Start Small

27 Life-Changing Micro Habits That Require Only A Few Minutes

When it comes to self-improvement, going small has big benefits.

by Adam Bulger
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images

When people strive for self-improvement, a common mistake is to shoot too high. We make promises to be healthier, more mindful, more patient. But such lofty goals often go unmet. They’re just too vague, or too hard to track. (There’s a reason why 80 percent of New Year’s Resolutions are cast aside by February.) Even when a goal is more concrete (“I want to run a half marathon”; “I want to yell less”) it’s difficult to stay the course, especially when you have kids, because time is tight, progress requires consistency, and it feels unnatural to break tasks into very small chunks.

A different approach? Start smaller — much smaller — and instead strive to develop micro habits. Micro habits are simple daily actions that are easy to implement into your established routine and only require a few minutes of your time (if that). Drinking a cup of water in the morning before your coffee so you stay hydrated. Performing a minute of breathing exercises to help manage anger. Reading just one paragraph of a book that seems daunting.

While they sound insignificant, micro habits are much more achievable than traditional goals and resolutions — and often contain aspects of them broken down into smaller chunks. And, because stacking up small victories creates a snowball effect that encourages you to undertake more, and more ambitious, changes, micro habits may be more likely to lead to lasting change.

“When high achieving people set goals, they set big goals,” says Sabina Nawaz, a corporate coach who often advises the power of micro-habits in her practice. “There's a lot of bravado, with people saying they should ‘go big or go home.’ The problem with setting big goals in the near term is that we are less likely to achieve them.”

The best micro habits require no more than two or three minutes and fit easily into your existing schedule. They can also be piggybacked off other tasks you already do — say, performing a wall squat while you brush your teeth, or writing down one thing you’re grateful for while you wait for the coffee to brew. In time, these become part of your routine and can be lengthened out or made more difficult.

Now, thinking small can be a challenge. Nawaz says that her clients often have trouble setting goals that are small enough to become micro-habits. Someone might see a person working out 30 minutes a day and want to jump right into that level of performance.

“What we don't realize is that for them to get to 30 minutes a day, they had to start somewhere,” she says. “And it wasn't 30 minutes a day for most people.”

Micro habits are much more manageable. Who doesn’t have time to do just one pushup a day? Or two minutes of jumping jacks?

Below, according to a variety of wellness experts, life coaches, and medical professionals are 27 suggestions of small but significant life changes you can put in motion today.

27 Simple Micro Habits To Implement In Your Life

  1. “Upon waking up, stay in bed and perform one to two minutes of meditation where you set your intention for the day to come,” suggests California meditation coach Josephine Atluri.
  2. Drink a cup of water before your morning coffee to stay healthy and hydrated.
  3. Make your bed when you wake up to launch your day with an immediate sense of accomplishment, per advice popularized by retired Navy four-star admiral William H. McRaven’s 2017 book Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life... And Maybe the World
  4. Stretch for 15-30 seconds before you get dressed.
  5. Write for two minutes in the morning as you drink your coffee. Getting your thoughts down on paper is a proven way to ease your mind.
  6. Wake up with a “Maui Habit.” In BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits, the Stanford behavior scientist recommends starting days with positive, purposeful statements like “today is going to be a great day.” The small ritual has been proven to help change attitudes and behavior over time.
  7. Practice gratitude while you’re in the shower. “The shower is probably our last refuge from our devices,” Nawaz says. “So, as you shower, ask who or what am I grateful for today? As you step out of the shower at the beginning of each day, you're already filling your cup.”
  8. Perform affirmations while brushing your teeth. Atluri suggests repeating five that you want to embody/strive for or remind yourself that you already are, such as I love my children exactly how they are, I trust my instincts, I am not my mistakes, or It’s okay to be happy.
  9. Vowing to get more sleep? Move your bedtime up by two minutes “Two minutes you can do,” Nawaz says.
  10. Charge your phone outside of your bedroom. If you use it as an alarm, buy a cheap analog alarm clock. If you read books on your iPad, get physical books from the library. Your phone is your greatest enemy when you’re winding down.
  11. Replace one unhealthy snack. Do you tend to have a handful of chips in the mid-afternoon? Vow to replace them with a handful of nuts or other more healthy option.
  12. Perform a 30-second wall squat while you brush your teeth.
  13. Want to cut out sugar? Instead of stirring in two teaspoons of sugar into your coffee or tea, stop at one and a half and plan to continue tapering off the sweetener each day or each week. The same incremental technique works for salt, too.
  14. Start each workday with five long and deep breaths to calm your mind and get ready for the day ahead.
  15. Read a paragraph of work-related literature every day. Professional writing can be dry and dense, so breaking it up into small, daily sprints makes you more likely to get through it.
  16. Have a big career advancement goal? Break it down into small pieces. “Strategic thinking starts with data gathering,” says Nawaz. “What kind of data might you gather? Can you spend three minutes a day?”
  17. Track your work victories. Whether you use the notes app on your phone or scribble it down on a piece of paper, keep tabs of times you had a good idea in a meeting, submitted work before the deadline, or just performed a task especially well.
  18. Perform 30 seconds of breathing exercises as you wait for your coffee to brew.
  19. Is there something giving you anxiety? As Emma McAdams, LMFT, explains in this video, a good tactic is to spend 30 seconds to a few minutes doing the activity or being around whatever it is that’s causing the worry to give your brain a chance to adapt to it.
  20. Spend at least two minutes a day outside in the sunlight.
  21. Replace one soda or sweetened drink with a glass of water.
  22. Take a quick at your bank accounts. Awareness of your finances is key to becoming more financially literate.
  23. Always put one thing away before you leave whatever room you’re in. If you’re overwhelmed by clutter, you feel like you don’t have time to clean but habitually chipping away at the mess, one piece at a time, can make it more manageable.
  24. Walk up and down a flight of stairs.
  25. Perform jumping jacks for two minutes.
  26. Add one more vegetable or fruit to your plate.
  27. Vow to walk around for two minutes every hour you sit at your desk.

It may seem strange to do something for 30 seconds or just a few minutes. That’s an oddly achievable goal isn’t it? That’s the point of micro habits. Once you become used to the habits you set, you begin to do them naturally. That’s incremental improvement and as you continue to change, those once far-away goals might not seem seem so distant any more.