Habits #1: The Secret is to Start Small

Habits #1: The Secret is to Start Small January 6, 2019

So New Year’s Resolutions are ineffective. You may have set them anyway. But even if you didn’t, you probably still want to change and improve your personal life this year. There are virtues you want to develop, skills you want to take strengthen, and vices you want to eliminate.

In order to salvage our collective attempts at personal growth, I’m writing a series on how to effectively and efficiently build habits. This process changes your brain, rewiring connections between neurons so that you can change your thoughts and actions.

So what does neuroscience tell us about habit formation? What’s the most effective way of changing your brain?

The first (and arguably, most important) key to habit formation is to start small and be consistent. In other words, you want to build microhabits, incremental adjustments to your daily behavior.

The neuroscience of microhabits

Our brains try to resist change, because they evolved to conserve energy to keep you alive. This means that, build strong neuronal circuits, you need to take one tiny step at a time. Neuroscience research in mice shows that, when neurons are repeatedly activated in a continuous circuit, the connections between these brain cells grow strong. This makes it easier for these neurons to communicate in the future – which, as we know, allows you to express that desired behavior or action.

This process is called consolidation. Microhabits, small incremental changes to your daily behavior, take advantage of consolidation. If you try to change too quickly, this won’t happen. But through microhabits, you can gradually increase communication between neurons, so that they form a strong circuit that lasts over time.

Think of the gym. To get to a pull-up, you have to start small, just hanging on the bar to build your grip strength.

You can use microhabits to get in shape, strengthen your prayer and relationships, develop gratitude, learn a new language, practice a musical instrument, stop procrastinating, cultivate honesty, and more.

How to use microhabits

To use microhabits, first identify a goal of yours. Maybe it’s to be a prayerful person. Now, make a roadmap for getting there. Maybe it’s praying the Divine Office each day.

Now, start really small. The first step toward forming a habit isn’t to commit to Lauds every day. The first step doesn’t even involve opening your breviary. No, the first step is to habitually make the Sign of the Cross.

Microhabits should be the least cognitively taxing possible; we don’t want your brain to have the chance to procrastinate, forget, or avoid the behavior.

So every morning, when you roll out of bed, just make the Sign of the Cross. It takes little to no effort, but soon enough your brain will link up those neurons to make it automatic. You will have the urge to make the Sign of the Cross in the morning. After a few weeks, when that small habit is automatic, start taking five minutes to pray.  And after a couple weeks of that, add Lauds.

Because these steps are so small, you can overcome your brain’s resistance to change. And before you know it, almost effortlessly, you will have consolidated a neural circuit that underlies a habit of praying the Divine Office.

What the Saints say about microhabits (more or less)

This first key to habit formation – the use of microhabits – echoes what the Saints have modeled and preached for centuries.

St Alphonsus Liguori often exhorted his people to start small as they were building a strong foundation for their prayer life. “What does it cost us to say, ‘My God help me! Have mercy on me!’ Is there anything easier than this? And this little will suffice to save us if we be diligent in doing it.”

Pope Francis recently reiterated that all Christians are called to sanctity, and that “The path to holiness is almost always gradual, made up of small steps in prayer, in sacrifice and in service to others.” He writes that vibrant life of prayer, sacraments, and community always begins with the smallest gestures. Holiness requires sincere daily effort; it is not accomplished in a single act of heroism.

Think of Saint Therese and her “little way.” She understood the path of holiness to be comprised of the smallest steps and the most hidden sacrifices of love, that all accumulate to built you into the image of God. “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

So you can see that neuroscience and theology, here, are revealing the same truth: that growth in virtue takes place through small, consistent steps.

Find the rest of this series here.

Further reading recommendations

B.J. Fogg is a leader in psychology on building habits, and his work on tiny habits is helpful for anyone trying to grow or change.

And for a great philosophical exploration of the connection between habits and the virtues, read Prof. Stanley Hauerwas’ lecture “Habit Matters: The Bodily Character of the Virtues,” given in 2012 at the The Von Hügel Institute.

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