How often do you floss your teeth? Flossing is a habit generally recommended by dentists that takes an incredibly small amount of time and effort each day. Then why do so many people not do it?
Is it because these people have made a careful cost-benefit analysis and decided the two minutes wasn’t worth their time? I doubt it.
Instead we’re more likely to say these people are lazy. After all, how lazy do you have to be to not spend two minutes flossing? But I’m also skeptical of this reaction too.
You see, I’m also someone who often doesn’t floss. And, yes, I know I should.
As someone who has written about changing habits and spent a great deal of time researching it, that admission may seem grossly hypocritical. After all, if I haven’t been able to consistently maintain a miniscule habit like flossing, why trust my advice on much larger habits in your work and studies?
However, perhaps ironically, it’s because of all that research that I understand my own failing. The difficulty of changing a behavior is not proportional to how big that change is—and this is a tool you can leverage to accomplish bigger things.
People Underestimate the Difficulty of Small Changes
Assuming you don’t do either activity regularly, which is easier to do once: flossing or running ten miles?
Clearly spending ninety seconds on dental hygiene is easier than an hour or more of endurance. But how much more? Ten times as difficult? A hundred? I don’t have a quantitative answer, but I’d guess that running ten miles for most non-runners is orders of magnitude more difficult than flossing.
Now let’s change the question slightly. Which is easier to do every day for three months: flossing or running?
Once again running is still more difficult. But how much more difficult? Running ten miles once is agonizing if you’re out of shape. But if you ran every day, you could get to a point where running ten miles every day was a normal routine. Exerting, but not agonizing. Flossing, on the other hand, stays as easy as ever.
My guess is that running every day is harder than flossing every day, but by a considerably smaller fraction than doing either activity only once.
The power of habits is that they take even activities which are extremely difficult to do and make them normal enough that the effort required isn’t considerable. The weakness of this same system is that seemingly easy habits require more effort than we generally allocate for them.
You see, in mentally preparing for a goal, most people scale up the one-time difficulty of a task and imagine it repeated over the entire period. If running is 100x harder than flossing, then the habit of running requires 100x the effort of the flossing habit—even if in reality the effort difference is perhaps only 3-4x.
Start with Bold Moves
If you have a lot of changes you want to make in your life (or your routine is going to change abruptly), my advice is to start with bigger, bolder changes that you can focus on completely. Because the habitual effort is comparable for big habits and small ones, you get a sizable advantage for fixing the big ones first.
Take my current project, as an example. If you’ve ever tried learning a foreign language, holding a thirty minute conversation when you’re at a basic level is often agonizingly difficult. Yet, when I started this project, I set the rule of not speaking English for an entire year.
That rule might seem very difficult to uphold, but that hasn’t been the case. The first day was brutal. The first week was hard. The first month was fine. Now entering my third month in Spain, speaking entirely in Spanish is so normal with myself and my roommate (who had extremely minimal Spanish prior to arrival) is so natural we hardly notice it.
I did the same thing during the MIT Challenge. Studying for 10 hours per day in the beginning may seem incredibly hard. And, to be fair, my first few weeks were a real grind. But by the middle of the challenge, when I toned down my studying schedule to 7-8 hours, the habit had been so imprinted that I didn’t feel stressed at all.
Because I realize that the effort to make new habits doesn’t scale according to their one-time difficulty, my failing is that I often neglect smaller habits, which are proportionally more difficult to start than their one-time difficulty would suggest.
Look for Bold, Yet Simple, Changes
Simple changes are much easier to enforce, even if they appear difficult, than complicated ones. My current challenge has the backbone of not speaking English. It may appear difficult, but it’s fairly straightforward. My MIT Challenge had the backbone of a consistent blocks of studying time every weekday.
If you want to make bigger changes to your work or studies, my suggestion is to start with simple, but broad, habits. Look for the one or two really big things that, if you changed them, would have a big payoff. Trying to tweak miniscule things at the beginning will be much more difficult.