Habit Stacking and Minimum Viable Progress

A woman stretches on her balcony next to a cup of coffee

Want to reach your goals and be more productive? Then focus on daily habits and slow progress.

When we think about our goals, we often think about the end result first. If our goal is to be healthier, we envision running 5 miles a day and cooking nutritious meals throughout the year. If our goal is to write a book, then we plan to write several chapters in one sitting. Or if our goal is to maintain a tidy house then we attempt to clean the entire house in one day. 

While it’s important to dream big, you also want to make sure that your action plan is as realistic and doable as possible. 

You don’t want your action steps and expectations to be too big – especially if you’re starting from scratch. Trying to run 5 miles a day when you’ve never had a consistent workout routine before will be hard to sustain. You’ll get overwhelmed and set yourself up for heartache.

Instead, the key to successfully going after a big goal is to focus on habit stacking and making minimum viable progress i.e. slow, manageable, sustainable progress. 

How habits and habit stacking support your goals

When an action or process becomes a habit or feels like a regular part of your routine, then you can be more productive and work on your goal without even thinking about it. 

Regularly waking up every morning to write or going for a run after work are a couple of ways in which habits help you pursue your goals. 

So then how does habit stacking help us reach our goals?

If you want to be healthier or write that novel, and you don’t already have a foundation of exercising or writing regularly, then you’ll need to build new habits. 

And the best way to build new habits is through habit stacking. 

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear defines habit stacking as a process in which you “...identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top.”

Think about your current habits and the actions/behaviors you do every single day without really thinking about them. 

  • Brushing your teeth in the morning
  • Making a pot of coffee for breakfast
  • Taking a shower
  • Commuting to work
  • Watching Netflix 
  • Listening to a podcast 
  • Going to bed at night 

So with habit stacking, you would introduce a new habit by having it “piggyback” off of an existing habit. 

  • You already make a pot of coffee with breakfast, so why not work on your novel while having your first cup of coffee?
  • You already watch Netflix every night, so why not do some yoga stretches while you’re watching a program?
  • You already listen to a podcast every day, so why not tidy the house while your podcast is playing in the background?

Actionable exercise: Make a list of your current habits and a list of new habits you want to develop. Cross check your lists and coordinate a new habit to stack with an existing one. Example: Doing squats while brushing your teeth in the morning. 

Tip: If you want habit stacking to work, make sure that the habit is as small as possible. Writing 100 hundred words of your novel instead of several chapters. Doing a 5 minute workout instead of an hour. Making it as tiny and easy as possible will ensure that you stick with it.

Focus on minimum viable progress 

Another essential component of achieving your goals is to concentrate on taking small, incremental steps.

You may have heard the phrase “slow progress is better than none at all.” The idea is that success shouldn't be measured by dramatic results, or leaps and bounds. If we truly want to succeed and make these habits stick, we need to focus on tiny results and inchworm progress. 

Tiny actions make a big difference

Let’s take a look at why tiny actions help you reach your goals and be more productive.

Let’s say you’re trying to start a running routine and your goal is to run for 30 minutes. But, after a few sessions, you can’t run for 30 minutes, in fact, you can barely even run for 5 minutes without stopping. So you quit. It’s easy to think: Why bother doing it if I can’t even do 5 minutes? 

But if you’re trying to accomplish a goal, it’s okay to do it poorly.   

Don’t hold yourself to an impossible standard, especially early on. Never had a running routine before? Then don’t aim for 30 minutes. Try running for 3 minutes, then 5 minutes, then build up to 10 and 15.

The tiny steps you take everyday add up over time. At first, it will look like you’re moving at a glacial pace. But before you know it, you’ll have arrived at your goal.

It’s the brick-by-brick approach of goal-setting and habit development. Do one little thing a day, even if it’s not perfect or at a 100 percent level, and you will make progress in the long-run. 

Monitor your daily progress

In order to sustain momentum, make sure to take time each day to record your daily progress and recognize your small wins.

In this interview, psychologist Noel Brick explains how elite athletes track their daily progress and use this to build their confidence:

“A simple thing you can do is keep a diary of your training achievements, your practice achievements, what you’ve done well, and the improvements you’ve made. That can be a really powerful source for building confidence because in reviewing your diary, you can see how far you’ve come.”

If the daily log method works for elite athletes, it can certainly work for us.

Try this out for yourself: Grab a notebook and dedicate it to tracking your habits and goals. Record your workouts or writing routine or other goals. Measure your progress over time. 

And don’t forget to give yourself a little reward every time you run for 5 minutes or write 200 words or do 5 pushups. After all, you earned it!

Your daily log will serve as a source of motivation and encouragement. Not only will you see how much you’re accomplishing each day, but you’ll realize just how far you’ve come.

Written by JiJi Lee

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