The Value of Doing a Little

My fitness app gives me daily half-hour workout routines. The app, though, allows me to shorten them, on the day, to last half that. Or to lower their difficulty. Or both.

I just didn’t get it. Why would the app allow me to cheat?

When I saw that for the first time, I thought it was for people looking for excuses. People with low motivation. Who doesn’t have 30 minutes in a day to dedicate to exercise? I was proud not to be one of them, and I patted myself on the back for giving fitness the time it deserved.

Then, a couple of weeks later, I slipped. I started looking for ways to end my plan, finding none.1 I tried deleting the week’s workouts, but the app wouldn’t allow me to do that. I couldn’t bring myself to just not do the prescribed workouts, if anything because I had no excuse which would be considered valid if said out loud. So after some grumbling, I clicked on the button, and shortened it.

The workout was fine. It was around 12 or 13 minutes long. It wasn’t as easy as I thought, but it was still easier than usual. It didn’t make me sweat as much as it normally would.

Yet I did unroll my mat, I did get on it, and I did sweat.

When we see advice telling us to do something small consistently, we usually scoff. After all, we are serious about what we do; we want to dedicate an hour, not five minutes to it. And we will definitely never skip a day. That’s until you realize that it’s not you talking, it’s the highly motivated version of you. A month from now, you’ll be past the honeymoon phase.

Sure, we’re motivated. But why don’t we like picking the small commitment? After all even a motivated person could pick a five-minute daily habit. Mainly, it’s because we deceive ourselves. We think the choice is between doing something big or something small. But really, it’s between doing something small or nothing at all.

Doing something small is not only the best choice for the obvious reason (e.g. you did something rather than nothing,) but also because it has deep long term benefits. After you perform an action every day for a period of time, no matter how small, it’ll become a habit. And once something is a habit, it becomes harder to stop than to continue.

Good habits can truly change the way you live. But plenty has been said on the topic. Just as I was writing this, I stumbled upon this article. James Clear’s best-selling book is entirely about the concept of small, daily rituals. In short, gain good habits.

But how are habits related to shortening my workouts? When you’re just starting out and want to gain a new habit, skipping is lethal. Skipping a day during the first few weeks of your habit can reset all the mental progress you’ve made thus far. By lowering the effort (15 minutes instead of 30, easy instead of hard) we make it easier for us to stick with the habit even during our worst days.

When setting a new habit, don’t set goals you’ll stick to during your best days. Set goals you’ll be able to stick to during your worst ones. Performing a habit during a good day is easy, doing it when you’re not feeling like it goes against every fiber of your body. Bouncing back from a skipped day takes incredible mental fortitude. Yet strangely, bouncing back from a day in which you’ve done a little more than the bare minimum is orders of magnitude easier.

Years ago, a well-gilded Reddit comment put it elegantly: no more zero days. A zero day is a day in which you did absolutely nothing towards your habits, not even a tiny bit. If you want to get into the habit of writing a daily journal for example, a zero day is is when you don’t even pick the pen up. Writing a single word would put you in the green, preventing you from having a zero day.

When thinking about habits, you’re in it for the long run. Sure, things look easy now while you’re motivated, but to set yourself up for the future, prefer consistency over mere duration. Don’t be deceived by what you think the future will look like; long term means that you’ll have to travel beyond the horizon, to unknown lands. Plus, if you stick to a habit for the long run, you’ll end up doing more anyway.

Your goal is to write one word a day, to do one pushup a day, to read one page a day. The rest will come.


  1. Turns out, to end the current plan before its due time, the only way is to start a new one. I love this design decision. The app is Freeletics by the way.