The Action Habit: put everything into the first step

Leo Babauta, an author, vegan and minimalist says, the things that stop us from taking action are all-too-familiar:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Fear
  • Not knowing where to start
  • A habit of procrastinating and doing easier things

A mode of action

“It is easy to get into a mode of inaction but building the Action Habit can be a lot more difficult. The reason is that the feedback loops in our lives are set up the wrong way: it’s easier to put things off than to act, it’s easier to seek comfort than to push into discomfort, fear and stress,” he says.

So how do we start taking action in our lives. Babauta says the answer lies in a simple method for creating the Action Habit:

  1. Pick one positive action
  2. Make it tiny and easy
  3. Set up positive feedback
  4. Put everything you have into it
  5. Repeat

Pick one positive action

“Thinking about all the things you need to do can be stressful and overwhelming, and lead to inaction. You can’t do it all right now,” emphasizes Babauta.

Instead, he says focus on something you can do right now. Try this:

  1. Make a list of the main things you want to do. Feel free to make a second list of the smaller tasks and errands you need to get to as well. Don’t get stuck on this step — if you are overwhelmed by this, just think of the biggest things you need to get done.
  2. Mark the top 3 things on your list — what feels most important to you right now? If you can’t decide, ask someone else to decide for you.
  3. Pick the number 1 thing in your top 3. If it’s too hard to choose, make a random choice -it’s better to make a slightly less-than-optimal choice than to get stuck in indecision.

“Once you have your number 1 thing you want to get done, then you need to pick one small action you can get done on this project in the next few minutes. After that, you can re-evaluate and pick the next thing on your list to get moving on. In this way, you are getting in the habit of taking action rather than getting stuck,” he continues.

Make it tiny and easy

Now that you have something you want to focus on, Babauta says ask yourself, “What tiny action can I take right now?”

“You don’t have to do the whole project right now. Just one tiny step. Once you get into the Action Habit, you’ll be able to do the other steps later. This is how you create the habit. Make it as ridiculously easy as possible, so that you can’t really say no. Are you tempted to put it off? Then make it even easier - 30 seconds of working out, for example, is so easy that anyone can do it. Thirty seconds of working out is not going to get you in shape, but the Action Habit is about removing barriers and getting moving,” he says.

Set up positive feedback

If you get one or two people into an accountability team, Babauta says you will make it much more likely that you will succeed. That is because with accountability, you get negative feedback for not doing the actions (a bit of embarrassment) and positive feedback for doing the actions (a bit of pride in your accomplishment).

It’s simple. He says ask one or two friends to be on your team. This is as easy as sending an email or text message. Tell each other what tiny steps you are going to do today towards important long-term goals. Check in at the end of the day, or when you are done with your three tiny actions.

If you would rather not have a team, then Babauta says simply put up a list on your wall (or somewhere very visible) of your three top tiny actions for the morning and allow yourself to check them off once they are done.

“Positive feedback means you are going to enjoy taking the tiny actions, rather than seeking comfort in putting them off,” he says.

Put your entire being into it

Once you have your accountability set up, and a tiny action chosen, Babauta says then it’s time to take action!

“Now put your entire self into starting the action. All you have to do is start. Act as if your life depends on it. Act as if nothing were more important than keeping your word to yourself. Act as if this one tiny action were the entire universe. All you have to do is get moving - open a document, start an email, write one item on a list, put on your running shoes. Devote yourself single-mindedly to starting this tiny movement,” he says.

Repeat, to create the habit

“Doing your first tiny action is amazing. Now focus your entire being on the next tiny action. This is how you create the Action Habit: by doing it repeatedly,” he emphasizes.

“If you have taken a tiny action on an important project, congratulate yourself! Check it off your list, report it to your accountability team, feel gratitude that you got moving. Now ask yourself what the next small step is you can take on this project. Can you take it right now? One small step at a time, you’re getting some momentum on this project,” he continues.

Or perhaps there’s nothing else you can do right now. Babauta says look at your top 3 list and see if there’s another project you can take a tiny action on right now.

“If not, maybe one of your other important items. Or maybe you take action on your smaller tasks (though don’t let yourself use this as a way to put off the hard stuff). Do the hard stuff first if you can, but you need to get to the small stuff sometimes. The trick is, you’re turning the hard stuff into the small easy stuff. Just repeat this method, re-evaluating your list once a day or so, taking tiny actions all day long, with breaks in between. This is how you form the Action Habit, and it will be incredible,” he concludes.