As you can imagine, I read a lot of productivity books. Every month, more of them pop up. And over the last year or so I’ve noticed a trend in the common philosophy of many of them.
It is the tiny habit approach to productivity. And I can’t tell you how much that trend bothers me. How wrong I think it is in one fundamental way.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there is a lot of worth in the whole tiny habit philosophy, but only if you twist the message that most of the tiny habit gurus push.
Never heard of tiny habits?
There’s more than a handful of productivity books that use this idea. At its most basic is a principal you’ve probably come across before.
If you want to adopt, for example, the habit of exercising daily, then you do not set a daily expectation that you will workout for 1 hour, without fail, seven days a week.
If you’ve studied any productivity research at all, you will recognize immediately that such a goal is utterly unrealistic. And for many years, we’ve been taught, instead, to set SMART goals, where the “A” stands for Attainable.
That is, you set a goal that you think you have a reasonable chance of achieving. Working out for twenty minutes, three times a week, for example. That’s an achievable goal.
Tiny goals take that principle and stretch it to the max.
Instead of unrealistic or even SMART goals, you make the habit so simple and so easy, that it is next to impossible to not get it done.
Instead of exercising for an hour for seven days a week, you set a goal of doing one push up a day.
That’s it. Just one.
Anyone can do one push up. Hell, even I can do one push up, and I’ve never seriously trained to do push ups in my life. I’m a <cough, cough> aged woman who sits in a chair and types all day.
But I could still do a single push up.
That’s a tiny habit.
The idea behind it is that the bar is set so low, you can always, always meet it. And once you’ve met that goal, once you have started, it’s very likely you will continue on and do more.
You don’t have to do more. You can do your one push up, call it quits for the day, and move on. But basic human psychology kicks in and once you’ve done that single push up, it’s highly likely you’ll tell yourself it was so easy, you could crank out at least a dozen more…and so you do them.
You can see how this tiny habit approach is appealing.
That’s where the danger lies.
The problem with the tiny habit philosophy is that it teaches you to think that you never have to make yourself do anything. That you never have to train your will and self-discipline to get things done, even if you don’t feel like doing them.
Tiny habits and the way they are sold to readers makes you think that you don’t have to exercise any will power at all. That things magically happen without it.
That’s the danger of tiny habits. They circumvent your self-discipline. And that’s a bad habit to get into.
Twist it to make it work for you.
If you twist the tiny habit idea by ninety degrees, it can actually work extremely well for writers.
That’s because there’s a bit of sleight of hand going on with the tiny habits movement. The thing they don’t draw your attention to is that you still do need to exert some will power.
After all, you still have to make the decision to do that one push up. Or write that one sentence. Even though either of them is an absolute cakewalk to complete.
You still have lower yourself to the ground and adopt the correct starting posture to do the pushup.
You still have to open your manuscript and scroll to the end of it, where you left off.
However, because the bar is set so pathetically low, it just doesn’t feel like you’re exerting any will power.
And once you’re on the ground, or the cursor is blinking, it becomes much easier to complete the pushup, or write the sentence.
That is because all your will power and self-discipline (the tiny amount you actually need) is used to make yourself start.
Here’s how to give the tiny habit idea its ninety-degree twist: Don’t set a tiny habit goal. Set a SMART one.
But watch your self talk. Do NOT think about how hard that goal might be. Don’t let yourself think about the marathon writing session ahead.
Instead, tell yourself that all you have to do is start. That’s it. That’s all. Just start.
Use all your self-discipline and will power to make yourself sit down and start. If you really, really want to, you can get up after a minute or two and shelve the manuscript for the day, but I’m betting you will not. I’m betting you’ll slide right into the story and keep going…and achieve your goal for the day.
Learning How To Start Is The Key To Successfully Writing A Lot of Fiction
You will face many, many times when you have to start writing again. It isn’t just the first time you open the manuscript for the day.
Every single interruption—the phone, your partner bringing you a cup of coffee, the cat asking for a chin scratch, bathroom breaks, and the health breaks we’re all advised to take at least every hour…these all represent moments when you have to pick up the mental strings of the story and start writing again.
True, the first start of the day is the toughie, but any one of them has the potential to knock you out of your writing mojo, and make sure you fail to write another word.
You can’t always avoid interruptions. You can engineer your environment and bargain with your family, wear headphones, turn off the phone and the internet and still be side swiped by a bird attacking its reflection in the glass of your window.
There Are Too Many Unknowns You Cannot Control
So stop trying.
Instead, teach yourself how to just start, once your fingers have lifted away from the keyboard, for any reason, and for any duration.
Learn how to just start successfully, every single time. Getting to the end of the story will take care of itself. Getting to the end of many stories will become a doddle.
Next time you have scheduled yourself to write, don’t think about how long the writing session is, or how many words you have to get down before you’re done.
Instead, tell yourself you’re just going to start. And that’s all.
Try it and see.