I could bore you to tears with stories about my failed attempts at self-improvement.
Take, for example, all those times that I returned from meditation retreats declaring that I’d begin each day with a heroic session of hatha yoga followed by an hour of silent sitting.
These declarations suffered the common fate of New Year’s resolutions. Despite my plans for dramatic and sudden behavior change, I eventually defaulted to the status quo — sleeping late and seldom making it to the yoga mat or meditation cushion.
The result was a half-hearted spiritual practice and a loss of self-esteem.
After many incidents like this, I was relieved to discover BJ Fogg and his Tiny Habits method, which is documented in his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.
BJ urges us to scale down our grandiose plans for behavior change, start with small changes that scale up over time, and celebrate success at every step along the way.
Release the self-defeating myths
BJ is on a mission to stop us from blaming ourselves when our attempts at habit change change backfire. The real problem, he says, is unscientific models and methods that almost guarantee failure.
Following are some examples.
Myth: You fail at habit change because you lack motivation, willpower, or both. Not at all, says BJ. In fact, it is possible to design habits so that they require little or no willpower. If you’re struggling with habit change, then stop looking for personal flaws. Instead, look for design flaws.
Myth: When you fail at behavior change, the solution is to get more information. This is a common weakness in corporate wellness programs. Does your company have too many employees who smoke? Give them more facts about the health risks of smoking. Too many employees who sit all day? Give them more statistics about the benefits of exercise.
This reasoning sounds so…reasonable. And yet there’s little evidence to support it.
Providing information alone does not consistently change behavior — especially when you don’t give people any guidance in what to do with the facts. BJ calls this the Information-Action Fallacy.
Myth: Epiphany is a reliable method for behavior change. Behavior change can result from altered states of consciousness such as spiritual awakenings and mystical experiences. (For examples, see the chapters on conversion in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.) BJ refers to such events as epiphanies.
Alas, epiphanies are beyond our control. We cannot make them appear at will.
What’s more, epiphanies can fail to change behavior. There are plenty of celebrated gurus whose post-enlightenment behavior continued to harm people.
To avoid ethical land mines, we can supplement our spiritual practices with some wise guidance for habit change.
Myth: Successful habit change includes setting goals. The word goal is ambiguous. It can refer to:
- An aspiration — an abstract ideal, such as being a loving husband and father
- An outcome — an visible and measurable result
- A behavior — for example, exercising or sleeping eight hours per night
Instead of talking about goal-setting, BJ uses these three words for greater precision.
Myth: Successful behavior change includes behavior tracking. I remember a viral post about behavior change from 2007. It centered on an anecdote about comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
Jerry wanted to develop a habit of writing jokes every day. So, the story goes, he armed himself with a wall calendar and red magic marker. For every day that he actually completed his task of writing jokes, Jerry put a big X on the calendar with the magic marker. He knew his habit was stable when he saw an unbroken chain of Xs on the calendar.
In short: If you want to develop a habit, track your behavior and don’t break the chain. This single phrase spawned a host of copycat blog posts and Don’t Break the Chain apps.
Even so, BJ does not include behavior tracking in his behavior change model or methods. His research does not support this technique.
On this issue, I’m choosing to go with the behavior scientist over the Internet meme.
Myth: You can change or break habits with a single, powerful intervention. We live in a culture that thrives on stories about overnight success, including sudden and dramatic behavior changes.
But think about it: How many times has such transformation actually occurred to you, or to people that you know well?
BJ’s research reveals that transformation is more likely to occur in increments, the cumulative effect of many small behavior changes. In fact, there’s a whole chapter in his book (Growing Your Habits From Tiny to Transformative) with examples and explanation.
Clearing the conceptual decks and getting back to the data
Releasing myths about behavior change allows us to drop a lot of baggage.
Forget blame and shame.
Let go of dependence on information, goal-setting, behavior tracking, or epiphany.
Instead, we get to see behavior change as a skill — or, more accurately, a set of skills.
We can let go of self-judgment and get down to the real work of applying design principles to find habits that “stick.”
On this path there is no such thing as failure. There are only behavior change experiments, which give us data about what works and what doesn’t.
In the process, we get to move past behavior folklore to behavior science. Tiny Habits is based on data that BJ gathered from more than 40,000 people who took his free Tiny Habits course. (For more details about the research, see his references.)
What’s more, BJ has personally coached people to use the Tiny Habits method. He brings both quantitative and qualitative perspectives to this topic — a rare and valuable combination of skills.
Above all, the Tiny Habits method is testable. The steps and specific and concrete, and it’s easy to tell whether or not it’s working.
The results you get are crispy, as BJ likes to say, rather than fuzzy or abstract.
To understand this, let’s start with BJ’s model of human behavior. Then we’ll see how it’s applied in his method for habit change.
The Fogg Behavior Model
First, says BJ, remember that any human behavior (B) occurs only when three factors intersect:
- Motivation (M) — you want to do the behavior.
- Ability (A) — you can actually do the behavior.
- Prompt (P) — you are reminded to do the behavior.
You can express this as a formula:
B = MAP
Next, remember some key points about how these factors interact:
- The higher your Motivation to do a behavior, the more likely you are to actually do it. BJ’s first maxim of behavior change is: “Help people do what they already want to do.”
- The higher your Ability to do a behavior, the more likely you are to actually do it. To succeed at habit change, choose a behavior that’s simple and easy to do. As BJ says, “Simplicity changes behavior.”
- Motivation and Ability have a reciprocal relationship. When your motivation is high, you can do harder behaviors. But when your motivation is low, you’ll gravitate toward easier behaviors.
- Motivation is fickle. Like a wave, motivation rises and falls. You can wake up one day feeling excited to exercise and another day absolutely dreading it. For this reason, BJ cautions us to avoid the “Motivation Monkey” — the temptation to make big behavior changes that depend on having high motivation all or most of the time.
- No matter what your levels of Motivation and Ability, behaviors happen only with a Prompt. Some synonyms for prompt are cue, reminder, and trigger. For example, I designed a habit to do yoga right after I start coffee in the morning. When I see the “on” light for the coffee turn to bright blue, that’s my prompt to step on the yoga mat.
All this has two major implications for starting new habits and stopping old ones:
- You can make a behavior more likely by increasing motivation, making it easier to do, or adding an effective prompt.
- You can make a behavior less likely by reducing motivation, making it harder to do, or removing the prompt.
Which leads us to the essence of behavior design:
Tinker with motivation, ability, and prompts until you get the desired behavior.
(For more details and a visual representation of these ideas, see the Fogg Behavior Model.)
Tinkering means iterating like crazy, running lots of experiments, and learning from failure until you find some combination of these factors that actually works.
The Tiny Habits method
Now we’re ready to apply the behavior model in a more explicit way to habit change.
1: Choose a tiny behavior. This is one that:
- Fits in with your existing behaviors
- Takes less than 30 seconds to do
- Is something you can do right now
- Is easy
Examples of tiny behaviors include:
- Flossing one tooth
- Doing one push up
- Stepping on the yoga mat
- Taking one mindful breath
Examples of behaviors that are not tiny include:
- Flossing all your teeth
- Doing 20 push ups
- Doing 20 Sun Salutes (a sequence of 12 yoga poses)
- Sitting down to meditate for 60 minutes
The underlying principle at this point is to dial down the amount of Ability required. You want a behavior is simple enough to do even your Motivation is low.
This — like many aspects of BJ’s work — is counterintuitive. It seems to contradict much of what we “know” about habit change.
If this is an obstacle to you, you can get past it by remembering two things.
First, review your past experience with habit change. Chances are that the accepted “wisdom” about this topic has not served you well. Again, that’s because it’s probably based on myth and misinformation.
Second, small changes scale naturally over time. Success with the Tiny Habits method leads to behaviors that grow and multiply.
For example, my first Tiny Habit involved simply stepping on to my yoga mat. I did not commit to doing any specific postures or practicing for any specified period of time. All I committed to do was simply place my feet on the mat.
At first, this seemed absurd — such a trivial commitment. But it soon became clear that I can step on the mat even on days when the last thing I feel like doing is yoga.
This particular combination of Motivation and Ability — arrived at after several Tiny Habit for yoga designs that failed — now works beautifully. After stepping on the mat, the thoughts that run through my head are:
Well, I’m on the mat. I made it this far. I might as well go ahead and do something as long as I’m here.
On most days, the result is that I end up doing several sun salutes followed by squats, push ups, and a plank pose.
Tiny Habits offers many more examples of how habits scale up naturally over time. If you’re skeptical, just test it for yourself.
2: Pair your tiny behavior with a prompt. Use this Tiny Habit template:
After I [fill in your Prompt] I will [fill in your Tiny Habit].
- After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
- After I wake up and put my feet on the floor, I will say It’s going to be a great day. (BJ refers to this as the “Maui habit” and tells its origin story.)
- After I walk into the kitchen, I will drink a glass of water.
- After I start the dishwasher, I will write one sentence in my journal.
- After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
- After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my exercise clothes.
- After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day.
Tiny Habits includes an appendix with 300 such Tiny Habit examples. This alone is worth the price of the book.
By the way, some of the most useful thinking you’ll ever do is to make a list of the “anchor moments” in your day — your current and stable habits that can serve as prompts for a new Tiny Habit.
3: Celebrate every time that you do your tiny behavior. To complete your behavior design, add a specific way to celebrate that feels authentic to you. For instance:
- Smile big.
- Nod your head.
- Say Yes! while doing a fist pump.
- Imagine your favorite teacher saying Well done to you.
- Do a short victory dance.
Again, Tiny Habits includes many more celebration techniques. All of them illustrate the underlying principle: Habits are “wired in” with positive emotion.
Celebration is a big deal to BJ. “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad,” he writes. And, his second maxim of behavior change is: Help people feel successful.
In fact, BJ claims that:
Celebration will one day be ranked alongside mindfulness and gratitude as daily practices that contribute most to our overall happiness and well-being. If you learn just one thing from my entire book, I hope it’s this: Celebrate your tiny successes.
Remember to celebrate every time that you do your Tiny Habit. If your plan is to do one squat after you turn on the water for a shower, then celebrate that single squat.
If you happen to do five, ten, or even more squats — great. You’re welcome to do some extra celebration. But celebrate every time you do your designed behavior, even it it’s the minimum.
4: Create a Tiny Habits recipe. BJ recommends writing out a recipe for every Tiny Habit. The acronym for a complete recipe is ABC:
- Anchor — the Prompt, referred to here as an anchor so that we get the nifty ABC acronym
- Behavior — your Tiny Habit
- Celebration — your preferred way to celebrate
If you buy Tiny Habits, you’ll get access to a PDF with printable Tiny Habit recipe cards.
5: Rehearse your Tiny Habit. When your Tiny Habits recipe is in writing, the design phase of the method is over. Next comes rehearsal, which leads naturally to execution (actually doing your Tiny Habit during the course of your day).
To rehearse a new Tiny Habit, mentally picture yourself doing the behavior in response to the anchor and then celebrating.
Also physically rehearse your ABC sequence a few times. Success with behavior change hinges on remembering to do your Tiny Habit in the first place. This is no small matter, and rehearsal helps a lot.
How to learn more
There’s much more juicy material in Tiny Habits about how to change your behavior. I’ll cover more of this in a future post. For now I’ll simply refer you to the website for this book and the free Tiny Habits course.