How Mini-habits Build Culture

This article is a Mission-driven focused book review of, "Mini Habits: Small Habits, Bigger Results" by Stephen Guise, and includes a description of how this idea can help your church become more mission-driven. 


In the mission-driven approach we’ve been very specific in asserting that it is through forming stronger organizational habits that a better church and organizational culture is created. We have even identified ten rather specific habits that enable a sustainable culture of excellence to be established. Moreover, we have also created an entire battery of tools that make implementation of these habits simple, so that they can happen quickly.

These ten habits are research-proven, and as a result, we’ve had very little pushback, and most of those who’ve become involved have found the ten habits logical and useful. What we haven’t done as much on—until now—is attempt to break down the conversation about the forming of the habits themselves to a level that can be readily grasped and applied widely in church or organizational life. 

In this conversation, we want to take the conversation about habits just a bit deeper, to provide each of us with some understanding of how it works. To help us get there, I would draw your attention to a recent book by Stephen Guise, entitled, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results.[1]I’m not endorsing everything in the book, of course, since it’s quite clearly a secular approach, but I am suggesting that we take seriously the pathway described here, including the effort to drill down into the logic behind habits.

Let’s start with a general overview on why mini habits, as Guise describes them, are so relevant to our larger discussion on forming habits. Guise wants us to understand the role intentionality plays, and writes: “One of the most important skills a person can develop is mindfulness, which is being aware of what you think and do. Being mindful is the difference between living purposefully and going through the motions. If your mini habit is to drink one glass of water per day, you’ll be more mindful of how much water you drink in general. When you have to monitor something every day, however small, it climbs the ladder of your consciousness and you’ll think about it even after you’ve met the requirement.”[2]

Do you see the implications here? The idea is that small habits create a pathway to larger ones has great potential for transforming church and church organizational life. What Guise is saying is that it is possible to break down the major habits we want to form into smaller units that are more readily measured and implemented—with less resistance. 

In constructing his overall approach, Guise lists 8 primary differences between mini habits as a way to change behavior and other approaches:

  • Mini habits can compete with your existing habits
  • Small steps & willpower are a winning team
  • Other methods will tell you it's ok to let up too soon
  • Mini habits increase your self-efficacy
  • Mini habits give you autonomy
  • Mini habits marry the abstract & concrete
  • Mini habits destroy fear, doubt, intimidation, & hesitation
  • Mini habits create insane bonuses of increased mindfulness & willpower

This list is especially helpful in that it describes some of the more obvious benefits of establishing these mini habits, and identifies the key areas of motivation that enable them to have an impact in our lives. We’re all looking for ways to increase our willpower, aren’t we? And it’s easy to see the benefit from connecting the abstract with the concrete, and in decreasing the impact of fear, doubt, intimidation and hesitation—all of which paralyze us too frequently. I’m particularly interested in the sense in which mini habits can increase our sense of autonomy, since that is one of the primary pathways to motivation for contemporary men and women, as emphasized in research from people like Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive.[3]

In Guise’s book, he also lists another 8 steps we can take with regard to mini habits that lead to big change. These include:

Step 1: Choose your mini habits & habit plan

Step 2: Use the why drill on each mini habit

Step 3: Define your Habit cues

Step 4: Create your reward plan

Step 5: Write everything down

Step 6: Think small

Step 7: Meet our schedule & drop high expectations

Step 8: Watch for signs of habit

You’ll need to read the book to understand everything listed here, certainly, but I want to emphasize the idea of drilling down to get to the smallest possible habit formation, in order to construct a pathway to larger habits, along with the importance of what Guise calls “habit cues.”  Equally important are the ideas concerning rewarding your implementation of the mini habits and writing down what you’ve done, when you did it, and then using your assessment of these moments to build a pathway ahead. 

What I’d like to emphasize, though, is Guise’s conversation about how the brain actually works to establish and maintain mini habits. At the root of the book is the idea that repetition is key to habituation, which is, of course, the primary idea behind a number of other innovations in mission success, such as those tied to “deliberate practice,” with Anders Ericsson in his bestseller Peak, which is also advocated by a number of other important writers.[4]

Guise argues that each iteration of a behavior moves the brain forward just a little—perhaps with negligible obvious impact—but that with repetition, these small alterations can cause a big change in your brain, creating the desired habit. Guise says: “most of your brain is stupid…it recognizes and repeats patterns until told otherwise. It’s called the basal ganglia. There is another section of your brain, however, that is really smart. It’s called the prefrontal cortex and it’s located behind your forehead. It’s the ‘manager’ that understands long-term benefits and consequences, and thankfully, it has the ability to override the basal ganglia.”[5]The point Guise is making is that the habit-forming part of the brain isn’t capable of understanding our higher-level goals, or intentional choices—including spiritual priorities—but it’s great at repeating patterns. And he adds, “The only way to create habits is to teach the rest of your brain to like what the prefrontal cortex wants.”[6]That’s colorful language, but it gets where we need to go for a working understanding of the dynamics involved in getting to the ten major organizational habits we want to form. 

The relationship between the various parts of the brain is in many ways still unclear, but we know enough to put it to work for us. Guise writes: “The brain’s workings are so intricate and complex that modern science still has a lot to learn. That said, knowing the basal ganglia is the main player in habit formation is useful. When combined with experience, experimentation, and good sense, our limited knowledge of the brain’s workings is a powerful ally for personal growth.”[7]It is in light of this that I’m making the case that each of the ten organizational habits we’ve discussed in the mission-driven approach can be benefitted by breaking them down into smaller units that we can work to repeat. When we do this, they become so much a part of our experience that they help to sustain our efforts to become more sharply mission-focused. 

In Guise’s list of 8 steps that we just noted, he starts out by suggesting that we make our habits what he calls: “stupid small.” He writes: “My rule of thumb is to minify my desired habit until it sounds stupid. When something sounds ‘stupid small,’ your brain sees it as nonthreatening.”[8]This, of course, is the genius behind mini habits. We may have something major we want to accomplish, but the pathway to that large objective can be made less complex if we build small support structures that help us get there, including small moments of success.

I don’t have space here to drill down on this for all the ten habits we’re advocating in the mission-driven approach, but let’s take just one of them—maybe Habit #3, the one that asks us to check the climate of our church or organization. What is this habit really all about? If you look at it, it is expressly an assessment habit, designed to help us do a realistic assessment of things like how our members get along with one another, how warm and welcoming our church is, and what kind of relational skills we have in the church. If we don’t make it a habit to do such assessments, our progress will be hindered. Every one of these assessment components—and many other elements, as well—are readily broken down into individual, much smaller assessments that can even be “minified” until they sound stupid, as Guise suggests. 

Let’s take this just a bit deeper. For example, in Paul Brantley’s book, Becoming A Mission-driven Church,[9]both chapters three and four are all about breaking down the climate of the church into such manageable units that we can actually address them, even when we’re not research specialists. Indeed, he has a chart on page 31 that enables us to take an inventory of the spiritual climate of our church. Then, on page 41 there is another chart, aimed at allowing us to assess how well our members get along. And then, on page 49 is a list of what pastors can do to create emotionally healthy churches. In each of these places, Dr. Brantley is taking us just a few steps deeper into the life of the church, so that we’re well on our way to forming the mini habits that would be easy to implement and promise the best pathway to success.

Similarly, in my recent book, 8 Secrets to A Mission-driven Church,[10]Secret 4 is all about advancing mission through what I’ve called: “Adventist grit,” which is to say those persistent qualities that have always undergirded our doctrines and practices. In that chapter we drill down into some of the unique characteristics of our own faith tradition, including a listing of some of the core values of Adventism that can be seen in the things we’ve emphasized over the years. On page 92, for example, there is a list of these values that can each be broken down into specific habits that we Adventists have formed—and even become known for—and how each of these habits can be broken down even more into specific behaviors that are important to us.

Let me tie up this brief review with Guise’s conversation on what he calls “subjective fatigue,” an element that makes it difficult for us to stick with our habits until culture actually changes. He writes: “Mini habits thankfully come with a mini amount of subjective fatigue. Subjective fatigue depends on many factors, and a big one is how you see yourself staking up against your goal. I’ve noticed that when my goal is large, my subjective fatigue worsens. This is logical, as the mind ‘looks ahead’ to the upcoming work and perhaps feels the impact early. A recent study found that our imaginations are so powerful that they can change what we physically see and hear in the real world, so it’s not at all a stretch to think that expecting a heavy workload can impact our energy levels, too…nothing can completely take away subjective fatigue, but mini habits mitigate it very well. In relation to your mini goals, you may feel a sense of empowerment and energy.”[11]

In the end, the overall objective in choosing mini habits to lead us on a pathway to our larger church and organizational habits is the energy we can get from small accomplishments. This is of great encouragement, especially when we’re pursuing mission, and want to keep our members and other team members energetic in creating true culture change.

[1]Stephen Guise, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results ((CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).

[2]Stephen Guise, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), p. 70.

[3]Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us(Riverhead Books, New York, 2009.

[4]Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2016).

[5]Guise, 29-30.


[7]Guise, p. 33.

[8]Guise, p.77.

[9]Paul Brantley, Dan Jackson, Mike Cauley, Becoming A Mission-driven Church(Pacific Press, 2015).

[10]Dan Day, 8 Secrets to A Mission-driven Church(Pacific Press, 2018).

[11]Guise, p. 51-52.