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Helena Önneby

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Micro habits creates big shifts over time

And no, I’m not talking about using the microwave more. I’m referring to building small  habits into your everyday life, which can make an incredible difference to your health and well-being today and over time.

When we think of change, we often think of big steps or a whole new lifestyle:

No sugar for a year.
Learn to run and finish a marathon.
Meditate for 20 minutes every day.

But it’s what we actually do that creates change and as most of us have experienced, it’s difficult to achieve those really big and ambitious goals.

The trick is to start small. Trusting that micro-steps in the right direction will take you where you want to go. Studies show that 45% of our activities during a day are our habits and routines. So, our lifestyle is really just our habits accumulated over time. When you change your habits, you change your life.

When I wanted to build more recovery into my working day many years ago, I started with a so-called breathing space at the coffee machine. Every time I went for a refill, I devoted the time it took for the machine to grind the coffee beans to note what was alive in me, focus on a deep breath and then take in my entire surroundings, in full acceptance. It made a huge difference to my stress level and my well-being.

Other examples of micro-habits in my life today are that I start and end each day by saying THANK YOU out loud to myself. That I take at least one dance break per day, just put on a song and tune into what the body needs right there and then. That I put my left hand on my heart when I experience a strong feeling. That I have a large water bottle on my desk when I work to remember to hydrate during the day. That I take note of my breath reaching all the way down into my stomach many times during the day.

The latest research in neuroscience shows that stress is inevitable, while the accumulated stress is something we can definitely influence. And that it takes 60-90 seconds for the stress hormone cortisol to leave the body. So, by taking a 60-90 second conscious break, we break the accumulation of stress. Maybe you have a hard time setting aside 20 minutes for meditation every day, but I do not buy the argument that you can’t spare 60 seconds here and there.

When we build micro-habits into our everyday lives, we not only create a positive momentum, we also reduce the space for the less good habits, “crowding out” as Mia and Lina here at FoodPharmacy often talk about. And the great thing about new habits is that they don’t require as much willpower, you avoid the constant bargaining with yourself, you just do it because it’s part of your routine.

And for those who are still not convinced, I want to remind you of the cycle of change that we all go through when we learn something new: from unconscious unknowing to conscious unknowing to conscious knowledge to unconscious knowledge. Before reading this article you may not have known the importance of micro-habits (unconscious unknowing) but now that you have read, you are suddenly aware that you need to learn more (conscious unknowing).

It’s a bit uncomfortable to be here so maybe you read more online, talk to friends and test what works for you and soon you have learned what you need to know to change (conscious knowledge). Even in this phase, a little extra energy is required because you need to remind yourself of your new habit before it sticks. But once it does, once your new habit has become routine, neither willpower nor much effort is required, your new habit is part of your lifestyle (unconscious knowledge).

It’s the change that can be difficult, not the new lifestyle.

And as an extra push, I want to end with this fantastic excerpt from the book “Tiny Habits: The small changes that change everything” by BJ Fogg:

“Habits may be the smallest units of transformation, but they’re also the most fundamental. They are the first concentric circles of change that will spiral out. Think about it. One person starts one habit that builds to two habits that builds to three habits that changes an identity that inspires a loved one who influences their peer group and changes their mindset, which spreads like wildfire and disrupts a culture of helplessness, empowering everyone and slowly changing the world. By starting small with yourself and your family, you set off a chain reaction that creates an explosion of change.”

If you’re curious to know more and the research around micro-habits, I recommend checking out: “Your Time To Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Wellbeing, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps” by Marina Khidekel and the Editors of Thrive Global.

What new micro habit do you want to introduce into your life?

This is a guest post. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

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