Let’s face it: Sometimes life is really, really, reaalllly hard.
You may have just moved, or had a new baby, or started a new job, or lost a loved one, or had an illness…or faced any number of life-altering situations (or dealt with a combination of more than one all at the same time!)
The truth is, more often than not, this life is going to be full of struggles and challenges.
And that’s not actually a bad thing. After all, the purpose of our time here on Earth is to be transformed into the Saints we were created to be…and whether we like it or not, the path to sanctity necessarily involves taking up our crosses and following Jesus a little bit better every day. So struggles are really par for the course in the Christian life.
But how in the world can you continue to make progress toward your goals when you’re in a season of struggle? How can you incorporate all of the things you “should” be doing when you feel like you’re already doing all you can just to keep your head above water?
Enter your Minimum Viable Habits
You might have heard of this concept before if you’re familiar with author James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. The basic premise is that a MVH is the smallest, easiest version of a habit that you can do consistently.
Some examples of this may be doing a single squat or pushup, putting on your running shoes (even if you don’t actually run), writing one sentence, eating one carrot stick, etc.
The idea is to start with habits that are so small and easy that they defuse your brain’s natural tendency to “keep you safe” by resisting all change. When a new habit feels like it's no big deal, then your brain won’t throw up the roadblocks that it normally does to convince you to maintain the status quo.
This is a really simple way to think about habit formation–and for some people it can work really well as laid out above. If simply driving to the gym and walking through the door, then turning around and going home actually helps you to develop the habit of working out, then I say: go for it.
But, if you’re anything like me (and most of the real people I work with), this version of a minimum viable habit just isn’t going to help you reach your goals. So I like to teach this concept of a minimum viable with a little twist.
A Better Way of Thinking about Minimum Viable Habits
I like to start with thinking about what is really “viable”. For me, in order for a habit to be “viable” it needs to be worth doing in the first place. That means that there needs to be some kind of benefit or reward for doing that smallest version of the habit.
This is why simply lacing up my running shoes or walking in and out of the gym would never work for me. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no immediate benefit to me doing either of those things. Nothing has actually changed in my body or mind that I could register as a small win. Because of that, I’m most likely to think of doing those things as a waste of my time and I’d never actually do them–maybe you can relate.
So what I recommend doing is, instead of coming up with the absolute bare minimum that you could possibly do, think about what’s the least you could do that would still have an impact. What version of your habit is simple and easy enough that you could do it on your bad days, but will still feel like a win for you?
This is going to vary from person to person depending on what your baseline is and your current life circumstances. For instance, if you’ve just had a new baby, your MVH for exercise is going to be very different than if you’ve been training for an Ironman for the last few months.
Sticking with the exercise habit as an example, your minimum viable habit could be doing 10 body weight squats or going for a walk around the block. Both of these are really small and easy to do, but enough that you would still likely feel some benefit to doing them.
Have a Destination in Mind
Starting small doesn’t mean that you need to stay small.
I recommend deliberately planning out what areas of your life you’d like to develop better habits in and then thinking about what you’d eventually like to aspire to in those areas.
Say you’d like to develop in the area of prayer. What would an ideal habit of prayer look like for you? How would the best version of you pray?
Maybe you decide that, ideally, you’d have 30 minutes of daily Lectio Divina, pray the Rosary, and do a nightly Examen. But if you’re just starting out with a more intentional prayer practice, or you're in a season of struggle, that’s a lot!
This is where your minimum viable habit comes in. Break down your aspirational habits into smaller and simpler (but still impactful) versions. So you might start with simply reading the daily Mass readings, praying 1 decade of the Rosary, and making the sign of the cross and saying a quick “thank you” prayer before you go to sleep.
Some people do better with a structured plan of exactly how they will grow their habits moving forward (i.e. Week 1: go for a daily 5 minute walk; Week 2: increase to a 10 minute walk, etc.)
Others prefer to just do more when they feel ready on a day by day basis until they’re eventually at their aspirational habit level. There’s no right answer and a combination of the two approaches might work best for you.
Decide Your Non-Negotiables
G.K. Chesterton wrote that, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
What are the things in your life that are worth “doing badly”? What are the non-negotiables that will keep you from completely going off the rails when life gets hard?
For me, it's some form of prayer, exercise, bedtime routine, and avoiding alcohol and sugar as much as possible (I find it easier to avoid alcohol, whereas sugar can take a little more planning to weed out!)
Fortunately, God has given us all these beautiful intellects that we can use to consciously decide what will be good for us and what will keep us sane when we know life is going to be turbulent.
Deciding in advance your minimum viable habits is so crucial. The midst of a battle is just not the best time to be trying to decide your strategy.
There’s no Shame in the Minimum
Whatever you decide are your minimum viable habits, you have to let yourself be okay with falling back on them from time to time.
Our progress is rarely linear! We will all have some stretches where we’re just killing it and all of our habits are progressing beautifully…and other times when getting out of bed and getting dressed is a win. It's okay if some days are way better than others.
Sometimes the least you can do is really fine. It's enough. It's a win.
What are your non-negotiables? What minimum viable habits have you embraced? Leave a comment below to let us know!