Building New Habits Requires Embracing Laziness

The “go hard or go home” mentality of self-improvement actually makes self-improvement harder.

David Rhoades


This is you, attempting to start a habit way above your weight class (Photo by Pauline Bernfeld on Unsplash)

What’s the chief problem with adopting a creative habit? Sustaining the habit after the novelty wears off.

How it usually goes: I’ll get excited about a new kind of writing exercise/routine/project, and that excitement will sustain me for four, maybe five days. If I’m being generous, that’s how long it takes for my routine to get interrupted by an external Thing™ on average — every four or five days.

Then on day five, something will come up. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I made plans. Maybe I just don’t feel as excited anymore.

I blink…

…and it’s six weeks later, and I barely remember wanting to start a habit at all.

I’ve spent a few years trying to figure out what my problem is.

(Well, actually, I’ve spent a few years beating myself up for being a lazy, poorly disciplined slob, but once I learned that being cruel to myself doesn’t actually do anything for me, I started looking outside myself for a solution.)

I learned what I was missing: changing my behavior hinges on the “smallest viable effort.”

Research shows that when forming a new habit, you’ll need to determine the smallest viable effort you can do to sustain the habit. By executing the smallest amount of effort every day, your brain can be trained into turning conscious practice into an unconscious habit response. This is crucial: by taking minimal effort, you’re making it possible to form a habit at all. If the amount of effort to form a habit is too large, your brain will have a harder time turning it into an automatic response. Instead, you’ll be forced to use conscious effort every time.

The smallest viable effort has a snowball effect

Most people don’t choose the smallest viable amount of effort because they’re impatient; they want so badly to do things quickly that they make it impossible to do it at all. But the counter-intuitive truth is this: by choosing the smallest viable effort, you’re making it likely that you’ll finish your creative project…



David Rhoades

I write about life as a working writer and how to practice sustained creativity for long periods. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter: