Micro Habits that Improve One’s Day

This is my fifth attempt at writing this post. I’m starting to think that I’ve already spent way too much time on this topic, which I’m convinced is valuable, but maybe not so valuable as to spend 20 hours perpetually rewriting a post about it. So obviously my solution is to rewrite it again, but this time in bullet points.

Here’s a tl;dr: There are some habits people can pick up that are very cheap, and may have positive effects, but these effects are too small to reliably notice consciously. Hence these habits are often neglected. In this post I argue to take some of these habits more seriously, and if they’re low-cost enough for you to implement, stick to them even absent of any feeling of them being useful.

  • One way to look at habits is to look at two axes: usefulness and effort

  • Both can be positive or negative

    • “Good habits” typically are beneficial, but it takes some effort to install them

    • “Bad habits” are the opposite in both directions, they are detrimental in some important way, but it is more effortful to get rid of the habit than to stick to it

    • There are of course also things that are either both beneficial and effortless (like breathing), or detrimental and effortful (like banging your head against a wall), but we typically don’t think much about these two quadrants because there’s no reason to override our natural inclinations

  • There’s a particular area in the “good but effortful” space that I call “useful micro habits”:

    • Interventions that are beneficial, but also take very little effort to maintain

    • A common problem is that for some of them their usefulness lies below the threshold of perception: it’s hard to tell if they really do anything, because benefits are small and/​or indirect

    • So people may try such habits for a while, and then often drop them again for the apparent lack of benefits

  • Some examples of such useful micro habits (note that both usefulness and effort differ between people, so not all these examples may fit the definition above for you):

    • Paying attention to better hydration

    • Keeping CO2 levels low in your home/​office

    • Dressing well (even at home)

    • Supplementing creatine

    • Planning one’s day in advance

    • Exposure to sunlight early in the day

    • Taking regular short breaks

    • Breathing exercises & meditation

    • Leaving the house daily, even when it’s not necessary

    • Journaling

    • Hugs

    • (Partially) cold showers

  • Many of these things may provide, say, a marginal 0-10% improvement in productivity, happiness, health, or some other desirable quality

    • For any such micro habit, the positive effects may be lower than typical daily variance, which makes it very difficult to get a convincing feeling of the habit “working”

    • People relying mostly on such subjective impressions will dismiss such habits and not reap the benefits

  • What’s the evidence for such interventions being beneficial?

    • Note that I’m mainly trying to make the point that such interventions exist at all (even if they differ between individuals), and that it’s sometimes a mistake to expect beneficial habits to feel beneficial (particularly if the habits are very cheap to maintain)

    • So the post is not hinging so much on the particular examples I provided above; that being said, here’s a small selection: the evidence for hydration being important (and many people drinking suboptimally little water) generally seems strong, increased CO2 levels negatively impact productivity, creatine has physical benefits and possibly cognitive ones, natural (early) light supports the circadian rhythm (and thus wakefulness and sleep quality), and cold showers are shown to increase dopamine levels

  • What do we do with that?

    • Batch several such habits together to make effects easier to recognize, instead of judging any micro habit in isolation

    • E.g. Make a list of all such micro habits that seem likely to you to be worthwhile; then run an experiment where you stick to all of them for a couple of weeks and see if the totality of them yields a notable difference (or if you’re fancy, try a more randomized approach)

    • Find ways to make interventions maximally effortless /​ automated

    • With some of the interventions, you may try to just dial them up a lot and see if that makes you notice a difference

    • If evidence for benefits of an intervention is robust enough, get away from the idea that “one notices no subjective benefits” is equivalent to “there are no benefits”

Left: Your average day before micro habits. Right: Micro habits improve your day. Note: Micro habits (probably) don’t actually improve the weather.

Some Anecdotes

  • I thought for many years that coffee just “doesn’t work for me” – but at some point realized I was just focusing on the wrong thing. I expected it to make me less tired, which it never really seemed to achieve (at least not at a level that I really noticed). But at some point I did notice it had a notable tendency to make me more focused /​ excited /​ motivated, and hence became very useful to sporadically use as a starter to a particularly productive day.

  • There was a time where I stopped writing down my daily TODOs at the beginning of the day, because I felt like I could just as well stay on top of things without such a list, and I was a bit too lazy to stick to that habit of taking 5 minutes to write things down. My level of productivity and organization plummeted quite notably though over time. Note that, while the effect was notable in that case, I still didn’t “feel” the connection to the TODO list. These felt like two unrelated things, and I was a bit surprised to see my productivity go up again once I experimentally restarted the daily planning habit.

  • Regarding “dialing interventions up a lot” to see if that leads to a notable difference: I did notice that drinking much more water than my default (say ~3l rather than my typical ~1l per day) seemed to have positive effects on focus and productivity. Whereas just increasing my water consumption by 50% did not have any notable effect.

  • It’s somewhat in the nature of the central point of this post that it is difficult to find anecdotes that match it clearly – because as soon as you see the outcomes, the post doesn’t really apply that well anymore. Still, another example from my life similar to the ones above is meditation. I never really have the impression locally that any given meditation session has some sustained positive impact on my life. But I did notice that longer frames of time where I either meditated ~daily, or almost not at all, were very different. Particularly non-meditation times tended to be much more stressful and overwhelming. Of course the causality here (if any) could point in both directions, and indeed it seems very likely to be a feedback loop rather than a one-sided relation. Still, distancing myself from the assumption that I need to “feel” that meditation reduces my stress made me pick up the habit again, and I did end up in a state of lower stress and better mental health.

Final Remark

One could argue this post argues in favor of bad epistemics. There’s a lot of potential placebo effects going on here, particularly in my anecdotes, and it’s unclear if any of these are really linked to actual effects, and if the causality is remotely close to what I suggest. There’s some risk of self deception that should be avoided.

I would agree with this viewpoint, but would also add that this post is less about finding true facts about the world, and much more about finding ways to optimize one’s own personal daily life that actually work – and if these ways happen to rest partially on placebo effects and/​or incorrect assessments, then I’m fine with that as long at the overall impact is positive. If you find ways to implement five micro habits at near-zero cost to you, only two of which are load-bearing and actually improve your life while the other three are neutral, that to me still seems like a win, and it may well be the case that just sticking to this routine is a better option than to invest more effort into trying to figure out the actual truth about which of these useful and which are not.