Scott H Young

Micro Habits


One of my frequent topics that I use for this blog is in changing and mastering our habits. I believe strongly that it is not our motivation or strategies so much as it is our subconscious, automatic behaviours that determine most of our actions. Since our actions inevitably create the force for which we create changes, then mastering these processes is critical if we want to be effective. If you can install empowering and effective habits into your daily life then you will be far more effective with every conscious action you can carry through.

Following these thoughts I personally have spent a lot of time altering many of my habits to get more out of my life. From adopting a strict vegetarian diet, abandoning television and installing a powerful wake-up routine at 5:30 AM, changing these habits have given me far more control, energy and focus for my life. I have even written about these patterns in my series, Habitual Mastery, which happens to be the most successful group of posts on this website.

Over the past two weeks, however, I have been really questioning a possible missing element to my past strategy for changing habits. I feel that beneath all the habits I have installed there are underlying habits that are miniscule and completely subconscious. These habits appear in my physiology, how I hold my body, they also appear in the larger scale habits I partake in every day. These ‘micro’ habits also seem to have a far greater impact on success because they set the emotional foundations and direct conscious behaviour.

If you’ve read any of Anthony Robbins work you know that the way you hold your body has a specific impact on your emotions. And emotions, as we can all attest to, have a far greater impact on our behaviour than our conscious actions. If you are feeling unmotivated and lazy, that is reflected by the subtle changes in your body. Often creating an adjustment in your body can trigger a complete emotional change. Standing up straight, breathing deeply and moving forcefully can often create a lot of motivation.

Most of the habits I have changed through trial periods have been what I’ll refer to as ‘macro’ habits. Things like diet, exercise patterns, or activities like television may have a large subconscious element to them, but they are usually large enough that we still have a fair amount of conscious exertion on them. Even though I have conditioned myself to make morning runs, I have never had a point in time where I haven’t been consciously aware I’ve been running.

These micro habits don’t work in the same way. Although this micro habit would be conditioned biologically rather than environmentally, think about your breathing. Most the time you are breathing you aren’t even aware of it. In fact you have been breathing this whole article and only now that I’ve pointed it out have you even given it a thought.

Micro habits can take the form of physiological changes. When you are feeling unmotivated, depressed or procrastinating, that is reflected in tiny patterns you run with your body. Maybe you start to hold your head lower, you move more slowly and your facial expressions become more sluggish and drooping. These small patterns are self-reinforcing because they build an emotional state that started them in the first place.

Micro habits can also take the form of mental thought patterns. These self talk can be subconscious or conscious. When you are feeling depressed, for example, you may begin by thinking about your problems. You may begin to see these problems as unsolvable or outside your control. You may start exaggerating and focusing in on the pain of this situation which magnifies it. By doing this you amplify your depression and negative thoughts.

These micro habits can even be a very simplified procedure for doing things. Maybe when you are unmotivated you do things in a particular way that is distinctive from when you feel normal or energized. You may do things more slowly. You may also spend time delaying between steps in your actions. These small micro habits of procedure will then influence your ultimate results.

Micro habits can’t quite be tackled exactly the same way as macro habits. Changing a thought, physiology or procedural habit that occurs within the span of a few milliseconds to a minute is far more difficult to consciously control than, say, deciding what to eat or when to exercise. Despite this problem with micro habits I think I have a solution that can allow you to alter these habits through three basic steps.

Before we start, I want you to participate in this process with me. Take out a word processing program or a pad of paper and a pen. It will only add a minute or two to reading this article and it can be a great way to vastly improve your effectiveness. I want you to think of an area where you would like to have better performance in. This could be your pattern for working, eating, reading, sleeping, driving or even a more generalized pattern such as your response to stress, excitement or social situations. When I did this in my journal I used my process for exercising, so that is the example I’ll use with you.

Step One: Identify your Negative Micro-Habits

I’m assuming you’ve got something to write on. If you don’t, why not? You’re too busy? Please, this will only take a minute or two longer than reading this article itself, and I know you have access to a place to write. Learning and growth come from doing not reading so please follow along.

Start by writing down all the things you do when you don’t act effectively in a situation. If this involves your social situations, write down all the physiological, mental or procedural micro habits you run whenever you get nervous or communicate poorly. If this relates to your work, what micro-habits do you run when you are procrastinating, unproductive or lazy.

Here is a brief summary of the list I created when I did this with the times my exercise routine was less effective. During these poor periods I would often leave earlier than I had planned. I would lift less weights and do fewer repetitions. I would also delay longer in between sets wasting more time than was necessary for recovery. Here were the micro habits I noticed:

Physiological

  • Shallow breathing
  • Lazy, unanimated facial expressions
  • Slow movement
  • Slouched, drooping posture
  • Yawning

Mental

  • Thoughts of relaxing, giving up
  • Rationalization to do less
  • Feelings of inadequacy, self-conscious
  • Unfocused and vague goals for each activity

Procedural

  • Low planning, little organization between sets
  • Sit and wait a long time between reps and sets
  • Read fitness magazines to stall between reps and sets

Now I hope you’ve made a similar list for your own pattern. If you haven’t, go and do this before continuing to read.

With this list in hand, narrow down a few trigger habits and abbreviate the list. Changing dozens of habits will be impossible, but I suspect most of your habits you identified can actually be summed up into just a couple of trigger habits. These trigger habits are the critical few habits that are repeated often and trigger the rest of the bad habits that destroy your performance. My new list of negative habits is as follows:

  • Slow, lazy body posture
  • Mental focus on giving up and doing less, not more
  • Poor focus on specific objectives for each set
  • Thoughts of exercising being painful and boring not challenging and envigorating

Step Two: Identify Your Positive Micro-Habits

We have just gone over all of the habits you go through when you are behaving ineffectively, but aren’t there also times when you worked great? Didn’t you run habits and patterns that allowed you to be effective before? Just like with our negative habits we are going to look at and identify the times you have had run positive habits that made you effective.

If your area of improvement was in dieting, what habits have you run when you ate healthfully? Did you link your diet to your goals? Did you assume a confident and certain body posture that gave you more discipline and commitment? Did you think of healthy foods that would taste great? Maybe you distracted your focus away from unhealthy foods and onto something else?

Just like before create a list of all your micro-habits you run when you are particularly effective in a situation. This is a summarized version of my list:

Physiological

  • Moved forcefully and with energy
  • Quick movements between sets
  • Smiling, animated facial expressions and body language
  • Tall, confident posture

Mental

  • Feeling of confidence
  • Focus on commitment and finishing reps
  • Enthusiastic thoughts
  • Positive thoughts related to body image


Procedural

  • Listen to fast music or motivational tapes
  • Drink lots of water
  • Form clear goals before each set
  • Rest less between sets

With this list in hand, do the same process of simplification and abbreviation to narrow it down to just a couple micro habits that seem critical in triggering other habits. My list was:

  • Move forcefully and assume confident posture
  • Focus mind completely on commitment and finishing sets while lifting
  • Drink lots of water between sets
  • Form clear and precise goals for each set and workout
  • Listen to music or motivational tapes

Step Three: Condition and Replace the Micro-Habits


Now that we have a short list of negative habits we also have a list of positive habits. With this short list of triggering habits we can replace the negative habits and install the positive habits. Because the habits are mostly subconscious, conditioning them will be a little trickier than with a macro habit, but a modification to the typical trial period technique should work.

To condition the new micro-habits, set a 30 Day Trial to use your positive habits and avoid your negative habits whenever you encounter your situation again. To keep your habits consistent, you should ensure that you use your habits early on whenever you encounter such a situation. Because you have identified these habits as triggers for many other subtle patterns of success or failure, using them early on will build momentum and make sustaining them easier.

Keep a small list of your positive and negative habits you can utilize whenever you enter the situation. By referring to them and utilizing them for a full trial period you can condition them until the positive habits become automatic and you avoid the negative habits without conscious awareness. If your area of improvement was in reading, you may have a list of habits you use whenever you fully absorb the information you are reading and a list of habits you use whenever you get distracted, read slowly or get bored. By consciously using your trigger habits you ensure your reading is more effective.

Because these habits are so minute, it would be impossible to ensure you never run the negative habits for an entire trial period or that you always automatically use the positive ones. A more realistic goal for your trial period is that you decide to automatically run your positive habits and stop doing your negative ones when you encounter that situation. If you notice yourself subconsciously running a negative habit, replace it with one of your positive habits. This may require some work at first, but eventually you will reach the point where your overall habit is to automatically switch from your negative to positive micro habits.

What areas of your life would you like to improve effectiveness? Perhaps the answer isn’t as simple as changing one overall habit? Life truly resides within the details, and so do your habits. If you have been having trouble with a larger macro-habit, why not try to change some of the details instead? By improving your level of effectiveness in a situation you can make it easier to create larger changes.

This process doesn’t just apply to your level of productivity or effectiveness, though. You can utilize your micro-habits to create more enjoyment in your life. By deciding what habits you run when you are in a very happy, fun and enjoyable state you can replicate them in other areas of your life. More importantly, you can identify the micro-habits that lead to these states without having to involve yourself in dangerous activities. While drinking or drug use might give you a fun, peak experience, it is very destructive to your overall life. By using this process you may find out that it was actually the social aspect or the sense of danger that created the feelings. You may be able to replicate those aspects by pursuing other activities like sports, roller coasters or simply enjoying other activities without the dangerous side effects.

Habits are the key to consistent behaviours. Most of these habits aren’t even under our conscious awareness. By discovering and identifying these micro-habits we can utilize them to increase our effectiveness with far more precision than otherwise possible. Take this time as an opportunity to improve your effectiveness, efficiency or even enjoyment in any area of your life, today!


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2 Responses to “Micro Habits”

  1. Scott,

    This is good, though I think you are going about it the hard way. You can easily identify and change smaller and smaller micro habits, and still miss some of the most damaging macro ones. As you state, most of these habits are not under our conscious awareness.

    I also think that it’s a little too, for want of better words, egotistical of our conscious mind to think it can retrain these unconscious habits through conscious will alone. This is not a criticism of you, Scott, but of our conscious minds that think we are the ones in control when it is easily proven otherwise. :-)

    There are other ways to modify habits that engage the power of the conscious mind and the power of the unconscious (in a nutshell, planning and execution respectively) that are much easier that brute force. Some of these Tony Robbins uses such as his Dickens pattern, some, reframing for example, come from behavioural psychology and some even come from organised religion.

  2. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments Michael,

    Yes, many people have a lot of damaging macro habits that really need to be addressed. For myself, however, I feel I have reached a point where I can’t see any glaringly obvious macro habits that require changing. As a result I’m in purely speculative territory where I take in new ideas and experiment with them.

    Micro habits shouldn’t be discounted, however. The very short patterns you run that cause you to feel negative emotional states, for example, have an impact on your ability to make any changes. Using conscious exertion to make these changes may not be the most effective strategy but the idea of changing these micro habits is an idea I’m still relatively new with. Hopefully more thoughts can come once I’ve researched and experimented more.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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