Skip to content

When forming a new habit: consider not starting small?

McKinley Valentine — 5 min read
When forming a new habit: consider not starting small?

On this page

You know the advice re: atomic habits and so on, start with just one push-up, 1 minute of meditation, etc etc. Start so small that you've got no possible reason not to do it. Even very busy and tired people could set their alarm 1 minute earlier, right? And once you build up the tiny habit, you can make 90 seconds, 5 minutes, and so on.

This has been transformative advice for a lot of people, and I'm not criticising it.

But it did not work for me at all, so maybe it doesn't work for you, and we can talk about why.

(I have ADHD and that's blatantly relevant here, but my view here is "every brain is different and responds to different tactics, so you shouldn't let a diagnosis or lack-of-diagnosis limit what tactics you try out".)

Effort-to-reward ratio

The 'tiny habits' theory works by drastically reducing the amount of effort. It takes a lot of effort to do a whole strength-training routine, so that's a high barrier. Makes sense to reduce it. The problem is that you're often reducing the reward drastically as well. And miniscule-effort for zero-reward is still maths that works out to "not worth it".

I do strength training now, and some things that have motivated me a lot are:

  • Getting visible biceps and shoulder muscles
  • Doing my first full pushup, oh my gosh! Rad

If I had done one knee push-up a day, it would have taken me an EXTREMELY long time to get visible muscles and strong enough for full push-up (in fact, it would never have happened – you need to be able to to do about 10 knee push-ups in a row before you can do a full pushup).

There's only so long you can do even a low-effort task when it seems completely pointless.

Meditation is the same: 1 minute does nothing but mildly annoy me. I shut my eyes and am just like, getting my mind straight, remembering to let go of thoughts, and the guided voice is like "return your attention to your body". Lady, it never left. The effort is low, but the reward is non-existent.

The idea to think about is minimum effective dose. What's the smallest a habit can be and still have a meaningful benefit?

(Charles Duhigg would say that you're supposed to give yourself a different reward immediately after doing the habit, to fix the effort-to-reward ratio problem. But that's never worked for me because I can just go get whatever the treat is without doing the habit. The reward needs to be more built-in for me.

BJ Fogg recommends doing a "celebration" after a habit, and I think that has more legs. Like just try and feel really good about yourself for doing it. That's definitely one of the rewards of exercise, you think "good on me, I went to the gym, even though I really didn't want to. Nice one." You can also message a friend to say "I really didn't want to go the gym but I did anyway, give me kudos please" and they will.)

Activation / transition cost

The "low effort" thing is a bit of a trick, because it never really takes just 6o seconds to do a 60-second activity, does it? You have to stop, switch gears, maybe get out an app or something, have a drink of water so you won't be distracted by thirst. Not to mention the hour or so beforehand you spend trying to talk yourself into it, and how long it might take you to get motivated to re-start your work once you've stopped.

I sometimes think the biggest difference between super-successful people and the rest of us is how easily they transition. Like the person who can get home after work, get changed, and immediately leave again to meet a friend. Or put their stuff down, pick up their guitar, and start practising. People who don't need a bunch of time and energy to get over work and then gin themselves up for the next thing – my god. You live what looks like blessed lives to me.

For people who have very high activation/transition costs, the 60-second habit has the same logic as an Australian flying to London for the weekend, a 20+ hour flight in both directions. If I'm going to spend that much time travelling, I want the trip to feel pretty damn substantial.

So maybe for you the cost of a new habit isn't the effort or time of actually doing Whatever It Is, it's the task activation and gear-switching. In which case, it's not gonna bloody feel worth it for one push-up, is it! Maybe doing a much higher-effort version of the habit would actually be a better effort: reward ratio for you.

Interest-based nervous system

(This one is the most ADHD-specific.) In as few words as possible, ADHD isn't a deficit of attention, it's dysregulated attention. Generally, neurotypical people have a few different things that can arouse their nervous system to help them engage with a task. For example, seeing the task as important or a high priority. When someone with ADHD can't focus, it doesn't mean they don't think it's important. They do – they think it's very, very important. But that knowledge does not get their brain chemicals and such to activate and help them focus. It makes you sound like a child to say "I find it hard to focus on things that don't interest me", but it's happening at the neurotransmitter level – people who "knuckle down and just get on with it" are relying on neurological processes they take for granted (and honestly, fair enough. Who thinks about all the automatic processes going in your body all the time? People with ADHD are reading this right now and taking for granted all the neurotransmitters and brain pathways that enable them to read.)

ANYWAY, point being, building a habit that doesn't interest you is an uphill battle. Doing one push-up doesn't interest me. Researching and optimising does. Complex systems do. So going all-in and learning a tonne about muscle growth and putting together the optimal workout program and obsessing over the fine details is easier for me than doing one pushup a day, because my interest-based nervous system kicks in to support me. Meticulously tracking calories and macros is easier for me than just applying some basic principles like eating plenty of vegetables and cutting down on junk, because tracking and planning things is fun for me.

A good exercise (ha) might be to think about what actually engages your interest and curiosity, what you find easy, what things you can do for many hours in a row without noticing the passage of time. For me, it's research. For some people, it's community and socialising, and they listen to podcasts that make them feel part of a bigger community all doing the Habit they're trying to develop.

What seems 'objectively' easiest is not necessarily the same thing you find easiest, and vice versa.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #175 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Be More FunctionalUnsolicited Advice


Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.