Taking Tiny Steps to Form New Habits


April 29, 2021

What’s one of your positive habits?  Maybe you keep a water bottle at your desk, or take the stairs rather than the elevator.  Maybe you make your bed every morning.

Part of the magic and the power of habits is that we don’t need to be motivated or rely on willpower. Once a habit is in place, we do it automatically without much thought.

It’s not always easy to establish a positive habit, but the science of habit formation offers a few tips that show us how to create new habits, step by step.   

Whether you want to be more active, eat more mindfully, or save money, here’s what the research has to say:

Start Small

Getting started is always the hardest part and the initial step is critical.  If the first steps are too ambitious, we’re not able to create traction. Maybe the plan is to go to the gym three times a week – but then we find that we don’t have our gym clothes, or we need to work late, or we’re sleep-deprived or hungry, or whatever it might be.

Stanford researcher BJ Fogg recommends making the first step ridiculously easy, like flossing one tooth or practicing mindful eating for one minute.  He refers to these as tiny habits.  Making that first step so insanely easy that there’s no excuse not to do it.

A Few More Secrets for Healthy Habit-Building

In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg describes three components of habit-building:

The reminder.  This could be a phone reminder to get up from your desk and move.  Or a note on your credit card that asks whether what you’re about to buy is something you really need.  (And reminds you that you want to save up to buy a new guitar!)

Repetition.  Practicing until the action becomes automatic.  Over time, we find ourselves automatically moving more during the day, or being more mindful in our spending.  

The reward is critical as well because that’s what hard-wires the habit into the brain.  The reward can also be tiny – as simple as giving yourself a gold star. You could give yourself a high five and say “impressive self-discipline!”  

The key here is to build in little rewards along the way. Instead of saying, “After I’ve saved $500 I’m going to reward myself with a new guitar,” you can celebrate each positive step of the way.  This reinforces the habit of saving.

Making Small Changes to Your Environment

You can also set yourself up for success by making small changes to your environment that make it easier for you to stay on track – things like leaving your credit card at home, placing your running shoes by the door, or not keeping cookies or (fill in the blank!) in your house. 

Finally, mindfulness is key.  With awareness, you’re able to consciously observe yourself, choose your actions, and make more mindful choices.

Expert on the neuroscience of habits, Jeffrey Schwartz, MD says that “Your mind is your biggest ally.  It gives you the capacity to choose where to focus your attention.” By paying attention mindfully, “you have the ability to change any habit in your life.”

Adding STOP to Your Daily Habits 

One mindfulness practice that can help focus your attention and build positive habits is referred to as STOP, which stands for Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed.

The first step is to stop for a moment.  Imagine pressing a pause button to create a little more stillness and space. 

Then take a breath and observe your thoughts or emotions or actions without judging.

Maybe you find yourself looking into the refrigerator (again!) and noticing that you’re feeling stressed or bored.

The final step is to proceed with the best choice in the moment.  Here, the tiny step might be to walk away from the refrigerator, and instead listen to music or practice one minute of mindful stretching.

You can start by paying attention to those things you do automatically and ask yourself whether the habit moves closer to the person you want to be.  If not, you can engage the practice of STOP to take charge of your life and to build more positive and healthier habits – one tiny step at a time.

Part of building healthy habits may also be letting go of bad habits. Live mindfulness programs such as Breaking Free from Bad Habits can help you start to let go of some of those behaviors that are no longer serving you. 

Written by Kathleen Jones