What kind of resolutions do you make every year?
I’m going to lose ten pounds.
I’m going to write a novel.
I’m going to declutter my house.
Do any of those sound familiar?
How many times have you made the same resolutions? Two years in a row? Five years? More?
Why do you keep making these resolutions, again and again, when you know you’re never going to be able to keep them?
But. Wait. What if…you could make changes in your life? What if you could make real changes — the kind of changes you’ve been trying to make for years?
That could be kind of amazing.
And that’s what you can do with tiny habits. With tiny habits, you can change your life for the better — and you can do it with very little effort.
That’s kind of a big thing to say, but it’s completely true. In this post, you’ll learn what tiny habits are and exactly how to create tiny habits to improve any part of your life you want.
Understanding Tiny Habits Starts With Understanding Habits
When you think about habits, you might automatically think about good habits, such as exercising regularly — or bad habits, like smoking. Set those aside for a moment, and think of habits as the things we do without thinking about them.
When you get in your car, you put on your seatbelt, without thinking about it.
In the shower, you wash your hair, without thinking about it.
After you use the toilet, you flush, without thinking about it. (Unless you are one of my sons, in which case you leave the evidence of your presence to delight the next bathroom visitor.)
You’d have to think pretty hard to remember doing one of those things. You know you did them, but the memory is blurred with the other million times you did them. It’s difficult to identify the specific memory of doing it today.
Those actions are habits. We form them by doing them again and again, until they are drilled into us and require no effort from our thinking minds. It doesn’t take willpower or motivation to flush a toilet (Again, unless you are my sons. This is somewhat of a sore point in my home.) or to buckle up. You just do it.
Using Tiny Habits to Establish New Habits
There are seven people who live in my house, and all of them find it necessary to wear clothing and eat on a daily basis. In fact, many of them want to eat multiple times a day, which means that we have a fairly enormous amount of laundry and dishes to handle.
Some years ago, I determined that if we did not handle these chores on a daily basis, they would quickly overwhelm us and we would be living in filth.
Unfortunately, in order to load dirty dishes into the dishwasher, you must first unload the clean dishes and put them away. Perhaps this is a chore that you enjoy, but I find it tedious and annoying, so I would ignore it for many hours, while dishes piled up in my kitchen.
Somewhere around dinnertime, as my children and husband demanded to be fed, I would… what’s the technical term? Oh, right, I would lose my cool and the evening would plummet sharply downhill from there.
As much fun as this routine was, it occurred to me that changing it might benefit our family. I harnessed the power of the tiny habit.
Breaking Down TIny Habits
First, let’s give credit where it’s due. The concept of tiny habits comes from Stanford professor BJ Fogg, who has written an enormous amount on the topic. This is the “in a nutshell” version.
A tiny habit consists of three separate but equally important parts:
- The Anchor
- The Action
- The Victory Dance
Let’s take a closer look at each part.
An anchor is something you know you already do every day, at a set time or in a specific place.
For example, you might know that you:
- Brush your teeth in the bathroom right after you wake up
- Turn on the coffeemaker as soon as you enter the kitchen
- Hang up your coat on a hook when you come through the door
- Take a shower when you come home from work
- Have a glass of wine after dinner
The action of your tiny habit is the actual thing that you’re going to do. It’s important to keep the action tiny. It should be:
- Something you can do in less than 10 seconds
- Something that doesn’t require any real motivation or energy
The victory dance is what you do to celebrate that you did the action you set out to do. It’s a critical — but often ignored — part of the tiny habit process.
Many people find the victory dance to be the hardest part of the tiny habit process, but it’s really, really important. Our brains like rewards, so we need to feed them.
The trick is to find a victory dance that feels natural for you. For example, I have a tendency to whisper-shout “Ha!” or do a little finger dance a lot when I do something particularly awesome, like not forget my keys. So those victory dances work for me — they don’t feel forced, they’re not weird for me, and I don’t feel like I’m faking it.
Some of my students have told me that they:
- Shake their bums
- Give a thumbs up
- Dance in place
- Flash a victory sign
Here's BJ Fogg talking about tiny habits.
Tiny Habits and The Dishwasher
For a long time, unloading the dishwasher felt overwhelming to me. When I applied the tiny habit principle, here’s what happened.
- I set up my tiny habit, using an anchor, an action, and a victory dance. Here’s how I stated my tiny habit:
After I turn on the coffeemaker in the morning, I will open the dishwasher, and then I will do a finger dance.
- I didn’t have to do anything else. By opening the dishwasher, I had completed the tiny habit — I had WON.
- When the dishwasher was open, and I was waiting for the coffee to be ready, it became natural to perhaps put away a cup or two. Not the first day — let’s not get crazy here — but, you know. Slowly. Over time. It became a thing.
- Within about two weeks, it was natural for me to turn on the coffee machine, open the dishwasher, and get at least the top rack unloaded before I drank my coffee.
- After another two weeks, I was at the point where I had the whole dishwasher unloaded before the coffee was ready.
Once I had an empty dishwasher first thing in the morning, it was a lot easier to get the breakfast dishes loaded directly in… which meant that the counters were clear and could be wiped down… which meant that the whole kitchen looked better.
And it all started with a tiny habit.
How Not To Build a Tiny Habit
If you are already planning how you will use tiny habits to improve every area of your life, that’s awesome! Here’s the thing: you have to use the power of the tiny habit wisely.
Here’s what NOT to do.
“After I eat breakfast, I will write 1000 words in my novel and then I will send queries to three magazines.”
No. Seriously, no.
When you’re trying to establish any habit, the trick is to go tiny.
Do not set yourself up for failure by jumping straight into 1000 words or ten pages or three queries.
That’s not how you build a writing habit that lasts, and definitely not when you’re at home with kids and your life is completely unpredictable. It just doesn’t work.
Instead, try this:
After I eat breakfast, I will put my journal on the table, and then I will give myself a thumbs-up.
Anchor, action, victory dance.
The action is tiny, it will take you less than 10 seconds, and you don’t need any motivation to stick your journal on the table.
The first day or two, maybe you never even open the journal after you put it on the table — and that’s totally fine. It’s better than fine — it’s a WIN, and you have to celebrate it with your victory dance.
Within a few days, setting out the journal is automatic. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t remember getting the journal — but hey, there it is, on the table.
So you add the next step. You write ONE sentence. Just one. That’s it. That’s your WHOLE commitment. And then one day, you really like the sentence and you know exactly what comes next, so you wind up writing for a few minutes. And then you stop and you think, Wow, that was great.
Over time, slowly, you will get to the place where you are writing 1000 words — or even more! — every day, and it will be automatic.
Tiny Habits and the Rest of Your Life
Tiny habits can give you control in just about every area of your life.
If you’re trying to drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables, or exercise more consistently, you can create tiny habits that move you towards those goals.
After I make the coffee, I will set a water glass out on the counter, and then I will high-five myself.
After I make the kids’ school lunches, I will select an apple from the fruit bowl, and then I will blow my reflection a kiss.
After I eat dinner, I will put my workout clothes on the chair, and then I will dance in place.
Maybe you want your house to be more organized, Think about your end goals: do you want your family room to be clean? Do you want the dining room table to be free of papers? Do you want your closet to be neat and tidy?
For me, closet organization was kind of a problem at one time. I was tired of constantly opening the closet to find a big mess of clothes where I couldn’t see anything.
So the tiny habit I made was this:
After I turn on the closet light, I will put away ONE piece of clothing, and then I will do a literal victory dance.
After a few days, the difference in my closet was astounding. And now, it’s so automatic, and I usually wind up putting away all the clean laundry when I walk into my closet in the morning, and if I don’t get it all done right then, I definitely finish the task by the end of the day.
When you’re home with young kids, life can be a little bit… unpredictable.
You can have days where everything goes smoothly, but you can also have days where the baby poops straight through to the mattress and you need to wash everything and haul the mattress outside to dry in the sun and spray the room with bleach and then figure out a way to get the bleach fumes out of the room.
So you may want to look for several different anchors that you have at different times of your day to help combat that unpredictability.