The Simplest Things to Do (are Also the Simplest Things to Not Do)

iStock 000000870594XSmallLike setting a kitchen timer and meditating for five minutes.

Or doing just one set of pushups, as many as you can do.

Or taking two minutes to think of ten new things you’re grateful for, and lucky to have in your life.

Or writing down one thing that you love about your significant other.

Any one of these simple things, if done every day, could have a big impact on your life. But as Jim Rohn used to say, and as this post is titled, the simplest things to do are also the simplest things to not do.

How I learned this in the gym

Last September when I took a break from running, I started going to the gym with the goal of putting on as much weight as possible. I did it partly for fun, and partly as an experiment to see how mass-gaining with a vegan diet would work.

My strategy in the gym was an extremely minimalistic one, and yet very effective. I learned about it in Tim Ferriss’ book, The 4-Hour Body: In each gym session, do one set to complete failure of just a few exercises. Nothing else. Total time in the gym is about 20 minutes. Then go to the gym again two or three days later, do the same routine with different muscle groups, and repeat the process until you’re jacked.

Up to this point I had thought my days in the gym were over. Having discovered running, especially ultrarunning, I just didn’t see how I’d ever be motivated to spend an hour and 15 minutes slamming around the iron like I used to. But this program energized me again — sets were so scarce that each time, I wanted to do my very best. And I’d look forward all week to my chance to improve on my previous effort.

Compared to any other workout program I had done, this one was simple. Less time, fewer instructions, fewer exercises for which to have to learn the form. And the results were great.

It hit me: If this is so easy, and so much fun, there’s no reason I should ever stop.

Now, fast forward three months, to January 2012. I’m running again, but the gym (and my simple, easy-to-stick-with workout routine) is a distant memory.

What happened?

What happened, first, was an injury. I hurt my back in a careless accident, in which I loaded more weight on one side of the bar than the other before attempting a deadlift. This ended my little weight-gaining experiment while my back healed, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t have been back in the gym eight weeks later.

Looking back now though, I see the reason … and it has to do with habits.

A few months ago I published a post about new habits I had undertaken, and it was one of the most popular I’ve ever written here. I’d say I owe you an update!

I’ve kept most of the habits I started then, and I’ve added a few new ones. Several of the habits — running, flossing, and making my bed — I’ve done without fail, every single day since I started them. Not one miss. I’ve also added a habit of reminding myself of what I’m grateful for during the last five minutes of my run, and I haven’t missed on that one yet either.

That’s 63 straight days of running, and something like 100 consecutive days of making my bed and flossing and brushing my teeth — these two before I do anything else in the morning.

Other habits are still fully intact, but not quite every single day: drinking tea instead of coffee, meditating for 15-20 minutes, not biting my nails, reading. I attempted to add a habit of writing every day, and I haven’t been successful with that one, but I’m writing more than I was before.

What makes the difference in habits that stick

Recently I asked myself: What has been the difference between those that have stuck perfectly, and those that have been harder to keep up? After a little thinking, I came up with the answer, which explains why my time in the gym didn’t last — even when it was a simple, enjoyable thing to do.

Of the small habits — the simple things to do that are just as simple to not do — those that I’ve been perfect at have a definite trigger, or cue, that signals to my brain that it’s time to do them.

When I started learning about habit change, I learned about the importance of a trigger. Now I actually believe it.

I wake up in the morning and I make my bed and floss and brush my teeth before I even think about doing something else. The trigger, in this case, is simply waking up and getting out of bed. It’s something I do every day, and my brain has learned that after you get up, you make your bed and floss. I haven’t missed on either of these habits yet.

Reminding myself of the things I’m grateful for happens at the end of each run, right when I shift into cool down mode. My body slows down and my breaths lengthen, and my brain is reminded to be grateful. Every time.

Those smaller habits that I haven’t been quite as good at doing every day — meditating, reading, writing are prime examples — have not had a strong trigger associated with them. I’ve done them at varying times throughout the day, never choosing a certain, everyday action to cue these habits.

But what about running?

Running has been an everyday habit, but although I intended to do it in the morning, the reality is that it happens whenever I can fit it in. And yet, even without a strong trigger, it still happens. Every. Single. Day.

The reason running has succeeded without a trigger, I believe, is that it’s become a big deal. Once I got up to running 40 or 50 or more minutes each day, running occupied a big space in my day and my mind. It ceased to be one of those simple things to do that’s also simple to not do. It wasn’t simple to skip running anymore: my run has become such a significant part of my day, with having to get dressed for it, go outside for an hour or so, and shower afterwards, that I never “forget” to run.

(Interestingly, I did have a strong trigger in the beginning, when running took only 20 minutes and seemed simpler. That was crucial to getting started.)

That’s why I never got back to the gym after the injury sidetracked me. Working out seemed simple, and I had no trigger for it. I just did it when I felt like it, which made it easy to forget to come back to after I recovered.

The point

If I had wanted a 200-word post instead of a 1400-word one, I’d have written this:

For small habits — the important things that are simple to do but also simple to not do — you absolutely need to choose a trigger.

It’s well-known that habits are pathways in your brain that have been strengthened by repetition. But if you don’t have something (let’s call it X) that signals to your brain, “Okay, you did X, now it’s time to do Y,” then you’ll often forget (or feel unmotivated) to do Y. Y is too small a thing to remember and want to do each day.

If instead, Y is a big deal and takes a lot of time — and it’s not a simple-to-do-yet-simple-not-to-do activity — the trigger is less important, at least in the short-term (the only time frame I have any familiarity with here). But keep in mind that if you’re looking to change a habit, it’s best to start small (i.e., simple), and that means you’ll want a trigger at first.

Simple things add up

Don’t doubt that those tiny, simple things can make a huge difference in your life. As you add more of them, and they become more habitual so that you do them automatically, they begin to stack, to compound. And several months (or years) down the road, the effects can be astounding.

But to keep them, you need a trigger. With all of the small, important habits that I’ve been only good (not great) at doing daily, I’ve gone back to the drawing board to deliberately set up a schedule so that a trigger precedes each simply habit. In some cases, like deciding to do 15 minutes of meditation after my run, the trigger may simply be another, stronger habit. In others, it’s lunch, or my morning cup of tea, or putting my son to bed.

That’s the next stage of improvement for me. I hope you can use my experience to help you make some changes you want to make!

PS — After I wrote this, I found a great interview with The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg. If the topic of habit change interests you and you’ve got half an hour, it’s worth watching.

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Comments

  1. I think our will is a wonderful thing as long as we show it who’s boss. So many people I know simply tell me they can’t, yes they can. It takes the will and telling your self over and over you can do it. It’s not EASY but it’s worth it,

  2. Hello, i’m a newbie and a first time commenter…but I just wanted to say you are spot on, I’d never thought of it like that before and the amount of times i’ve berated myself for ‘not managing to keep up a simple task’ but now i understand! I will watch that interview you mention too. Thanks!

  3. So true. But I’m the opposite. Call me obsessive, but I find it easy to sick with things. But the 2 problems with it are the guilt I feel when I don’t do them, and my difficulty with dialing back bit, which often leads to injury. So I need to find the trigger to allow myself an easy out, when I need it.

  4. Thanks for the post, Matt! A lot of the habits you talked about involve triggers: waking up in the morning then flossing and making your bed. What about things like not picking your nails? What’s your trigger for not doing something that could occur at any point in the day? Or are all the minutes of meditation adding up such that your mindful and aware of every time you pick? ;) Thank you!

    • Great question! I’ve learned that stopping bad habits is a different process than starting good ones — you have many, many triggers throughout the day for something like biting and picking your nails. The process I learned is to change things so that those cues trigger a different habit, a replacement. For me, it was 5 mindful breaths. That worked for a while, but I noticed after a few weeks I started slacking off and biting my nails again, probably because I got too confident that the habit was broken and lazy about doing the breathing.

      My latest replacement habit has been a simple one — wearing a rubber band on my wrist. Every time I notice the urge to bite my nails, I just switch the rubber band from one wrist to the other. Each time I do that instead, I get a little bit of satisfaction, a reminder that I’m doing well, without quite as much effort as the breathing was. It’s working really well.

      Thanks for asking!

  5. It’s so true – little changes can make a big difference. I tend to underestimate their potential influence.

    Flossing is a habit I picked up a few years ago after spending waaay too much money on dental bills. Trigger: going to bed. No matter what, I always floss (and it’s paid off at the dentist’s office). I am also in the habit of making dinner almost every night instead of going out to eat. We used to go out to eat a lot more often. For me, the trigger is probably just getting in my car to go home. I spend a lot of the drive thinking about what to make, what spices to use, what flavors and textures to combine, etc.

    I love the idea of making my bed every day. That seems like a relatively simple habit to pick up and one that would make me feel good before leaving the house each morning.

    I think positive thinking is also a habit – recognizing negative thoughts and replacing them with more helpful messages. That is the habit I’ve been working on changing for a long time. In this case, the old habit is hard to break.

  6. Robin Lukacs says:

    Meditation, positive attitude and reflection are so important for physical health as well as emotional health. A while ago I was well into your half marathon program, Matt, and really finding success. I love the perfect smoothie recipe and have it nearly daily. I also took your advice about the daily salad. I’ve lost weight too. Unfortuneatly, I chose to ignore some other symptoms I was having and finally went to the dr who found some cardiac issues. I need to temporarily slow down for a while, but my diet has definitely put me on the right track. Thanks!

  7. The Power of Habit. Best book I’ve read in a long time!!

  8. Hi there. Triggers are great, for sure. The thing with triggers and habits, I have found in my nutrition counseling practice, is that they come from deep beliefs we have about ourselves/lives.

    Whether perceived to be positive or negative, these beliefs shape us. That’s why changing habits is so challenging. We may not WANT to change (internally).

    Anyway…I won’t go on and on :) I liked your post and just wanted to add in my comment.
    Thanks for a great blog,
    Selena

  9. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Great post Matt,
    Seems like a fine line between accomplishing something and accomplishing nothing.

  10. Justin Sojda says:

    Great Post!!!
    Just wanted to point out that the gym wasn’t a daily habit like running. It was a twice a week habit, so therefore would be harder to make it a habit if it isn’t everyday, especially after missing 8 weeks.

    This brings up the point about weekly habits and I was thinking about this yesterday. Although most of the habits people are working on are daily habits, weekly habits seem to be different.

    Daily habits may be brushing teeth, shaving, flossing, making bed, taking vitamins, taking meds, mediating, walking dog, NOT smoking, NOT drinking, etc.

    Weekly habits might be exercising on certain days, housework, paying bills, creating a menu for the week, washing the car.

    I find daily habits easier to form than weekly habits, although I do exercise (2 days biking/ 2 days weights) every week.

    So my question is how do we form weekly habits???
    Do they take more time to form??
    Do they take more motivation??
    The triggers, if any, don’t happen everyday but only once in a while.

    Thanks

  11. Hi matt. I have a question about triggers. I want to remember to meditate when my daughter is napping but what happens when she stops having naps or starts school, etc? Will my then long term habit, still stick without the trigger? Thanks. Amy

    • Hey Amy, good question! I don’t know the answer, but here’s my best guess. If you stick with meditation for a long time, your brain will become accustomed to the “reward” it gets from meditating, and will crave it if you don’t do it. So while the trigger is necessary at first, its importance would probably take a back seat after a long enough time. Maybe you’d need to pick a new trigger once the napping was no longer a good one, and for a few days it might be difficult, but I bet it wouldn’t take long to transition since the habit is so strong. Like I said, that’s just my guess!

  12. Ok, thanks heaps matt! :)

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