The Existentialism of Tiny Habits - From B. J. Fogg's tooth to Daniel Pink's Purpose

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Ten years ago, I wrote in my journal that I wanted to read more, write more, and exercise more. Simple goals, numbered down a single column on a single page. 

Every year after, I wrote the same goals, never satisfied by how much my fingers, eyes, or muscles were doing.

Now, one month down in 2015, I think I've figured it out. All in one swing. And it was so simple I'm not entirely convinced I'm not stupid.

The new year for me started with a bang of small but important habits: 

  • Waking up early to write 750 words every weekday morning (courtesy of 750words.com)
  • Reading constantly, finishing two non-fiction books (The Art of Learning and The Organized Mind) and a chapter of fiction (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) before bed every night
  • 10 push-ups and 10 squats or stretches before bed every night (not including jiu-jitsu classes twice a week)
  • Collecting ideas in an Evernote folder and writing the best on index cards (stealing from Ryan Holiday)
  • Keeping a journal to reflect on my jiu-jitsu lessons after each class

Without knowing it, I was implementing what science has known for years. Habits are not big monsters to tackle, they are tiny hurdles.

Social scientist and innovator B. J. Fogg is the champion of tiny habits. In his TED talk, Forget Big Change, Start with a Tiny Habit, Fogg provides the simplest example: flossing one tooth. It's so stupid and trivial to floss one tooth you almost laugh as you get it done. Then a few days pass and the habit grows. It's almost irritating how simple it is to do one tooth that you finish the job, flossing them all.

B. J. Fogg graphed his own behavioral model to explain this. Essentially, behavior change is the product of motivation, ability, and a trigger. Tiny habits can satisfy all three. You barely need motivation or ability when it comes to something so comically small. The trigger here is the interesting part. Fogg explains the trigger for a tiny habit as "After I ___, I will ___". Simple as that. It's so tiny, you don't need to be motivated. It's so easy, you don't need to learn anything. It's triggered, so you're ready to fire.

My habits were no different. After I brewed my morning coffee, I wrote 750 words. Dropping for 10 push-ups meant it was immediately followed by 10 squats. Coming home from the gym meant I would shower and record some notes about my jiu-jitsu lessons. 

A decade down. Tiny habits accomplished.

And the ease of it all made me a tiny bit mad. Why did it really take me a decade to get going on this? And is this it? Can I accomplish anything now? Is it all just a matter of time before world domination?

Not necessarily, but it's a start.

The question remains: What drives us to do more than the tiny stuff?

Enter Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The big surprise, Pink shouts in his TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, is that science has shown us that skills requiring even the smallest bit of thought need more motivation than the almighty dollar. Instead, Pink narrows it down to three paths:

  • Autonomy - the urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery - the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose - the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Connecting tiny habits to autonomy is a matter of making tiny decisions. There are tons dropped on our plates every day and our best defense is to step back, get prepared, and know they're coming, because as Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, has said, "The world is not acting in our long-term benefit.

Mastery is the dedication to improving your tiny habits. You're slowly working to become better at your art. Cal Newport calls this the craftsman mindset, where the focus is not on hunting down and tackling what you consider the passion of your life, but grabbing the opportunities within reach and constantly improving on your skills until you can knock it out of the park by offering everything you can to the rest of the world. 

Purpose interests me. Going from flossing one tooth to being motivated to nail down your life's purpose might seem like quite the existential leap. The truth is they are one and the same.

Let me say I hesitate to talk about purpose because it can easily dip into the kind of religious and spiritual talk people roll their eyes about. But, in my humble opinion, I don't know how to live without searching for purpose. I'm curious to decide why I'm here on this planet. It's hard to be sure I'll ever be sure. But every day I'm trying and that's the point.

That's right, you decide your purpose. It doesn't have to be earth-shattering, either. You could simply know your purpose is to raise your children to be the best they could be, like my mother told herself. You could imagine your life's purpose is to tell stories or make amazing dishes or invent something. The decision is all yours.

Purpose is just a collection of tiny habits. You need to express it your own way. Famous author, entrepreneur, and life coach Tony Robbins talks about purpose quite a bit. And he has changed quite a few lives for the better. What he urges people to do to find their purpose is exercise it every day. Decide and conquer. Why wait? You don't want to be on your deathbed, deciding if you did it or not. Start now.

Taking the first step and not knowing quite yet if this is the truth, I scribbled down my first thought:

My life purpose is to find, share, and exemplify the ideas that make us extraordinary.

Every day I'm working to test this and find more truth in it. Purpose has become a habit to question.

The beautiful truth is your brain likes it this way. Your brain wants to automate as much as possible because it zaps so much energy to think. And it's possible for most things. If you had any doubts, just remember that you know to brush your teeth every morning. You know to wash yourself and find food and charge your phone at night. What you can do is save your thought for the important stuff, offload the rest to habit. Because you never know when your life will be up and your purpose will be what the world makes of your days.

Start small. Start now. Express your purpose. Every day.