I don't know about you, but when our family got the stay-at-home order in March of 2020, I came out of the gates pretty darn hot. "Embrace not being so busy," I wrote. "Take this time at home to get into a new happiness habit." That seems hilarious to me now. My pre-coronavirus routines fell apart hard and fast. Some days I would realize at dinnertime that not only had I not showered or gotten dressed that day, but I hadn't even brushed my teeth. Even though I have coached people for a very long time in an effective, science-based method of habit formation, I struggled. Truth be told, for the first few months of the pandemic, I more or less refused to follow my own best advice.
This is because I love to set ambitious goals. Getting into a good little habit is just so much less exciting to me than embracing a big, juicy, audacious goal.
Take exercise, for example. When the coronavirus hit, I optimistically embraced the idea that I could get back into running outside. I picked a half-marathon to train for and spent a week or so meticulously devising a very detailed training plan. But then I actually only stuck to my ambitious training schedule for a few weeks. All that planning and preparation led only to a spectacular failure to exercise. I skipped my training runs, despite feeling like the importance of exercise and the good health that it brings has never been more bracingly clear.
The truth is that our ability to follow through on our best intentions, to get into a new habit like exercise or to change our behavior in any way, really, doesn't actually depend on the reasons we might do it or on the depth of our convictions that we should do so. It doesn't depend on our understanding of the benefits of our particular behavior or even on the strength of our willpower. It depends on our willingness to be bad at our desired behavior. And I hate being bad at stuff. I am a go-big-or-go-home kind of a gal. I like being good at things, and I quit exercising because I wasn't willing to be bad at it.
Here's why we need to be willing to be bad: being good requires that our effort and our motivation be in proportion to each other. The harder something is for us to do, the more motivation we need to do that thing. And you might have noticed, but motivation isn't something that we can always muster on command. Whether we like it or not, motivation comes and motivation goes. When motivation wanes, plenty of research shows that we human beings tend to follow the law of the least effort, meaning we just do the easiest thing. New behaviors tend to require a lot of effort, because change is really hard. To establish an exercise routine, I needed to let myself be kind of half-assed about it. I needed to stop trying to be an actual athlete.
I started exercising again by running for only one minute at a time. Every morning, after I brushed my teeth, I'd change out of my pajamas and walk out the door, my only goal, to run for one full minute. These days, usually I actually do run for 15 or 20 minutes, but on the days that I'm totally lacking in motivation or I just feel like I have no time, I still do that one minute. And this minimal effort always turns out to be way better than if I did nothing.
Maybe you relate. Maybe you've also failed in one of your attempts to change yourself for the better. Perhaps you want to use less plastic or meditate more or be a better anti-racist. Maybe you want to write a book or eat more leafy greens. I have great news for you. You can do and be those things, starting right now. The only requirement is that you stop trying to be so good. You'll need to abandon your grand plans, at least temporarily. You'll need to consider doing something so minuscule that it would be better than not doing anything at all.
So right now, ask yourself: How you can strip that thing that you have been meaning to do into something so easy you could do it every day with barely a thought? It might be eating one piece of lettuce on your sandwich at lunch or going for a one-minute walk outside. Don't worry — you'll get to do more. This better-than-nothing behavior is not your ultimate goal. But for now, what could you do that is ridiculous easy that you can do even when nothing is going as planned? Even though you ultimately might want to do more and be more, remember that we humans are often too tired and too stressed and too distracted to do the things that we really do intend to do and to be the people that we most intend to be. On those days, our wildly ambitious behaviors really are better than nothing. A one-minute meditation is relaxing and restful. A single leaf of romaine lettuce happens to have a half a gram of fiber and loads of nutrients. A one-minute walk gets us outside and moving around, which our bodies really need.
So try doing one better-than-nothing behavior. See how it goes. The goal, remember, is repetition, not high achievement. So let yourself be mediocre at whatever you're trying to do, but be mediocre every day. Take only one step, but take that step every day.
If your better-than-nothing habit doesn't actually seem better than doing nothing, consider that you're getting started at something and that initiating a behavior is often the hardest part. By getting started, we're establishing the neural pathway in our brain for a new habit, which makes it much more likely that we'll succeed with something more ambitious down the line.
Why is this? Well, it's because once we hard wire a habit into our brains, we can do it without thinking, and therefore without needing much willpower or effort. A better-than-nothing habit turns out to be incredibly easy to repeat again and again until it's on autopilot. This is because we can do it even if we aren't motivated, even if we're tired, even if we have no time whatsoever. And once we start acting on autopilot, that's the golden moment that our habit can begin to expand organically.
After only a few days of running for just one minute, I started feeling a real desire to keep on running, not because I felt like I should be exercising more, or because I felt like I needed to impress my neighbors or something, but because it felt more natural to keep running than it felt to stop.
Now, I of all people know that it can be incredibly tempting, especially for the overachievers among us — you know who you are — to encourage ourselves to do more than our designated better-than-nothing habit. So I must warn you: the moment in which you are no longer willing to do something unambitious is the moment in which you are risking everything. It's the moment you end up checking your phone instead of whatever it is that you intended to do. It's the moment in which you stay on the couch binge-watching TikTok videos or Netflix. The moment you think you "should" do more is the moment you introduce difficulty and force and negotiation with yourself. It's the moment you eliminate the possibility that it will be easy and even enjoyable. So that's also the moment that will require a lot more motivation, and if the motivation isn't there, failure will be.
Fortunately, the whole idea behind the better-than-nothing habit is that it doesn't depend on motivation, which we may or may not muster. It's not reliant on having a lot of energy. You do not have to be good at this. You need only to be willing to do something that is wildly unambitious, to do something that is just a smidge better than nothing. But again, don't do more if you feel any form of resistance.
I'm happy to report that after months of struggle, I am now a runner. I became one simply by allowing myself to be bad at it. You definitely could not call me an athlete; there are no half-marathons in my future. But I am consistent. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, the goal is not to be better than other people but rather to be better than our previous selves. And that, I definitely am.
When we abandon our grand plans and great ambitions in favor of taking that first step, we shift. And paradoxically, it's only in that tiny shift that our grand plans and great ambitions are truly born.