Unlocking the Power of Small Changes: Tiny Habits v. Micro Habits

Apr 04, 2024

In the realm of personal development, the concept of ‘habit’ reigns supreme.  That’s apparently because much of our behaviour is actually built around habits.  Dr. Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California estimates that about 40% of our daily behaviour is influenced by habit.  It’s not just the getting up and brushing our teeth bit, it’s the whole procedure of getting dressed, making the morning coffee (or not), walking or driving to work (perhaps), and doing the various things that make your day productive (or not). Clearly, 43% is a significant chunk of our day.   Given this, it makes sense that how we structure our routines, set our goals, and implement behavioural change would profoundly impact our lives.

But I’m hardly the only one to be thinking this.  As you’ve probably noticed, habit creation is all the rage  in the psychology and self-development circles.  Oodles of books and articles have been devoted to the topic over the past decade.  Many of us have heard of Tiny Habits, for example, a behavioural change programme (and book) developed by Dr. BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford University in California.  And, most of us will have also heard of a similar programme (and book) called Atomic Habits, popularised by the author, James Clear.  Other notable books on habit include The Power of Habit, and Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin.

All of these books have interesting things to say and each has a peculiarly powerful point of its own.  These books are very similar, however, in emphasising the importance of starting with small, manageable habits rather than attempting drastic change all at once. Of course, we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.  For example, if we want to start moving more, we shouldn’t attempt running five miles every evening.  Instead, we might start by taking a walk to the mailbox or simply putting on our tennis shoes.  Either of these first steps is great.  Starting small makes behaviour change more sustainable and less overwhelming. 

But don’t get confused; it’s not that we want our habits to stay small.  The intent is simply to get ourselves into a habit of always walking to the mail box . . . and then to walking a bit further, and a bit further.  As you get used to the walking, you’re simultaneously getting more fit.  So, you have more energy.  Going a bit further isn’t something you will have to force.  Very likely it will come naturally. . . because you feel good!  One day, you might actually run half a block.  In a few weeks, you’ll be out running for ten or fifteen minutes.  And then . . .  who knows!  The point is that starting small helps us build a big, sustainable habit.

Of course, all of these books also say that we need to be consistent. So we do need to be a bit disciplined.  This is important for success.  By repeating small actions consistently over time, they become ingrained in our routines.  Another critical success criteria is rewarding oneself for trying.  BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, is tremendous in his description of of how simple pats on the back or ‘good job!’ statements to oneself can set off a cascade of feel-good hormones in the brain.  These are the physiological rewards to which we can literally become addicted.  And in truth, this is exactly the type of addiction we want.

So, Tiny Habits and the other books mentioned above are all part of what I would refer to as the ‘start small’ genre.  In this blog, I’ll focus narrowly on BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits approach as an exemplar of this genre.  But, I want to compare all of these start small/build big approaches, like the Tiny Habits approach, to something different, i.e.,  the micro habits approach discussed in Forbes Magazine. This micro habits approach isn’t at all like the other tiny, mini, or atomic approaches we might take on.  But it makes a lot of sense.

Let’s look more closely at both of the approaches before we attempt to choose between them.

Let’s look first at the Tiny Habits approach.  Again, the premise is simple yet profound: by breaking down desired behaviours into tiny, manageable actions, we can bypass resistance and create lasting habits. Fogg suggests that habits consist of three components: a trigger, the behaviour itself, and a reward. By anchoring new behaviours to existing triggers and  by celebrating small victories, we can ‘wire in’ new habits very effectively.

For example, if your goal is to floss your teeth daily, Fogg advises starting with something as simple as flossing just one tooth after brushing, i.e., the trigger.   After you finish, give yourself a high-five to celebrate and tell yourself you're great.  This tiny action is easy to accomplish and serves as a means to kickstart a consistent flossing habit. Over time, you can gradually grow the habit and enjoy a mouth full of clean teeth. 

I should tell you that I am a Tiny Habits certified trainer and that I really, really love this approach.  For me and my clients, it really seems to work. So when I first learned of micro habits from my friend, Toby, I kinda dismissed the concept as copy-cat.  But it’s not at all the same thing. In fact, if you’re someone who really has difficulty sticking with healthy habits, it could be a great alternative to the tiny habits approach. 

Again, it was Forbes Magazine that first introduced the concept of micro habits.  The magazine was trying to highlight the power of even trivial change in driving personal growth and health.  Like Tiny Habits, the micro habits movement focuses on very small actions that require minimal effort to complete.  But while small, these actions can yield significant results over time.   Let me give you some examples: 

* Consider stopping to breathe deeply for 1 minute every two hours. 

* How about drinking half a cup of water every 30 minutes?

* Or always putting your dinner on a bed of arugula? 

* What about taking five minutes in the morning to make a list of the things you need to do?

* Or, how about taking 1 minute every half hour to stretch a tiny bit?  You don’t even necessarily need to get out of your chair.

* Or, why not take 60 seconds to read a poem every day?   

Seriously, each of these very small actions could be transformative.  And they don’t need to become bigger.  They are the habit.    

But, again, you have to be consistent. By committing to tiny actions consistently, we can create a ripple effect of positive change.

So, while both Tiny Habits and micro habits share the common goal of fostering behaviour change through small steps, there are clearly subtle differences between the two approaches.   Tiny Habits is truly a formula for establishing habits of almost any type.   On the other hand, micro habits is just about identifying the teeny tiny things we can do right now to introduce good into our lives.  For each of us, the micro habits that will be most beneficial will probably be different.  I need that half of cup of water every 30 minutes.  For you, it might be about stretching or do a few squats every half hour.  But, wow, how transformative could that be?

Personally, I think the micro habits is the way to get started if you truly find this healthy life stuff hard. All you probably need to do is put a reminder in your phone.  At first.  Over time, if you really do remind yourself and get into a discipline, the behaviour will become quite easy.   Apparently, that’s because your brain is changing.  New research suggests that the anterior cingulate cortex in your brain will grow as you discipline yourself.   But, more importantly, as it grows, it will make it easier to implement other habits.  In other words, you can kick off a virtuous cycle of discipline and activity. 

That’s kind of a big deal. 

Ultimately, the choice between these two approaches may come down to personal preference and individual needs . . . and how big you think your anterior cingulate cortex is right now.   Some people may be able to dive straight into Fogg's framework, finding success in identifying triggers and crafting tiny behaviours. But others may find the flexibility and the ease of micro habits more appealing, without the pressure of specific triggers or ‘growing’ the habit.

In any case, simply knowing about these approaches to behavioural change can be empowering.  You can change your life.  You do have control.  There are supports and tools that you can use to make these changes a little easier.   But a key thing to remember is that everything will be small . . . for a while.  But whether it's flossing one tooth, decluttering one corner, or writing one sentence, every small effort contributes to what will emerge over time as something profound:  a healthier, much happier you.

Yours in health & happiness,