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