Unleashing Micro-habits on Your Sleep Life
Episode #9 of the course Sleep hacks: Using science to improve your sleep by John Robin
Welcome to our penultimate hack!
Yesterday, we got into some difficult stuff. I left you to contemplate the devil you don’t know, so that today, you’ll dive in ready to dance with more devils.
These small dance steps are known as micro-habits, and as you’ll see, the science behind these will give you a way to start cutting through the wall of Ellsberg’s paradox in the best way possible: a little at a time.
Building a Chain of Habit-Forming Chains
Before we can start a habit, there’s one trick from productivity science we can use that never fails: Start a micro-habit.
These are small, minimum energy actions that are ridiculously easy to keep doing.
Brushing your teeth, for example, is not a micro-habit. However, training yourself to simply pick up your toothbrush, put on toothpaste, and put it in your mouth every morning when you step in the shower—that’s a micro-habit. There is no effort required except remembering to do those simple things.
Of course, once you have that brush in your mouth, most likely, you’ll start brushing because you’re all set up to do so. So begins a habit.
Doing a set of bench press reps is not a micro-habit. Showing up at the machine, where all you have to do is get under the bar and prepare yourself to do a set—now that is a micro-habit. Once you’re there, you might sigh and lay on the bench, catch your breath, then finally decide, heck, you’re here, just one set isn’t so hard. You start lifting and away you go. So begins another habit.
The key idea here is, in a micro-habit, you just have to set yourself up with something small that you imagine takes no effort. The micro-habit then allows you to develop a new habit.
Habits can become new micro-habits, but only after they are automatic. For example, brushing your teeth in the shower every morning might become a habit. If you wanted to start flossing at the same time, you can seed a new micro-habit by remembering to grab a piece of floss and take it into the shower with you when you brush your teeth. The habit you’re trying to create now is to brush and floss with your morning shower.
In the example of the workout, you might push yourself to do one more set once you get one set of bench press done. You might then try to do a third set once you’ve done two sets. You might further aim to do one stretch after these three sets. The micro-habit of showing up to the bench equipment serves as scaffolding for a series of micro-habits, which soon become a flexible system of workout routine habits.
The principle at work comes from physics: Objects in motion stay in motion. To our minds, when we try to imagine doing something, we’re not likely to do it. If we equip ourselves with everything we need to do the action, it feels nonsensical to not do the action. We’ve tricked ourselves into seeing it in motion. After all, it’s silly to just stand with a toothbrush in your mouth while you shower. Might as well just start brushing …
Let’s apply this to the devil we don’t know:
The habit: Sleep every night for eight to nine hours.
The micro-habit(s) required:
• Banish all tech one hour before bed.
• Give yourself 20-30 minutes every morning to wake up.
• Say NO to any commitments that compromise your bedtime routine.
These micro-habits are, in fact, habits that each require further micro-habits:
• Put your phone away one hour before bed. Even run a blocking app on it so you can’t use it.
• Start a relaxing-before-bed habit, like reading a magazine or book, or start meditating.
• Write the word “NO” on a sticky note, and stick it somewhere you’ll always see it (like your phone) to help you reinforce the need to say NO to anything that compromises your bedtime.
• When you feel stress in your chest, take a deep breath in and blow out long and slow. Repeat.
• Do not pick up your phone until after you’ve had breakfast and morning coffee.
• Print a schedule of your week so you can visualize and juggle your commitments.
The habit of sleeping eight to nine hours a night will require tracing the micro-habits that sustain it back to the precursor micro-habits that allow you to sustain it with minimal perceived effort.
Make this micro-habit hack your project now, with top priority. After all, your mental superpower is at stake!
But this leads us to a new problem, one on which we’ll close this course in tomorrow’s final hack: How do you avoid becoming rigid and set in your ways, as you use science to pursue the perfect sleep?
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