Tiny Habits for a Deep Life
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Cal Newport recently published a book with a provocative, utopian-sounding title: A World without Email. Newport is a professor of theoretical computer science, who has an additional career as an author and podcaster focusing on the skills and routines we need to cultivate a “deep life”. Using the PERMA model of human flourishing created by Martin Seligman, we could say that the deep life is one that is particularly rich in engagement, accomplishment, and meaning, as well as positive relationships. (Newport doesn’t emphasise Positive Emotions, the remaining element of PERMA.)
Newport often frames his discussions in terms of four areas of life that he feels most deserve our focused attention: Community, Contemplation, Constitution and Craft. Community refers to the people in our lives: friends, family, neighbours, colleagues and so forth. Contemplation is defined as “matters of the soul” and includes, but is not limited to, meaning or purpose in the PERMA model. Constitution is Newport’s term for health. Finally, Craft refers to “work and quality leisure”, and is the area in which he has made the greatest contribution so far, publishing bestselling guides to academic and career success. Much of his work-related guidance also applies to active leisure activities. Within the PERMA model, his guidance covers Engagement and Accomplishment.
Deep Work, Newport’s previous book, made the case for a new approach to productivity. In a “world of distractions” we need to learn how to concentrate on cognitively demanding tasks. He had some radical suggestions, including a chapter entitled “Quit Social Media”, as well as very specific advice on how to make the best use of our working hours.
Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert whose work I mentioned in a previous post, suggests that we rigorously track how we use every hour of our time (24/7) for a week or two and then analyse the results. Newport’s time-block planning method can yield some of the same insights into how we use and misuse our time, but is future-focused from the beginning. In Newport’s method, every hour – indeed every minute – of the working day, has a task or set of tasks assigned to it (or is a scheduled break). Shallow work, such as checking email, is confined to specific, defined periods. Most importantly, time for what we might think of as a core activity of our “real work” – research, writing, computer programming, planning a marketing campaign – is carefully scheduled and protected.
After publishing Deep Work, Newport created a journal to make his time-block planning method easier for people to learn and apply. One of the key differences from any other journal I’ve seen is that it begins with the assumption that planning our day is not a one-off activity. We need to expect the unexpected: on many – if not most – days, there will be interruptions, and sometimes it will take significantly longer than we thought to complete a task. That’s okay. The planner has not one but four columns in the schedule page for precisely this reason. When we notice that we have departed from the plan, we just move to the next column and create a new one for the rest of the day. Personally, I have taken to using a pencil rather than a pen for my planning, as I enjoy the extra flexibility. Rigid adherence to a predetermined schedule is not the goal. The goal is to make conscious choices about how we spend our time.
As a Tiny Habits coach, I have found that many of my habiteers are looking for help with productivity, and particularly, with overcoming procrastination. If that applies to you too, I strongly recommend that you explore Newport’s work. Listen to the podcast, read his blog, and start using a time-block planner (or just use a notebook and follow his instructions in Deep Work).
Here's how I suggest you get started:
Stage One: Explore the ideas. The quickest and cheapest way of doing this is often to listen to podcasts. Newport has his own podcast and has also been interviewed on several others.
Stage Two: Invest in more resources. If you like what you hear on the podcasts, buy the most relevant book(s), and subscribe to Newport’s email list or podcast.
Stage Three: “Ride the motivation wave.” Listening to the podcasts or reading the book might inspire you to make significant changes. That’s great. While you’re feeling so motivated, tackle some of the one-off tasks that you need to do to get started. Newport’s time-block planning method, for example, needs a bit of upfront time and effort to understand the details of how the system works. It also requires quarterly and weekly strategic planning as well as daily schedules. Remember, “Big spikes of motivation are awesome for doing really hard things – once.” So get going as soon as you can, because motivation fluctuates over time.
Stage Four: Create Tiny Habits. My personal motto for Tiny Habits is “Dream big, think small.” After you’ve listened to Newport for a while and read some of his books, you might develop a wonderful vision for an enormously satisfying “deep life” tailored to your own unique circumstances and interests. That’s great. Keep on dreaming big. At the same time, think small. Really small. Think about behaviours that you can do in 30 seconds or less to gradually help you move towards your vision. Really, 30 seconds! That’s the Tiny Habits way.
Here’s a simple example: Let’s say your goal in the Constitution category is to improve your fitness. You think you should be exercising for 30 minutes every morning. That’s a wonderful aspiration. It’s the kind of goal that often features in New Year’s Resolutions. And you probably already know from experience that New Year’s Resolutions rarely succeed. I suggest that you use the Tiny Habits method instead: it’s easy, effective, and backed by rigorous research. First, choose an exercise behaviour that you can do in 30 seconds. It could be a scaled-down version of a workout (e.g. do two push-ups) or a starter step (roll out my yoga mat). Then identify a place for this behaviour in your morning routine, and create a habit recipe. For example:
· “After I start the coffee maker in the morning, I will do two push-ups against the counter.”
You can easily create recipes like this, and get a feel for the format of Tiny Habits recipes, using the special recipe-maker tool created by BJ Fogg. (If you'd like me to be your on-line coach for a free 5-day Tiny Habits programme, please get in touch. You can find out more about the programme and why I chose to become a Tiny Habits Certified Coach by reading this post.)
Finally, and this is the most important step, you need to train yourself to celebrate each time you do the behaviour, until the habit becomes automatic. As I explained in a previous post, one of Fogg’s most important insights, and one of the things that differentiates his method from other popular books on habits, is the role of positive emotions in creating habits.
Emotions create habits. Not repetition. Not frequency. Not fairy dust. Emotions. (Tiny Habits, p. 137)
The specific positive emotion that Fogg wants us to cultivate is “Shine”, a feeling of pride in successfully accomplishing something. You can celebrate in any way you like (e.g. smile, sing a song, do a little dance, make a V sign or thumbs-up gesture), as long as it evokes this feeling.
Now that you have a habit recipe, and you know how to celebrate, the next step is to experiment with the habit. You might be able to do this straight away by rehearsing – turn on the coffee maker, do 2 push-ups, celebrate, and repeat multiple times. It might feel silly, but it’s very effective. You can also use the NLP “mental rehearsal” strategy: imagine yourself doing this behaviour over and over until it seems completely natural and automatic. Or you can simply wait until tomorrow morning and begin doing the habit.
Note: this is not just about “baby steps”. If your habit recipe specifies two push-ups, you can always do more, but you don’t raise the bar. You might gradually increase until you find yourself reliably doing 50 or 100 push-ups, but you continue to celebrate and feel successful after just two. That’s the habit.
To sum up: if you want to live a deep life, I think you’ll get there faster by learning from two experts at once. Cal Newport is your go-to guy for inspiration about what a deep life could look like, and for specific “deep work” and “digital minimalism” strategies. BJ Fogg (and your Tiny Habits coach, if you sign up for the free 5-day programme) will teach you how to use Tiny Habits to turn your aspirations into reality, one small step at a time.
Remember: dream big, think small. Really small. Think tiny.
Note on Affiliates: Wherever possible I link book titles to my shop on the UK bookshop.org website. If you purchase a book through my link I earn a small commission. Bookshop is a wonderful alternative to Amazon, as it supports local independent bookshops. On their website they explain that “By design, we give away over 75% of our profit margin to stores, publications, authors and others who make up the thriving, inspirational culture around books!”
 “Big spikes of motivation are awesome for doing really hard things – once.” BJ Fogg, Tiny Habits, p. 45  BJ Fogg, Tiny Habits, p. 45  This is a recipe that can be created using the recipe-maker tool. I have added “in the morning”.