Start small with new habits

This article is inspired by the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, which I would recommend. In the book he talks about the idea of starting small. We all know we can bite off more than we can chew at times. Especially when our motivation is high to change it is easy to start and try do too much to soon. First get the habit started and regular, and then you can start to build on it. Here is how you do it.

Clear talks about the Two-Minute Rule. This simply states when you are starting a new habit it should take less than two minutes to do. Simple. You have a goal, but break that goal down to a two minute habit. For example:

· “Walk 10,000 steps each day” becomes “Put on my running shoes.”

· “Keep the house tidy” becomes “put one item of dirty clothing in the laundry basket.”

· “Be a better partner” becomes “make my partner a cup of coffee every morning.”

· “Get straight As” becomes “set my books out on the desk when I get home.”

The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. The Two-Minute Rule helps counterbalance our tendency to be too ambitious and get overwhelmed. It also gives you a small way to reinforce your desired goal each day.

When all we hear about are other people’s spectacular results, it’s natural to think that we need to push ourselves to the limit to achieve anything worthwhile. I know, I've made that mistake many times myself. Instead, you can simplify the process by narrowing your attention to the first movement.

You may not be able to automate the whole process, but you can make the first action mindless. You’re trying to build what James Clear calls a “gateway habit”. This is basically a small change in behaviour that leads to a larger change.

You can usually figure out the gateway habits that will lead to your desired outcome by mapping out your goals on a scale from “very easy” to “very hard.” Most people start with ambitions that are big and very hard, but need to transition to habits that are small and very easy.

For instance, learning to play a song on the guitar is very hard. Learning to play the chorus of a song is very difficult. Learning to play the scales is moderately difficult. Practicing the chords is easy. Picking up the guitar and sitting down in a quiet spot is very easy. Your ultimate ambition might be to learn to play a full song, but your gateway habit is picking up your guitar and sitting down in a quiet place where you can practice. That’s how you follow the Two-Minute Rule.

Even broad life goals can be transformed into a two-minute behaviour. Wanting to live a healthy life may be your ultimate ambition, but then you can ask, what do I need to live a healthy life? I need to stay in shape. Then you can ask, what do I need to stay in shape? I need to exercise. What do I need to do to exercise? I need to change into my workout clothes. And so on, until you get to a behaviour that takes two minutes or less – until you discover the first movement.

So, in this case, putting on your workout clothes becomes your two-minute habit that moves you toward your ultimate ambition of living a healthy life.

Or, wanting to have a happy marriage may be your ultimate ambition. So ask, what do I need to have a happy marriage? You need to be a good partner. Then ask, how you can be a good partner? You could do something each day to make your partner feel cared for. Something that makes their life easier. How could you make your partner’s life easier? You could make their morning coffee for them… and so on, searching for small ways to move toward your ultimate ambition.

People often think it’s weird to get excited about putting on your shoes, or placing one item of clothing in the laundry basket, or making one cup of coffee, or setting your books out on the desk. But the point is not to do two minutes of work and then never do anything else. The point is to master the art of showing up.

Here’s one example from the book that I liked:

“When I was getting back into the gym after being away for two years I told myself all I needed to do is get to the gym with my bag and stay for 10 minutes, then I'm free to go home if I want.”

It ended up working. He reclaimed his fitness habit and began exercising consistently.

The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details. In the example in that book that I just mentioned, it wasn’t even about exercising. The person could walk into the lobby of the gym, sit down, and read a book. He could go over to a workout station, set it up as if he were going to lift, and not actually do any reps. He can’t do this forever of course, but in the beginning, the idea is to get comfortable with simply being in the gym. To become the type of person who goes to the gym four days a week.

There is a great line in Atomic Habits, standardisation before optimisation. Make it the standard in your life, then worry about doing it better.

Strategies like this work for another reason too: they reinforce the identity you want to build. If you show up at the gym five days in a row — even if it’s just for two minutes — you are casting votes for your new identity. You’re casting votes for the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. You’re taking the smallest action that confirms the type of person you want to be.

To get my book Get to the Line in the Best Shape Possible, visit, or for information on back pain visit for my free book Secrets of a Healthy Spine.


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