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Build Better Habits

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The Two-Minute Rule for Building Lasting Habits

When building a new habit, it’s easy to start too big. When you think about the change you want, your excitement and motivation can convince you to do too much too soon.

Everyone’s heard things like start small, take baby steps. But even when you know you should start small, it’s still easy to start too big.

This is why, if I have to recommend one place to start when building a new habit, James recommends choosing a habit that is as easy as possible to perform.

The most effective way to do this is to follow the “Two-Minute Rule.” The Two-Minute Rule states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

In the last lesson, you chose a habit that will cast votes for your desired identity. In this lesson, we’ll take that habit and scale it down into a two-minute version.

For example:

“Walk 10,000 steps each day” becomes “Put on my running shoes.”

“Keep the house tidy” becomes “put one item of dirty clothing in the laundry.”

“Be a better partner” becomes “make my partner a cup of coffee every morning.”

“Get straight A’s” becomes “set my books out on the desk when I get home.”

The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start.

The Two-Minute Rule helps counterbalance our tendency to bite off more than we can chew. It also gives you a small way to reinforce your desired identity each day.

When all we hear about are other people’s spectacular results, it’s natural to think that we need to push ourselves to the limit to achieve anything worthwhile.

Instead, you can simplify the process by narrowing your attention to the first movement.

You may not be able to automate the whole process, but you can make the first action mindless. You’re trying to build a “gateway habit” for a larger behavior or bigger ambition that you’re ultimately working toward. Make it easy to start and the rest will follow.

You can usually figure out the gateway habits that will lead to your desired outcome by mapping out your goals on a scale from “very easy” to “very hard.” Most people start with ambitions that are big and very hard but need to transition to habits that are small and very easy.

For instance, learning to play a song on the guitar is very hard. Learning to play the chorus of a song is very difficult. Learning to play the scales is moderately difficult. Practicing the chords is easy. Picking up the guitar and sitting down in a quiet spot is very easy. Your ultimate ambition might be to learn to play a full song, but your gateway habit is picking up your guitar and sitting down in a quiet place where you can practice. That’s how you follow the Two-Minute Rule.

Even broad life goals can be transformed into a two-minute behavior. Wanting to live a healthy life may be your ultimate ambition, but then you can ask “What do I need to live a healthy life” – I need to stay in shape. Then you can ask what do I need to stay in shape – I need to exercise. What do I need to do to exercise? I need to change into my workout clothes. And so on until you get to a behavior that takes two minutes or less – until you discover the first movement.

So, in this case, putting on your workout clothes becomes the two-minute habit that moves you toward your ultimate ambition of living a healthy life.

Or, wanting to have a happy marriage may be your ultimate ambition. So ask “What do I need to have a happy marriage?” You need to be a good partner. Then ask how you can be a good partner. You could do something each day to make your partner feel cared for. Something that makes their life easier. How could you make your partner’s life easier? You could make their morning coffee for them… and so on, searching for small ways to move toward your ultimate ambition.

People often think it’s weird to get hyped about putting on your shoes, or placing one item of clothing in the laundry basket, or making one cup of coffee, or setting your books out on the desk. But the point is not to do two minutes of work and then never do anything else. The point is to master the art of showing up.

Here’s one example:

I had one reader who told me, “When I was getting back into the gym after being away for two years I told myself all I needed to do is get to the gym with my bag and stay for ten minutes, then I'm free to go home if I want.”

It ended up working. He reclaimed his fitness habit and began exercising consistently.

The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details. For the reader that I just mentioned, it wasn’t even about exercising. He could walk into the lobby of the gym, sit down and read a book. He could go over to a workout station, set it up as if he were going to lift, and not actually do any reps. He can’t do this forever of challenge, but in the beginning, the idea is to get comfortable with simply being in the gym. To become the type of person who goes to the gym four days per week.

As James says in Atomic Habits: standardization before optimization. Make it the standard in your life, then worry about doing it better.

Strategies like this work for another reason too: they reinforce the identity you want to build. If you show up at the gym five days in a row—even if it’s just for two minutes—you are casting votes for your new identity. You’re casting votes for the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. You’re taking the smallest action that confirms the type of person you want to be.​

Progress Check-In

Figure out the two-minute version of the habit you've chosen for this month and post it in the comments. That two-minute habit should be the smallest version of your habit that reinforces your desired identity.

Sheila A Degner
Sheila A Degner

I love the phrase “gateway habit”. I want to practice more gratitude. For my 2 minute rule, I am going to place a gratitude journal on my pillow every morning when I make my bed. It will remind me to be grateful in the morning and when I go to bed. (hopefully I’ll even write in it )



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