Microgoals

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.“

~ Mark Twain

Your brain has been designed by Mother Nature to turn everything it can into a repetitive, unconscious process known as a habit. In psychology, habits are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance, like the action of automatically switching off the alarm clock (action) after it wakens you up (contextual cue), eating a cookie (action) while drinking coffee (contextual cue), or opening a bottle of wine (action) while cooking dinner (contextual cue).

A microgoal is an easy to achieve goal triggered by a contextual cue, like you walk into your living room just after you wake up in the morning and immediately do one press up, or walk up the stairs to the office instead of taking the lift. The trick is to keep it so easy you can’t fail (one press-up), link it to an obvious cue (as you enter the living room first thing in the morning), and if you decide to do just one press-up then you only need to do one press-up.

The power of a microgoal is threefold:

  • They are so simple to do it makes it easy to continue doing them
  • They build self-efficacy, which is belief and confidence in your own ability
  • They are contagious and once you start with one habit you will find it easier to maintain others as well

Although achieving a Microgoal repeatedly may seem like a habit, it’s best to think of it as a microgoal because that way it makes you feel like you are succeeding and winning every time you accomplish it. Plus, research shows that when you achieve your Microgoal it has a knock on effect that will help you create other microgoals. When you realise you can acheive one press-up each day it gives you confidence in yourself and the belief in your ability to start and maintain other microgoals/habits as well.

Phil Libin, the creator of Evernote software, lost 28 pounds in six months solely with a microgoal that consisted simply of recording his weight in an excel spreadsheet every day. The spreadsheet had a graph with a line that represented his current weight, another line that sloped down towards his goal weight in decrements of 0.1% of his body weight every day, and two lines above and below which represented his maximum and minimum allowable variation. Each day he would input his weight and nothing more into the spreadsheet. Phil said, “I continued to eat whatever I wanted and got absolutely no exercise. The goal was to see how just the situational awareness of where I was each day would affect my weight. I suspect it affected thousands of minute decisions that I made over the time period.”

Instructions

This exercise is all about stacking the deck in your favour to make your habits so simple that you can only succeed. The smallest of microgoals repeated regularly will boost your self-efficacy, build your confidence, and motivate you towards the person you want to become. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. This exercise over time will increase the Expectation and reduce the Delay of the Motivation Equation.

  1. First, decide on a microgoal that you would like to achieve on a regular basis that will move you towards your weight loss goal.
  2. Plan when and where you will perform your Microgoal.
  3. Perform Microgoal.

Let’s look at some example Microgoals that can be useful to start your weight loss habit and build your motivation and self-efficacy.

Weigh yourself once a day

Action: I will weigh myself every morning.

Cue: Before going to bed, I will leave my tablet on my desk charging. When I wake up, I will immediately go to the bathroom with the same clothes on, i.e. a t-shirt, trousers and socks, weight myself and then go to my desk and record it in my Google Form.

Exercise for 30 seconds every day

Action: I will run on the spot for 30 seconds once per day.

Cue: Each day when the first commercial break begins while watching T.V, I will stand up and run on the spot for 30 seconds.

Drink a glass of water every day

Action: I will drink a glass of water every day.

Cue: I will leave a clean glass on the kitchen countertop next to the sink and as soon as I enter the kitchen in the morning I will fill the glass with fresh water and drink it.

Make a note of all calories consumed

Action: I will note down every calorie I eat and drink.

Cue: Before I eat something, I will look up the caloric value of the food item and note it down in my Google Form using my phone or in a notebook I carry around.

Remember to make your Microgoal easy to perform and choose a time and place that makes it easy to be consistent. After a while, you should find you are doing it automatically without even having to think about it.

“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. ‘Exercise spills over,’ said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. ‘There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.’”

~ Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit”