The Mighty Mini

Yom Kippur
How Small Habits Can Change Your Life


By Rabbi Dov Greenberg

I recently read a wonderful book: Mini Habits by Stephen Guise. For ten years, Guise said, he was motivated to write more, to exercise more, to read more and yet he failed 100% of the time.

Then one push-up changed his life. One night he decided: “I will do one push-up.”

“Since I can’t do anything meaningful, I’m lazy, I’m going to aim for one push-up.” He got down on the floor and did his one push-up. Then he decided to do a couple more since he was already in position. Then he set his next goal of one pull-up. He did it, and then he did a few more.

That was his first mini habit; it transformed his life and that of thousands of others too. Today he is in great shape, writes four times as much as he used to write and reads much more than he ever had before.

The reason we so often fail to change is that usually, we’re fighting a battle we’re not strong enough to win. Humans are built to resist change, to default to behavior that is known and familiar. But mini habits slip right under this resistance. They’re too small to resist.

Over time, mini habits destroy resistance in much the same way that termites destroy trees. Individually, they’re small, but when combined over time, they have a huge impact. Taken together, they generate momentum and ultimately, reprogram your subconscious.

Three thousand years ago on a battlefield in ancient Israel, a shepherd boy defeated a mighty warrior. Ever since then, we’ve been telling the story of David and Goliath. But David is not the only person to have confronted a giant. We all have giants to conquer. Addiction may be your giant. Greed may be your giant. Envy may be your giant. Dishonesty may be your giant. Fear may be your giant.

On Yom Kippur, we think about what Goliaths stand in our way. We name them in the confessional prayer. We think about how the giants of temptation have wreaked havoc in our lives. And we say it is time to defeat that bad habit and become the kind of person we have always wanted to be.

How did David slay Goliath?

The answer is: with nothing more than a small stone and a sling. Goliath was too strong to confront head on. A small stone penetrated his defenses and killed him, and that is how we can conquer our Goliaths, with mini habits that slip right under the armor of resistance. 

Yes, there are always a thousand reasons to run away when a Goliath stands before us. But if we take the first step, if we sincerely make that new mini resolution, G-d will walk into the valley with us. He will help us conquer every giant that lies before us.

The reason mini habits work so well is that they are simple and easy to implement. Otherwise, as with other strategies, when we have a bad day, get overwhelmed, or run out of willpower, we’ll drop our goal and lose our progress.

If you ultimately want to get fit, aim for one push-up a day, every day. You may always do more than that, but never less. Mini habits have no ceiling, so do as much as you want when motivation is high.

If you want to get spiritually fit, put on one pair of Tefillin a day. Say just one prayer: Shema Yisroel. You may always do more than that but never less. Mini mitzvot have no ceiling, so do as much as you want when motivation is high. You are not up to going fully kosher? Go kosher for five minutes each day and say a blessing over the food that you are eating. Each mini mitzvah is wondrously powerful and holy. If you are not up to observing all of the Shabbat, observe a mini Shabbat, start with lighting Shabbat candles and making Kiddush.

But what happens when you aren’t motivated at all?

No problem. Mini habits, mini mitzvot, allow you to succeed even on your worst day. I’m going to repeat that because it’s important. Mini habits allow you to succeed even on your worst day. The low bar to action is a safety net to allow remarkable consistency.

The effect of doing mini mitzvot or one mitzvah is life-transforming. A Jew who observes no kashrut and then abstains from eating just one previously enjoyed food for the sake of doing something Jewish, has made a monumental leap.

A beautiful consequence of this common-sense attitude is that it invites every Jew to consider themselves observant and growing Jewishly. The Jew who observes kashrut some of the time, can now say, “I keep kosher—not all the time, but I am observing it.”

Imagine if your whole community started doing mini mitzvot. This is how we can create a renaissance of Jewish identity in our communities, starting today.