purpose with your daily habits. Using our company analogy again, this is where your ‘strategic plan’ comes into play. It helps you create Purpose-led Micro Habits.
In a nutshell, to create a Strategic Plan for Life, you follow these 4 steps:
Start with your Purpose (company vision) and understand your Values (company mission and culture)
Create Goals that will deliver your company mission while reinforcing your values (company culture)
Within each Goal design aligned Strategies that over time help you achieve that specific Goal
Under each Strategy create a few routines and habits that deliver the Strategy. IMPT: Some of these habits will be your Purpose-led Micro Habits
At this point if you’re wondering whether you have enough time to invest in creating a Strategic Plan for Life, bear in mind this great quote from Michael Hyatt:
“Most people spend more time planning a one-week vacation than they spend planning their life.”
And as another productivity and leadership expert Laura Vanderkam shares, there are 168 hours in every week, so you have more time than you think you do!
To wrap up this section, let's look at how James Clear views Purpose-led Habits:
In chapter two of Atomic Habits, he compares ‘outcome-based habits’ with ‘identity-based habits’. Jame’s identity-based habits are very similar to our Purpose-led Habits. In fact, let’s give James’ credit here because I think he sums up really well the difference between outcome-based (often ego led) and identity-based (purpose-led) habits and goals:
“With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.”
Source: Figure 4, page 31. Atomic Habits by James Clear, published 2018
This is simply another way of saying that the ‘how’ is more important than the ‘what’ when it comes to improving your performance and living a happy and healthy life. Remember figuring out your purpose, then linking it to your daily routine and micro habits, is a powerful key to living a better life with less stress and more contentment.