Building Habits Requires Embracing Laziness

The “go hard or go home” mentality of self-improvement actually makes self-improvement harder.

Building Habits Requires Embracing Laziness
This is you, attempting to take on a habit way beyond your weight class - Photo by Pauline Bernfeld / Unsplash

What’s the chief problem with adopting a creative habit? For me (and I imagine this is the case for other people), it’s sustaining the habit past the point where the novelty wears off.

How it usually goes: I’ll get excited about a new kind of writing exercise/routine/project, and that excitement will sustain me for four, maybe five days. If I’m being generous, that’s how long it takes for my routine to get interrupted by an external Thing™ on average—every four or five days.

Then on day five, something will come up. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I made plans. Maybe I just don’t feel as excited anymore.

I blink…

…and it’s six weeks later, and I barely remember wanting to start a habit at all.

I’ve spent a few years trying to figure out what my problem is.

(Well, actually, I’ve spent a few years beating myself up for being a lazy, poorly disciplined slob, but once I learned that being cruel to myself doesn’t actually do anything for me, I started looking outside myself for a solution.)

I learned what I was missing: changing my behavior hinges on the “smallest viable effort.”

Research shows that when forming a new habit, you'll need to determine the smallest viable effort you can do to sustain the habit. By executing the smallest amount of effort every day, your brain can be trained into turning conscious practice into an unconscious habit response. This is vitally important: by picking the smallest viable amount of effort, you're making it possible to form a habit at all. If the amount of effort to form a habit is too large, your brain will have a harder time turning it into an automatic response. Instead, you'll be forced to use conscious effort every time.

The smallest viable effort has a snowball effect

Most people don't choose the smallest viable amount of effort because they're impatient; they want so badly to do things quickly that they make it impossible to do it at all. But the counter-intuitive truth is this: by choosing the smallest viable effort, you're making it likely that you'll finish your creative project faster because you'll be relying on your brain's automatic response and letting consistency/compound interest do the rest.

The smallest viable effort makes habits more fun

Keeping effort small (at first) also helps develop a positive association in your brain with the work you want to do. Joy is key to habit formation because joy is the simplest way your brain can be motivated into doing the same thing day after day.

Your smallest viable effort can grow

Once a habit crystallizes, your version of the smallest viable effort can grow. Let's say you want to form a reading habit. It's far better to start with 1 page a day than 10 pages. Why? Because if you start with 10 pages, you're 10x more likely to put it off or never actually do it. Maybe you'll do it for 7 days, but then something comes up, and you don't get it done. But if you only aim for 1 page a day, it's a lot more likely you'll stick with it. And once it becomes a habit, and your brain is no longer putting effort into maintaining that habit, then you can increase your reading output to 2, then 5, then 10 pages. In the end, you did end up reading 10 pages a day—but only because you formed the habit first, instead of impatiently focusing on output.

You can also experiment with having two standards: your minimum goal and your optional goal. For instance, I’m getting in the habit of walking a couple of miles during my lunch break. One mile is my minimum—that’s the amount I need to walk to “check it off” in my head. It’s easy, roughly about 20 minutes of walking. But two miles is my aspiration, i.e., what I’ll shoot for when I have time and I’m in the mood. It helps me maintain the habit to have both; on days when I don’t have a lot of time or energy, the one-mile walk is a lot more doable, and thus helps me maintain the habit.

My smallest viable effort for every area of my life

There are a few areas in my life where I’m determined to build strong habits: my writing practice, my vlogging practice, daily reading, and my physical health. Here are those efforts for each of those areas:

  • Blog: 150 words per day
  • Novel: 100 words per day
  • Short story collection: 500 words per day
  • Exercise: 1 mile of walking per day
  • Reading: 30 minutes of reading per day

My only concern with this list is that it’s a little too long. Trying to develop too many new habits at once can have the same effect as trying to develop a habit that’s too difficult off the bat. But, to aid with that, I’m easy on myself when it comes to vlogging, which is the most unfamiliar to me and the least related to my long-term ambitions. If I have to drop anything, vlogging would be first.

At the same time, how long do you think all of my new habits take to engage? Three hours? Four hours a day of work?

The answer is (most days) less than two hours. And a good chunk of that is spent reading, which I do for leisure. One hour of my lunch break plus an hour after work, and I have enough time to do every creative task that matters to me. If you’re sane, your list of creative tasks/projects is smaller than mine, which means you’re even more likely to succeed.

What’s the work that matters most to you? What’s your “smallest viable effort” you can turn into a habit for consistent progress? I want to know. Hit me up on Instagram or Twitter (@Rhoadey for both).

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