As I slide down the slippery slope towards the latter half of my 30s I often find myself contemplating the possibility of self-improvement, wondering whether I’m really making the most of the opportunities that come my way and how I could do better. I’ve said this before, I know. It led to my list of 50 things to do in life, which I’m quietly working through. But most of the things on the list are pretty big and can’t be achieved quickly or easily. That was, after all, the whole point.
But what about every day improvements? In a world of social media, endless TV programmes and advertising everywhere we look, we are perpetually bombarded with images that are designed to make us feel inadequate. We are subject to a continuous stream of reminders about other people’s “perfect” lives, and the fact that we – ourselves and our lives – are not good enough, not productive enough, not fit enough, not beautiful enough, not successful enough…
So, how do we stop beating ourselves up? And rather than constantly feeling like we’re not [insert adjective here] enough, how do we harness our latent potential, which we KNOW is there, but which we constantly berate ourselves for not fulfilling? Surely, if all we ever do is set ourselves impossibly high standards, and then get cross with ourselves for not meeting them, we’re destined to live in a permanent state of dissatisfaction?
Enter the mini habit.
Two months ago, during one of my (many) Internet wanderings, I stumbled across this concept – that the act of doing a tiny thing regularly can ultimately lead to big change. The thought that by setting mini goals we are almost guaranteed to meet, if not surpass, the expectations we have laid down for ourselves, thus increasing our sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. The idea that, rather than being overwhelmed by a huge task or ambition, if we take it on in bite-sized bits, before we know it we’ll have munched away at the whole thing.
This took me back to some advice I was given by a Malaysian mountain guide some six years ago when I went to Borneo to climb Mount Kinabalu. Sitting at the bottom of the mountain, looking up at the summit more than 4000m above sea-level, he quietly said, “How to reach the top of the mountain? Jalan jalan, perlahan perlahan” -“walking walking, slowly slowly”. Little by little. Bit by bit. And he was right.
So I decided to give mini habits a try.
The first challenge is to accept the mini-ness of the mini habits, and approach them from a mini perspective. There are so many things I want to do better or have more time for that the actual task of selecting areas to work on was, in itself, overwhelming. After all, not even Wonder Woman could suddenly adopt hundreds of new habits, mini or otherwise, in one go!
I decided to aim for three.
First of all, I thought about what I wanted to do more of, then I thought about what I love doing but always claim I don’t have “time” to do, and lastly I thought of something that would be useful for my (sometimes frazzled) frame of mind. I would aim small. Not just mini, but itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny habits. They were:
1) Write 50 words a day. Be it part of a blog post, or of a composition for my current writing course.
2) Read two pages a day. Of a novel, or a craft book, or a running magazine. Of anything not work related.
3) Write down one thing each day for which I am grateful.
Given that those three things combined wouldn’t take more than 20 minutes of my day, the “I haven’t got time to…” excuse went well and truly out of the window.
Two months later, I have quite a considerable sense of satisfaction. I’ve read five novels. That’s as many as I read in the whole of last year. Not only that but I’m currently devouring an anthology of short stories and I’ve mopped up some of the dregs of unfinished books that have been lingering, neglected for months, on the bedside table. Two pages often give way to several more. But even when time is really tight, two pages are better than none. Better than leaving a poor, half-read book ignored and unloved for weeks on end. And the best thing: I don’t feel that any time has been wasted. I haven’t had to give up anything else to make way for reading. I just can’t remember “not having time” to read any more. Brilliant.
Writing-wise, this is my third blog post over those two months. And I’ve completed the first module of a writing course I signed up for in November last year and hadn’t yet “got round to”, thinking that I needed to sit down and complete each module in its entirety, in one go. With that frame of mind I’d still be sat faced with a blank page thinking, “I’ll get round to it tomorrow”.
And a gratitude diary. What’s not to love about having an ever-growing list of things that we’re thankful for? And what could be better, even on a crappy day when you’re feeling sick, or tired, or generally totally fed up, than finding something to be grateful for? Something about your crappy day that still makes you smile? Even on the most hideous day, there is ALWAYS something. And it’s pretty great to remind ourselves that we have qualities, people and projects in our lives that are amazing and wonderful, no matter what.
All three of these little activities are now part and parcel of my day. Some days I spend longer on them than others, depending on how time and the fancy take me. But they have definitely become habit. I always grab a book for my two pages. I scribble in a notebook or open the computer to write down an idea, or a phrase, or find a quote for a new blog post or composition. And every day I feel thankful for something.
I’d go so far as to say that mini habits work. And given that there are many more overwhelming tasks to address in life, I think it might be time to think about choosing another one. I will reach the top of my mountain jalan jalan, perlahan perlahan.