The Renegade Writer

This One Tiny Habit Can Help You Become a More Productive (and Wealthier) Freelancer

mini_habits_stephen_guiseby Diana Burrell

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

I make no secret of the fact that I do not like to write, which seems crazy because I’ve been a freelance writer and author for almost 20 years and writers, well, write. But if you’re a professional writer, you know that a lot of the job isn’t writing. You’ve got to do stuff like generate story ideas, market your work, chase down research, interview experts, edit, and manage the business–the fun stuff! It’s the writing part I could do away with, specifically first drafts. Once a first draft is written, I can edit. Bad mood be gone.

Over the years I’ve become good at tricking myself into finishing first drafts. I tell myself, “You only have to write 50 words, then you can take a break and watch YouTube.” Even I can write fifty words, and once I get going, it’s hard to stop, which is how I get so much writing done despite my dislike of wordsmithing.

Needless to say I’m always looking for the path of least resistance to getting more done, so when I read about Stephen Guise’s Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, I downloaded the ebook to my Kindle.

Not only did his book confirm for me that the best way to create a positive change is through small acts repeated daily, but the book was exceptionally well written and researched — impressive in that the author is not a professional writer — and so applicable to the many writers I meet who struggle with getting query letters out the door or writing big projects like books and novels.

Because I suspected Stephen was a bit of renegade — changing your life in big ways through tiny habits? Sounds renegade to me! — I contacted Stephen and he agreed to a 20-minute interview, which turned into a 90-minute Skype call. This is not a verbatim transcript of our conversation, but a carefully edited-down version containing the most valuable points for our readers.

 

DB: How are mini habits different from most life change philosophies?

SG: Most life change philosophies implore you to get highly motivated to make a big change in your life. Mini Habits are exactly the opposite of that, suggesting you force yourself to do something embarrassingly small, but positive every day.

There are two kinds of motivation. The first type is having a reason for doing something. My motivation for exercise is to look and feel healthy. My motivation for doing this interview is that you asked me to do it and I want to spread the word about mini habits. Unlike the next definition of motivation, your reason for doing things is generally very stable and changes very little over time.

There’s also emotional motivation, which is rooted in enthusiasm and determines your willingness to take action in the moment (“This year I’m going to get in shape so I’m off to the gym!”). Most goal systems rely on this type of motivation; they’ll tell you that you need to find this motivation to succeed. The problem is that emotional motivation isn’t reliable or habit friendly.

When we try to do something like write more every day or lose 50 pounds or get in top physical condition, we’re usually very excited for a couple weeks. We’re highly motivated to write more, eat less, and go to the gym. Yet almost anyone who has attempted to change knows that sometime in those first weeks, motivation starts to wane. For me, it was like clockwork—I’d get motivated to exercise and quit when motivation left me at the two- or three-week mark.

The reason we lose motivation isn’t a mystery. It’s biological. And it’s actually a positive sign! It means the behavior of writing more, eating less, or working out regularly is transitioning to being controlled by the subconscious brain. In other words, a weak habit is forming. But right around this time is when most of us give up. We’re not feeling that burst of enthusiasm anymore, so when it’s gone, we’ll stop doing the behavior that’s just about to become a habit. It’s too bad because the best way to find motivation is to take action! I’m not anti-motivational; it’s just that I don’t believe it works as a starting strategy.

There’s a quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War which sums up the Mini Habit system: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” By taking one small action a day—just one small behavior change—we start with a win. After that point, you’re free to do more.

In my book, I talk about doing just one push-up every day. A single push-up! It’s almost too easy, right? But you do it, and because you’re already face-down on the ground, you will probably do more. And that’s how such a small, seemingly insignificant action can grow to make big changes in your life.

Two other factors aren’t accounted for in most other goal achievement systems. First is autonomy. Most systems remove your sense of autonomy; you’re following a plan so that on Monday you do this, on Tuesday you do that, and so on. But with Mini Habits, you do your one small thing like a push-up and after that you can ask yourself, “Am I ready to stop or can I do more?” This autonomy leverages our desire and gives us a feeling that we’re in control, which studies show is a critical factor in goal achievement.

The second is willpower, the ability to force yourself to do something whether you feel like it or not. Most goal achievement systems don’t account for the fact that willpower is a limited resource as studies show. Mini Habits is based on the fact that we don’t have unlimited willpower. Because a mini habit is so small, you can easily complete it even when your willpower is low.

 

DB: We all know that developing good habits is important, whether personal (flossing every day) or work (writing a certain number of words per day). What might our readers find surprising about developing good habits?

SG: When you’re trying to establish a good habit, size doesn’t matter as much as consistency. For example, say you want to get in shape and decide you’re going to do 100 push-ups a day. That’s a lot of push-ups each day, so the chances you’ll stick with that plan are slim. Just one push-up a day, though, you’ll stick with it and end up doing more push-ups consistently. It’s better to do one push-up a day for six months than 100 push-ups for 15 days spread out over six months because that single daily push-up can become a foundational habit, the kind of habit that can change your life.

 

DB: How did you come up with the idea of writing a book about mini habits and their power to make positive changes?

SG: I started writing on Facebook using the notes feature, writing about my life and stuff like that. My friends liked it and a few told me I should write a book. When I stopped laughing, I started a blog; some of my blog posts were really long, like 4,000 words. Eventually, I decided that yes, I did want to write a book, but I wasn’t sold on any one topic. That changed when I started having a lot of success with Mini Habits.

In the past, I’d have this goal of developing a full-sized gym habit, but I’d exercise for two weeks then stop. Then I aimed for one push-up and got into the best shape of my life. Based on my experience with Mini Habits, I knew I had to share this with the world. That, and I was frustrated by the other systems that give you the same old advice of “get motivated to live your dreams.” That hasn’t been my experience, and the experience of many others as well.

 

DB: How did you use mini habits to write your book?

SG: I wouldn’t have written the book if not for my writing mini habit. I actually had two writing mini habits: One was to write 50 words a day for my blog, and the other was to write 50 words a day of my book. Most days I would exceed those numbers. Even though goal achievement is a topic I’m passionate about, for some reason I still wanted to avoid writing about it. [DB: Now you can see why I like this guy!] I’d have all these excuses like, “I need to write perfectly” or “I’m not thinking clearly today.” Having to write 50 words a day kept me on track.

It took me three to six months to write Mini Habits, including all the research. At times I made up some conditional mini habits, like “Read one study today.” You don’t realize how small actions can add up until you do them everyday. It’s really powerful stuff.

 

DB: What has been the response to Mini Habits?

SG: Before I released the book, I told myself I’d be disappointed if I sold less than 200 copies in two months. Mini Habits ended up selling 10,000 copies in three months. Most sales have come through word of mouth, some guest posting on blogs, and being seen in Amazon.com’s sales system, which is huge. Once you get good reviews (Mini Habits has a 4.8 average rating on Amazon), readers take interest and it can sustain sales momentum.

I’ve also gotten quite a few letters from readers with their own success stories by using mini habits. It’s great to see how it has changed the lives of others.

 

DB: You had a mini habit of writing 50 words of your manuscript every day. What other types of mini habits could our readers adopt to develop or improve their careers?

SG: Obviously making a mini habit of writing 50 words a day is a good place to start, but you can also develop a networking mini-habit, like contacting one person—an editor, potential source, or peer—every day. At the end of the year, you’ll have 365 new contacts. You could have a marketing goal of looking for one new magazine, publication, or client. If you need more ideas for magazine articles or books, you could write down one new idea every day. You could also make one follow-up call or e-mail on a project or question where if you had an answer, you could move forward.

 

DB: Any last words about the power of mini habits?

SG: Mini habits are awesome. The bar to entry is set low, and there’s no ceiling.

For example, if your goal is to write 2,000 words a day, it’s not only a high bar, but it’s also a ceiling because chances are you’ll rarely write more than 2,000 words a day (due to being satisfied with your work). But if you set your bar at 50 words, you’re not only going to make your goal, you’ll most likely exceed it. Fifty words isn’t much and once you get going, you’ll have more thoughts and words to get down.

It’s Newton’s Laws of Motion at work: “A body in motion stays in motion.” The other part of the law is, “A body at rest stays at rest.” When you’ve got a mini habit (50 words) versus a big habit (2,000 words), it’s a lot easier to get in motion and let momentum carry you further.

(My next Become an Idea Machine workshop starts tomorrow, and it’s the last workshop I’ll lead for several months. Sign up here or send me an email  to be notified of the next workshop.)

Apr 6, 2014 Advice, Motivation, Writing

47 Responses

  1. Sarah says:

    Awesome. Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this. This is so refreshing. My progress in anything has always been about baby steps, and it’s nice to know that “thinking small” isn’t as limiting as some motivational speakers suggest. Water doesn’t erode rock quickly, but boy what a difference it makes over time.

    • You’re welcome, Sarah. The whole “thinking small” concept is brilliant. I love contrarian ideas — esp. ones that work like this one does!

    • Stephen says:

      I love the analogy of water over rocks, Sarah. As I’ve been doing this for more than a year, I can confirm that the effects are massive over time. I’ve completely rewired my subconscious brain!

  2. Lisa says:

    Diana, it’s so great to hear that I’m not the only writer who has trouble forcing herself to do the actual writing part! I’m completely with you — love ideas, love marketing, love interviews, love talking with clients…have to force myself to do the actual writing part. This is probably why most of my projects are blogging — they’re nice and short. :)

    • Lisa, there are a few us out here. I am no longer ashamed of it — if I hated writing AND editing what I’d written, then I’d have a problem. ;-) Writing short is a great idea. And yes, try an exercise mini-habit. I forgot to mention that after I read Stephen’s book, I made it a goal to do one sit-up/crunch a day. One sit-up was actually pretty tough for me to do since I’m healing from a back injury. I’m still doing my one sit-up after 60 days, although most days I do about 100 crunches. :)

  3. Thanks for the interview, Diana! It was a pleasure speaking with you and I appreciate the chance to share my passion with your readers. If anyone has a comment or question, I’ll be hanging around.

    Cheers,
    Stephen

  4. Lisa says:

    Also: I am definitely going to try this mini-goals idea! Especially with exercise. I already worked out AND found a new prospect to pitch today — in the hour since I read this post. :)

    • Stephen says:

      Lisa,

      I’ve been doing mini habits for months and it’s completely transformed the way I live. It works so well! I’m glad to hear it’s already working for you. :-)

      Cheers,
      Stephen

  5. Linda says:

    Diana, what a timely post! I’ve so often heard those others choices to create habits, but none ever worked for me. Without realizing I was on the road to creating a mini habit, yesterday I chose to do one thing from three different categories and got so much more done. The feeling of satisfaction is so great that I wanted to repeat it again today. Reading your post about Stephen’s book was confirmation I’d started something great!

    Thank you for taking the time to interview him and write this post. I know it will help others achieve more through mini habits. And now, I’m going to buy his book to see what else Stephen suggests and shares.

    • Linda, so glad “thinking small” has proven to work out for you. Stephen’s book is awesome. I so rarely get jazzed up about books, esp. self-improvement books, but this one really “spoke” to me and I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know who wants to make changes in their lives.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Linda,

      Thank you for buying the book! I think you’ll love it. It goes into much more depth on this topic, and dissects motivation and willpower, and how habit change works. It references dozens of studies, but I was careful to not put readers to sleep. ;-)

      It sounds like you are already on the right track even before reading it, so you’re primed to have wild success (as I have with this strategy). Thanks for the comment!

  6. Raspal Seni says:

    Hi Diana,

    This is my first post on RW and it happened to be your guest post. I heard Linda on the free articlemasterclass webinar telling something about doing one push-up a day, I guess.

    As you say it’s hard to start but once you do, it’s hard to stop writing. I understood this soon when I started writing and had also read Steve Pavlina’s advice to start the hardest thing, first thing in the morning. For writers, it’s the writing which seems hardest. I tried this technique for aome time and it sure worked and soon it used to be hard to stop writing. I didn’t know that Newton’s laws of motion worked on this as well. I did know they work on karmic actions, though. The third law, especially.

    Very nice advice about doing one push-up a day to form it as a habit from Stephen. I had written topics to write on, for an e-book but then stopped, more than a month ago. I’ll be trying out the 50 words a day technique on that e-book again.

    I’ll be trying this technique also on some things I wish to learn. Will learn them one 10 minute video a day!

    Thank you for this post.

    • You’re welcome, Raspal, and thanks for taking the time to comment. This isn’t a guest post, though — after I read Stephen’s book, I asked if he would like to be interviewed for the RW. I don’t think we do guest posts anymore.

      • Raspal Seni says:

        Oops! Sorry, Diana – I thought, since I’ve only seen Linda’s posts here previously (wasn’t so active here anyway), your post must have been a guest post. I do know you from the e-course/training page, though. :-)

        Actually, I hardly visited again since Linda had stopped accepting comments. When did they get started again? And is there a post talking about this experiment?

    • Stephen says:

      50 measly words a day is how I wrote my book, Raspal. Best of luck to you!

      • Raspal Seni says:

        I’m going to start writing it right now. That too, not on the computer which has a lot of distractions – I’ll write it in a notebook, where I also write most of my blog post drafts.

        Thanks for the encouragement, Stephen!

        • Stephen says:

          That’s a good idea, to write away from “the distraction machine.” :-)

          • Raspal Seni says:

            Ha ha! Great name for the computer. Like “The Idiot Box” for TV (which I don’t watch, thank God!).

          • Gail Taylor says:

            I find that handwriting everything as my rough draft is working our much better for me then trying to write direct to the PC. As I finish handwriting 50 pages, I edit and input into the PC. Your idea of 50 words is great advice. I use it for input not actually ideas though. Thats just what works for me.
            Thanks for posting this Diana.

  7. Mai says:

    Mini habits are really effective! I’m reminded of this book called “The Four-Day Win” by Martha Beck. It’s actually a weight loss book, but the tips given there are applicable for any habit that you want to form. It advocates the use of mini habits or setting a “ridiculously easy goal” so that you’ll have a sense of accomplishment every time you finish it, motivating you to continue it until it becomes a habit. Once you’re able to do it for four days straight, the rest of the way’s going to be easier because your body starts to see it as a habit.

    Thanks for sharing this tip, Diana. It makes writing less tedious when you think about it. :)

    • Stephen says:

      Great stuff, Mai! I agree that mini habits are super effective!

      Just a word of caution on the 4 day thing: the European Journal of Social Psychology did a study on habit formation duration, and they found the average time for a behavior to become habit for the participants was 66 days, with a range from 18-254 days. I don’t think 4 days is enough to call something habit, but it’s certainly a good start!

      Best of luck to you!

  8. “Ridiculously easy goals.” Love that. I like anything that makes me feel better about myself. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Belinda says:

    Gosh, I think I’ve discovered something that’s going to help me no end! I tend to suffer from overwhelm very easily to the point of paralysis, which, as you might imagine, has led me to being a classic under-achiever. After reading this, I think mini habits have got to be the way forward for me. Great stuff!

  10. Belinda, you NEED mini habits! You sound a lot like me before mini habits, when I wanted to do so much that I did nothing. Based on what you said, you should have great success with mini habits!

    You can use the contact form on Deep Existence to ask me any questions if you have any. Cheers!

    • Belinda says:

      Thanks Stephen, exactly! I have so many ideas going round my head but never get anywhere with any of them. I’m going to buy Mini Habits and give it a go.

      Thanks again
      Belinda

  11. Mary Drew says:

    Hi Diana and Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this. I’m going to check out Stephen’s book, and the interview alone has inspired me to get back to work on mine.

    Have you ever heard of Lyndon Duke? He was a researcher who was interested in perfectionism and had several PhD’s. He read thousands of suicide notes during his research, and learned that so many people committed suicide because they expected too much of themselves. He promoted the idea of having an “average” day, and of doing your best average in your endeavors. Really interesting guy. He was working on his theories in the 80’s, when people were going nuts trying to do everything, and didn’t even have the internet yet! I thought of him when I was reading your post.

    • Mary, thanks for commenting. I hadn’t heard of Lyndon Duke till now. How sad re: the suicides. His theory makes a lot of sense, though — the suicides I know were all highly driven/competent people.

    • Stephen says:

      I have not heard of him, but I really like his ideology. I’ve written a post called, “Be Average, But Start Today.” So I think we have a similar mindset.

      Also, that observation on suicide makes complete sense. Expectations are really important to get right. Thanks for telling us about him!

  12. I saw a Ted talk about this very concept last month. I really like the idea of mini-habit-writing: write 50 words per day for each of the writing projects you are working on! What a “novel” idea! ;)

    Great guest post!

    • Stephen says:

      That Ted Talk was likely by BJ Fogg, who has a strategy called “Tiny Habits.” Similar strategy. He recommends scaling the habit up. I don’t because the more you increase the requirement, the greater resistance and the more likely you are to fail and drop it altogether. The value comes from making it habit, and mini habits stay small to make sure you reach that point.

      There are other differences, but that’s the main one. :-) Both strategies can certainly work and are better than the “big goal” strategies out there.

  13. Anthony Dezenzio says:

    Hello Diana and Stephen,

    Thank you for the great article, this is exactly what I need. This is what I have been looking for. Mini habits is going to help me achieve much more.

    • Stephen says:

      I’m glad you got enjoyed this Anthony. I’m always excited to share mini habits with people because it changed my life and I’ve seen it work for so many others too. Best of luck to you!

  14. Laura Laing says:

    LOVE THIS! I read Daniel Pink’s *Drive* last fall, and it really changed the way I think about motivation. Without knowing it, I started applying mini habits into my day, and it’s really working. But I couldn’t figure out how to manage big accomplishments, like work-related tasks and regular exercise (my biggest challenge). I can’t wait to dig into this book and learn more.

    This process really meshes with the “don’t break the chain” idea that is accredited to Jerry Seinfeld. I’ve used that practice since January to create two important habits — eating 5 veggies/fruits a day and drinking 2L of water a day.

    Thanks so much, Diana!

    • You’re welcome, Laura, and thanks for commenting! I seem to recall that Stephen talks about Seinfeld’s method in his ebook. One of the Android apps I’m using to track my mini habits (Habit Streak) is an electronic version of Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method.

      Wish I could get 2L of H20 down a day … I can barely manage a glass!

    • Stephen says:

      It’s funny. I saw Seinfeld on a Reddit AMA claim that he never said anything about that. But yes, it’s in the book. Perhaps I need to update it since Seinfeld has since publicly denied saying it. Either way, it’s an effective mindset: don’t break the chain!

      I just got back from a one hour workout at the gym. It’s a full size habit for me, but do you know how it started? I did one push-up a day for 6 months. What this did was drastically reduce my general resistance to exercising, which is what allowed me to make the jump to the gym, where I work out 3-5 times a week (and have been for several months!). Mini Habits can grow: just be patient and commit to your small goals. But they also don’t have a ceiling, so you can overachieve as much as you want. More is explained in the book; it works really, really well!

      “Drive” sounds interesting. I’m guessing it’s the same sort of content as his TED Talk on motivation, which was very interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

      • Mars says:

        This has really been interesting and refreshing. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Cal Newport and his works(calnewport.com/blog) but I bet you guys would get along really well.

        I have had my fair share of trying to get some good habits on the roll too. Last semester, I was adapting different techniques in becoming more efficient and productive.One of which was synchronizing my body clock with selected fixed activities e.g 6-7am I must be reading a study, 8-9am writing etc., That way, I thought I can reprogram my subconscious into doing small healthy tasks which would pay big time over the long run. Intriguingly though, it was but short lived- I think I was able to hold out only for a month and a half, and then surprisingly got burnt out. I think that was something really effective and that I enjoyed but the only problem was that everything was benchmarked on time.. not on the intensity of the activity.

        I’ll sure be happy to experiment with this. Thanks Stephen!

  15. Melissa says:

    Hi Diana. Thanks for passing on this book and these great ideas!

    I’m a big believer in the ‘baby step’ method, after years of trying for big and splashy medal in the long jump. But for some reason I’ve failed to put this mini habit to work in fixing some current problems like taking a mid-morning walking break (“have to do a mile”). Appreciate the refresher, and I’m looking forward to the book, too.

    Best,

    Melissa

  16. Revé says:

    I’ve been doing mini-habits all week after reading this article, it really has been helpful. I ended up doing 100+ crunches this morning, I got started and kept going. I recently found a writing accountability partner (a fellow expat), so I’m hoping that these tips can help each of us accomplish the goals we’re hoping to accomplish each week.

  17. Gwen Boyle says:

    Thanks for the wonderful perspective on habits, Diana and Stephen! I read this last week and thought I’d give it a try. 50 words a day is working wonders, especially on the days when I think I have so many other things to do that I don’t possibly have time to write. I’m also starting to apply it to other aspects of my life, such as exercise.

    It’s amazing what a small shift in habits can achieve. I agree with a lot of the commenters here, in that it’s very easy to become totally overwhelmed and paralysed. This is a lovely reminder to start small in order to fight inaction.

  18. maxwell ivey says:

    Hi Diana; thanks for sharing your interview with stephen with us. what he is teaching is exactly what they taught us in the classes I took prior to having gastric surgery. they said pick one thing and make a small change. do that for a month and then add something else. first i switched from regular coffee to decaf. i did at least 15 minutes of exercise. i ride a stationary bike or as i call it the bike that doesn’t go anywhere. I need to apply this to weight training. I’v been trying to do ten twenty or thirty curls with three pounds. Now, I will go for one curl each day. smile thanks again to both of you and take care, Max

  19. When the student is ready, the master appears. I was ready and your post appeared, Diana! Thank you Stephen for the mini reminder that great art works begin with that first brush stroke and huge manuscripts by penning the first word on the page.

    I love the movie, “What About Bob?” where Richard Dreyfuss tells Bill Murray, “Baby steps, Bob. Just take baby steps.”

    So true! :D

  20. Really great post and really great interview. I like this mini-philosophy. Thanks to the both of you – Dianna and Stephen.

  21. Elvis Michael says:

    What an inspiring interview, Diana.
    I agreed with the act of “small size + consistency” which is key if you wish to see the finish line. I started to implement mini habits a few months ago, and I have found I now accomplish much more than I ever did in the past. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we try to work on big, drawn out habits, especially when they are initially foreign to us.

    Elvis

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