Habitual Micro Exercises

When I was a kid, maybe around 10 years ago, and my father and I were readying for some trip I don’t remember, I noticed something weird. My father was just standing there on one leg, the other pulled close to his body, high in the air, like a flamingo. Balancing, yet stable as a rock, his fingers skittering across his raised foot, he tied his shoe in seconds.

Glorious anatomically inaccurate balancing flamingo

I found this whole thing quite silly, so I asked him why he was being ridiculous (I probably was a very judgemental kid). He said – to put words into his mouth because I don’t remember his actual words and because he spoke German – he said, “My boy, perchance peculiar I may seem to some; yet were their own standing challenged, as mine is daily, they should topple as a boulder. Why shan’t I exploit each lull, however fleeting, to hone both body and mind?”

“Wow”, I thought, “my dad sounds like he’s written to be entertaining by a really pretentious blogger.” But I also thought that he might be on to something. So ever since, I have been balancing on one leg while tying my shoes.

We can make use of the same idea in a much wider variety of situations. Many skills can be improved with practice, and it’s often possible to incorporate tiny pieces of practice into your daily life with little to no effort. Eventually, an unusual method of tying your shoes will become second nature you won’t even have to think about. In fact, doing anything else will feel weird. I have taken to calling this Habitual Micro Exercises, or just Micro Exercises for short.

Because these tiny habits are so easy to do, they can stick around for a long time, and you may continually benefit from them for the rest of your life. Obviously, this is not as good as extended, dedicated practice. Balancing on one leg for a bit each day won’t make you a tightrope walker, but it might keep you from death from keeling over. Often, it is also possible to raise the difficulty for enhanced effect. For example, you can bend the standing leg, moving into a deeper crouch.

Most types of exercise have rapidly diminishing returns. In most cases, you will see more improvement during the first 5 hours practising something than during the second 5 hours. Of course that doesn’t make the latter 5 hours useless, but I figure doing just 10 seconds of something with some regularity will have an outsized effect on your actual capabilities. Moreover, if you notice that keeping your balance while tying your shoes is suddenly getting harder, that may be an early warning that something serious is going on and you may want to seek out a medical professional.

Of course there are other examples: I have taken to doing stretches after brushing my teeth. You know those stretches where you’re trying to touch your toes? I’m trying to do something similar when I’m leaning over the sink to wash out my brush. Nothing strenuous, just seeing where it starts to strain and pushing lightly. Doing this every day has made it fairly easy for me to actually touch my toes, though I’m admittedly still fairly young. I try to do some other common stretches while brushing too, but I should probably do some research here to develop a more thought-out routine.

There are more examples I can suggest, some more obvious, some less:

  • If you move up the stairs, take big steps and don’t push yourself off from the last step: on each step, you get as close as possible to a one-legged squat position. Then, with one leg, push yourself to a standing position. You can vary how deep you actually want or are able to go, but this is a decent squat exercise variation.
  • More squats: if you use a squeegee after a shower, and you have to reach down, consider doing squats instead of bending over.
  • When you have to get up from bed in the morning, consider if you don’t feel like torturing your sleep-addled arms with some push-ups. You’re already lying anyway, aren’t you?
  • Putting a pull-up bar in your doorway offers a great opportunity to do some light exercise every time you walk past. If you can’t do a pull-up, don’t worry, you might get there soon if you make some progress towards it 5 times a day. If pull-ups are already easy for you, maybe you can see how far you can get with one arm or while holding your paperwork with your legs as extra weight?
  • Does your chair have armrests that are decently robust? Have you thought about doing some dips every time you sit down? Or maybe you’ve got two chairs close together that offer a similar opportunity?
  • This is less direct exercise, but I’ve taken to attempting to hold my breath while applying deodorant and consequently putting on clothes. I haven’t looked into whether this provides any actual health benefits, but why not, eh? And if I ever am at risk of drowning, maybe those extra seconds I’ve gained from practice come in helpful instead of making for a more drawn-out death.
  • If you’re like me, you spend all day in front of a computer screen. Without having any good sources at hand, AFAIK, especially in adolescents, focusing at a close distance all day may lead to myopia. Also, screen use is of course generally associated with eye strain. A common piece of advice is the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look for 20 seconds at something 20 metres away. In the same spirit, when thinking about a problem and staring at nothing (because that code really ought to be working!), consider directing your view out of the window instead. Not only is this potentially good for the eyes, but if you’re blessed with a view of green instead of concrete, it may even be calming and help think of a different solution. Or at least you always hear that nature is associated with calm and stress-reduction and all that, so this, as much else in this post, is speculative.

It should be noted that Micro Exercises have their weaknesses as well. Especially if you do stretches or strength exercises, you should always keep in mind that you’re not warmed up. Especially if you’re not as lithe as you used to be, watch out for injuries.

Progress is also not as easy to track, which is unfortunate if you’re into the quantified self community. If you’re doing dedicated exercise, it’s relatively straightforward to note down your work after a session. If instead you have many small sessions scattered throughout the day, you have to continuously make note of all the little things you’ve achieved. You’ll still see that maybe you don’t need to focus on your balance as much anymore, or maybe you can do an extra pull-up every time you walk past that door while barely slowing down, but hard numbers are harder to come by. If you want to develop a system to keep track of your progress, make sure you do not introduce any friction that would defeat the purpose of Micro Exercises.

A different angle of criticism might be more fundamental: should every moment of every day even be optimised? Is it not good for the mind to idle every now and then? To let the thoughts flow freely and without stressing about whether you are wasting time? I think there might be something to this perspective. On the other hand, I enjoy these kinds of optimisation, and I don’t feel particularly stressed. Either way, I can and still do enjoy a relaxed evening where I do nothing but lie down with a good book. Maybe consider not doing a handstand while meditating. Or maybe do if that works for you! I’m just trying to explore the option space and maybe point out some points you haven’t considered yet. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself what works for you.

All in all, I think much good can be gained from Micro Exercises. They can be a method for improving or maintaining health or some skill in the long term at little cost. When going through your day, look for opportunities where you can introduce some small habitual micro practice. Especially, watch out for boring activities like brushing your teeth or tying your shoes where you’re mostly idling. Some exercises may come at a cost. Maybe your productivity is actually lower if you’re step dancing while trying to sweep the attic. However, productivity is not all that matters, and sometimes it’s worth it to just have some fun. If you look at it the right way, your whole day is full of opportunities to do more.

Lastly, don’t let silly appearances stop you from improving your life. I’m not suggesting you should be walking through the supermarket, drawing circles in the air with one arm and trying to move the other back and forth in a straight line in a bimanual coordination task. However, especially at home, be a flamingo and balance with pride.

Subscribe to receive an email when I publish an article