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The Power of Thinking Small

Updated: May 10, 2020

Saturday 25th April, 2020

Over the last couple of years, I've acquired a rather intense interest in habits. As someone with limited executive function and a haphazard short-term memory, I'm enticed by the thought of introducing order into my life. But what I've read, over and over again, is that small habits and small changes are key. Given that I'm quite a cautious person and also seem to fight an endless lethargy, this rather appeals...

You might know the likes of Gretchen Rubin (writer of The Four Tendencies and Better Than Before, to name a couple), Stephen Covey and James Clear. They're all unanimous in their praise of consistent, good habits. In the Christian tradition, these have been called, rather, 'virtues'. They build character and, thus, destiny.

I like to take things slowly. In the past, I've rather kidded myself that I can jump into new lifestyles and drastic eating regimes with incredible results. But this has proved a fallacy. Like the majority of the population, I've found these changes too hard to make and, once the appeal of them wears off, if it is ever 'on', I fall back to the beginning. Eating Nutella from a jar. And worse, inviting friends to join me (Jack).

Since having a newborn, I've had to create for myself some kind of internal structure, since deadlines and external structure became obsolete. We take for granted how much the idea of being sacked actually gets us out of bed, and of pyjamas, for a certain time every day. Take this away, and you are dependent on your will power. And this is where habits come in.

I'm reading (or rather, listening to) the book 'Atomic Habits', by James Clear. It's good to see it confirming everything I've heard or seen over the last couple of years on YouTube, which have mainly been about homemaking habits. The author came out of a very serious accident and had to tackle life in a totally new way. He used habits to become a seriously successful athlete and university student. So I thought I'd distill some of the ideas I've digested over the years in this little post.

Firstly, the point of good habits is to do them so consistently that they become automatic. The reason this is so beneficial is because it frees up your mental energy to think about more pressing and complex things. The more you can put on autopilot the better. So, if you always have a shower, then make your bed, then breakfast, in that order, you don't have to think about what you're doing every morning. It prevents 'decision fatigue.' I like that idea.

The second point about small habits which I like is that they have a compound effect, much like a vitamin or mineral. By itself, a small habit creates a certain improvement, but added to others, the effect can become exponential. Thus if you mix the above habits with the habit of a fruit and kale smoothie for breakfast, you might see quite staggering results. Either that or your bowel movements would be consistent, at least.

The third point about small and good habits, is that they help us believe something about ourselves, the more we repeat them. Clear makes the point that if we cycle once or twice, we don't consider ourselves a cyclist, but if we do it repeatedly, we do. If I tidy my room every morning for 5 minutes then, and make my bed, I would start to see myself as a tidy or organised person. So we can step back and think about the kind of identity we want and then move towards it by implementing a small habit in that direction.

It's interesting to reflect on how I started this with regards to this blog. I'd been thinking about blogging for about a year before I started it but it felt like too much of a project. So one day, I decided to apply the method I use for other daunting tasks: to set my timer for 9 minutes. I decided that I'd only write for 9 minutes and not put myself under pressure. To be honest, I thought it was going to feel like a chore. Pleased to say it didn't ! But I wanted to make it a daily habit, so I had to make it manageable. Now, when I look back over my old blog posts, I see that this tiny habit built momentum and I actually ended up writing, pretty faithfully, most days. Eventually I'd written 67 posts, more than I ever probably thought I would. I never thought I could be that consistent, but starting small seemed to be the trick. There's been a break since then, and I've transferred my old posts to this website, but just seeing them inspires me to write again and keep up the blogging.

The fouth thing I like about good and small habits is that they build momentum. Gretchen Rubin talks about this. She says that in order to be motivated, you have to know your style when it comes to tasks. Some people are marathon runners and others are sprinters. I thought I was a sprinter, but I'm not. I can sprint now and again, but it hasn't won me many trophies... I'm better at the little stuff. The beauty of the little habit is that it can propel you to create another.

Yesterday I was reflecting on the way I revised for my A-levels, in what feels like a century ago. It was only just this side of the Millennium, anyway. I used to get up early, and do quite a long shift. But I stopped every half an hour and gave myself a tick in a box, so it felt like it was in small chunks. And I always started with my favourite subject, or the easiest one to revise. I tried starting with History, but it didn't work for me. I had to start small, and build up. This is what I find I have to do with habits. Making my bed works for me because it's easy. It then leads on to more productive and challenging things.

So why am I thinking about all of this? I suppose because during this time of Covid-19, I am really glad for some of the small habits I've implemented, with the guidance of many YouTubers and writers. They give me something to hold onto, something to fall back, in this weird time of disarray. Hope you find this helpful, and that you might try some of the writers mentioned in this post.

See you soon!

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