B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (1): Transformation Through Habit Change

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by B.J. Fogg is the most important book I read during the pandemic. It is filled with potentially life-changing insights. In this series of posts, I’ll capture my key takeaways.

Begin with some key perspectives.

Transformation as incremental

Millions of words have been published about behavior change. B.J. cuts through the clutter by reminding us that it all boils down to three key factors:

  • Epiphany — a sudden and profound insight that changes your life
  • Changing your environment — for example, by removing junk food from your refrigerator
  • Changing your habits

Among authors in the self-help and spirituality space, I see many references to personal transformation that flows from epiphany.

I respect epiphany. The world’s major religions owe their existence to moments of epiphany. The therapeutic use of psychedelics seeks to evoke them. So do programs like the Landmark Forum.

There are problems with epiphany, however. It is unpredictable. And, it doesn’t always change behavior.

Fortunately we have another option, says B.J. We can see transformation as the fruit of many small habit changes.

Sudden transformation is sexy and makes for great headlines. But incremental change in habits over time is something that we can design for — and execute.

Fallacies in behavior design

Alas, much of what we find in self-help books about habit change is anecdotal, unscientific, and possibly harmful.

One pitfall is something that B.J. calls the information-action fallacy: If we just provide people with key facts, they will change their behavior.

Unfortunately, gaining information doesn’t guarantee behavior change. Many people know about the dangers of smoking, for example, but continue to do it anyway.

A second fallacy is reliance on motivation. Yes, your “willpower” for sticking with positive habits occasionally peaks. But, says B.J., motivation comes in waves. Those peaks will wash away into periods where you just don’t feel like doing anything new or hard.

Release self-judgment

There’s a silver lining in all of this: if you struggle with habit change, the problem is not your lack of information or willpower: It’s lousy models of behavior change. Stop judging yourself for past failures, and start using a process that works.

That’s what B.J. offers in Tiny Habits.

He is a Stanford University psychologist who’s done rigorous research and personally coached people in habit change. This rare combination of skills means that he can translate theory into methods that work in real-world settings — the holy grail of social science.