self improvement tips

How To Change Your Life With Mini Habits

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

~ Sun Tzu

Imagine you’re at a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone gathers into a circle, and one by one, they answer the question, “What are your goals for next year?” The answers fly in enthusiastically:

  • “I’m going to lose 100 pounds!”
  • “You’ll find me at the gym, five days a week!”
  • “I will write my first novel!”
  • “Count on me to read 50 books this year!”

One year passes. The people gather into the circle again. Despite failing their resolutions last year, they all give similar resolutions again. It’s no surprise they failed and are trying again: University of Scranton researchers have found that 92% of resolutions are not kept, and that 45% of Americans still set them!

But let’s not just blame resolutions, as they’re just another version of the same goals people set at all times. I was never much into resolutions, but I did set lofty goals throughout the year. For 10 years of my life, I was very motivated to change, and yet I couldn’t. Everything changed in late 2012.

The One Push-up That Changed Lives, Including Mine

That’s a bold claim, I know. But it’s true that because I did one push-up on December 28, 2012, thousands of lives have been and are being changed for the better (including my own).

On this night which was sandwiched between Christmas and the new year, I decided to start exercising consistently.

“I will start with a 30 minute workout and do it every day from now on,” I thought. But I couldn’t even do it the first time. I did not want to exercise. I felt lazy, unmotivated, and a little bit sorry for myself.

I knew I had to get creative, so I thought about a concept I read in Thinkertoys, a creativity book. The concept is called false faces, in which you consider the opposite of what you’re currently thinking. Well, I was thinking about how difficult it was to do this workout. It seemed impossible!

What’s the opposite?

The thought came to mind: “do one push-up.”

Ha! I went along with it to humor myself.

“Since I can’t do anything meaningful, I’m going to aim for one push-up.”

It was a self-mocking joke at the time. When I got down into push-up position, however, I started getting really curious because I realized that it was the same start to a full workout. Then I did my push-up. I was weak and my elbows needed WD-40. I decided to do a couple more since I was already in position.

I jumped up and decided a few push-ups was better than nothing. Then I had an idea—I set my next goal of one pull-up. Done, and then a few more. I continued with this strange new game until I had exercised for 20 minutes. “That was great,” I thought, “but there’s no way I’m doing an ab workout now.” That’s when I challenged myself to pull out the exercise mat. Ten minutes later, my abs were on fire and my 30 minute workout was finished.

At this point, the light bulbs in my head were like stars going supernova. This was my first mini habit. And while I thought it was pretty neat, I had no idea it would absolutely transform my life.

Fast forward two years to today, and I’m a different person:

  • I’m in the best shape of my life. I can do at least 16 pull-ups in a row, for reference. That started with this story, which made me decide to do at least one push-up every day.
  • I write four times as much as I used to write. That started with a mini habit of writing at least 50 words a day. Using my writing mini habit, I wrote Mini Habits, the best-selling book that describes this concept in detail (a nice built-in proof-of-concept, right?).
  • I read ten times as many books as I used to read. That started with the requirement of reading two pages in a book every day.

How To Begin Your Own Mini Habits Today

If you’re tired of wrestling with yourself to change, it’s because you’re fighting a battle you’re not strong enough to win. It’s nothing to be ashamed of—humans are neurologically built to resist change. But mini habits slip right under this resistance (they’re too small to resist).

Over time, mini habits destroy resistance in much the same way that termites destroy trees. Individually, they’re small, but when combined over time, they have a huge impact. Mini habits work so well because they generate momentum and reprogram your subconscious (which is why I no longer resist exercising).

The reason mini habits work so well is that they are simple and easy to implement. Otherwise, like with other strategies, when we have a bad day, get overwhelmed, or run out of willpower, we’ll drop our goal and lose our progress.

If you ultimately want to get fit, aim for one push-up a day, every day. You may always do more than that, but never less. Mini habits have no ceiling, so do as much as you want when motivation is high.

But what happens when you aren’t motivated at all? No problem. Mini habits allow you to succeed even on your worst day. I’m going to repeat that because it’s important. Mini habits allow you to succeed even on your worst day. The low bar to action is a safety net to allow remarkable consistency.

If you can succeed on your worst day, what’s there to stop you? I can’t answer that, because nothing has stopped me yet. I type this on day 300+ in a row (I stopped counting) of my writing mini habit. And my push-up mini habit would be at 500+ days in a row if it hadn’t morphed into a full-size gym habit a year ago.

Win First, Then Go To War

To change your life, the key isn’t to aim high, but the opposite. When you aim high, all you’re doing is decreasing your chance to win. My life changed when I started setting goals I knew I could achieve every day; I built from that point of strength.

Do you remember the quote from the beginning of the article? Legendary Chinese General Sun Tzu said that “victorious warriors win first, then go to war,” and that’s exactly what mini habits do for us. You get the easy win, and then you go to battle from a position of empowerment. The psychological impact and momentum from beginning a task is not to be underestimated. You’ve got to try it to experience the power of what I’m talking about!

So it all comes down to one simple question: would you rather have impressive goals and embarrassing results or embarrassing goals and impressive results?

If you’d like to learn more about mini habits, the Mini Habits book is rated 4.7 stars and highly recommended. It covers the science of change, explains in depth why typical strategies fail, and shows you whether using willpower or motivation is more reliable basis for change. It will answer your questions like, “How can one push-up a day help me at all?”  The book will also provide a step-by-step guide to show you how many mini habits to pursue at once (yes, you can have more than one), how to track them, and all the pitfalls you’ll want to avoid to guarantee your success.

I’m Stephen Guise. To hear from me each Tuesday morning about habit-formation, focusing, and self-mastery (not to mention some amazing goodies), join Deep Existence (it’s free).

  • Great advice! The small wins really motivate you to move on to the next step in reach your big goal.

    • Thanks, Monica. They do! Small wins are easy to get, feel great, and enable you to get the bigger wins!

  • Lehnnyn

    nice article.!! I needed something like this, yesterday I won a chess match, draw one and lose four, and I felt like trash at first but I know I can do better, I just know I can defeat these guys, but as you said I need to win first on small easy battles and keep preparing me for consistency so when I face them again it will be from a position of empowerment.

    Thanks for your advice and examples.!

    • Haha, I play chess against the computer sometimes and I lose every game. Literally. I should move the difficulty down, haha. I win against real people sometimes though.

      You could also try working on your chess strategy a little bit at a time, like learning one new opening or one new concept.

      Good luck to you!

  • Gábor Szilágyi

    Today a tought that i should skip legday because of a little tiredness, but your article saved the day. Thank you!
    I also think its a good idea to my other habit-forming practices. Now I try to meditate. My main problem is procastination, but i know, that the best to avoid that is to do things immediately. Well, I always tought that i need more motivation somehow. But maybe i just need to use my little motivation in a more efficient way that don’t break down motivation but builds it :)

    • I used to skip days all the time! But when the bar is so low, you feel compelled to do just a little bit, and I’ve found that starting like this is the best way to get motivated for more.

      You hit on the key with your last sentence. Don’t work from a position of weakness, trying to conjure up strength. Work from a position of strength (relative to your goal) and build on it. It works much better. :-)


  • Michelle

    I agree totally. After a long illness, I wanted to exercise to be healthy again. I started with short slow walks in the park in 2009. It progressed to brisk walks, slow jogs and today, I am running 10km twice a week. It has been an amazing journey!

    • Congratulations on your success, Michelle! That’s a great example of how this concept is built for success. And it mirrors my story—one push-up a day eventually became gym visits several days per week (and I’m just beginning to step it up even more with longer, more intense workouts and daily exercise of varying kinds).

      Keep up the good work!

  • Chad Haynes

    Excellent philosophy dude! Kind of like the sister to the philosophy that Jeff Olson teaches in “The Slight Edge.” A book you should absolutely look into if you haven’t!

    That’s one of my favourite books BECAUSE it so clearly illustrates the power of small habits and changes – and this article basically teaches the same message in an even more powerful and succinct format.

    Well done! Will pick up your book, and thanks for a sweet article for me to study and take notes on for my own blog 😉

    • Yes, I’ve heard good things about “The Slight Edge,” and it’s on my list. Another one is “The Compound Effect” by Darren Hardy. This way of change is absolutely the most effective in my experience and also according to the science when you put it all together.

      My book is likely different from those because I talk a lot about motivation and willpower—the two components that determine our ability to take action. I think these are the crux, because if you can figure out how to always take action, you’ll be consistent and form habits. That’s a key angle of Mini Habits. I hope you enjoy it!

  • kjhatzi

    Thanks for a great post!

    When I first began running, I set my portable kitchen timer for one minute and ran one minute out and one minute back. Even that tiny amount wiped me out. But I decided I could do that every other day.

    Then the next week it was two minutes out and two minutes back and it started to get a little easier. By adding small increments of time every week, I was able to slowly but surely build up my strength and endurance, and by my one year anniversary, I was running 45 minutes every other day and felt great!

    Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and have had to switch to brisk walking during chemo, but the knowledge that I can use this approach again when my treatments are over helps me know that it will be possible to get back into running when I’m ready! P.S. I’m 57!

    • That’s a great story! You scaled up your progress masterfully.

      Please stay strong and positive as you battle breast cancer, both mentally and physically. It’s really important. It’s great you’re staying active with brisk walks. Keep it up!

      I’m sure you’ll do find getting back into running when you’re ready since you know what works now. Good luck!

  • After reading this I realized that I have been applying the same method (described here: but never looked at it from the perspective of being “mini habits”. People are looking for the quick-fix, but It’s all about gradually shifting your mindset.

    Great article, I love your way of writing.

    • Phil, I read your article and thought it was great! We do have some similar ideas about life change. Cheers and thank you!

  • saifur rahman

    Great articles.

  • I absolutely love and needed to read this today Stephen! I often find tasks too overwhelming and therefore think ‘I won’t start’ but baby steps are the way to go and I’ve started to break down tasks to time scales i.e. I will write for 15 minutes, read the news for 10 minutes so that none of it feels too much and I can get more done.

    I particularly love your mini habit of reading 2 pages a day because I know that if I set that goal I’d definitely want to continue and read more :)

    Love your points and philosophy in this article – well said!!

    • Thank you, Toni. Reading 2 pages a day has actually been the least successful one for me, but it’s still been a great success. I actually read books now!

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  • Chris

    Thank you Steven,

    With all the goals I want to achieve and nowhere near as much willpower to back them up, im really looking forward to taking small steps towards all of them :)

    cant wait to see what all these small things will amount to <3

  • Yes! Habits are the new goals in my opinion. Another reason why I think smalls habits are better than setting goals is because when you set a goal, even if it’s a big one, your putting a limit on your believes. If you only think you can achieve “this much” and the only way your going to achieve it is by doing it “this way”, than you shut yourself off to other possibilities. Stick to your habits and let the universe decide how much you will accomplish. That way it will take the pressure off of your expectation and often leads to greater success in the long term.

    I also wrote a similar guest post on “Setting up passive income systems for self improvement” that dives even deeper into specific habits to set up that will pay dividends in success, happiness, wisdom, tremendous health, and confidence. So check it out if your interested!

  • Art

    This is a great article. A great refresher and encouragement.

  • Seems interesting, will give it a go. Building good habits and removing bad ones, at this moment, looks like it is a mayor thing for success :) I’ve got the training habit under my belt and i don’t event know when i got it. Meditation one too. Now i`m chasing the learning and reading ones :)

  • Katie Walrath

    I have a lot of pain in my back. Instead of asking someone else, I am going to start getting my own mail. I use a walker. Not much, but it is a start (one push up). Yeah!