B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (3): Clarify Aspirations, Outcomes and Behaviors

You can sum up whole shelves full of self-help books in one sentence: If you want to be happy, then set goals and achieve them.

I’ve already posted about the flaws in this approach. Reading Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg reinforces my thinking.

Goal is a hopelessly ambiguous term, says B.J. It can refer to:

  • Aspirations — abstract and enduring motivations such as I want to succeed in school.
  • Outcomes — specific results, such as I want an A in this course.
  • Behaviors — which can happen daily (habits) or occur less often.

These are different things. And if we forget this, our attempts to change behavior can fail.

B.J. does not talk about goals. Instead, he urges us to start with aspirations and outcomes. Then we can design specific behaviors to align with them.

Recognizing aspirations, outcomes and behaviors

Examples of aspirations include:

  • Reducing stress
  • Staying productive
  • Losing weight
  • Starting a business
  • Saving for retirement

Note that these are abstract ideas. Wanting to reduce stress is fine, but what’s your next action? What will you actually do?

Outcomes are more concrete — for example:

  • Finish a book manuscript
  • Launch a personal website this month
  • Lose 15 pounds this year

Even so, these still don’t specify concrete behaviors.

A behavior is something you can do right now. You can’t lose 15 pounds right now. But you can:

  • Add one new fruit or vegetable to your grocery list.
  • Do two pushups after you start the shower.
  • Take one high-fat or high-carb food from your refrigerator and throw it away.

Knowing what you truly want in the long-term

To clarify aspirations and outcomes, we draw on a core skill in behavior change: self-insight. This means going beyond what you feel obligated to do — and random advice from online sources or friends about what you should do.

B.J. recommends designing habits that align the kind of person that you wish to become — for example, the kind of person who exercises, eats well, or (fill in the blank with your own aspirations). As you change habits, your identity will shift.

In addition, be patient. Our culture is based on instant gratification. Incremental transformation through habit change is not glamorous, but it works.

Matching aspirations with specific behaviors

Another core skill is behavior crafting. When considering any new habit, ask whether the behavior will help you:

  • do what you already want to do
  • feel successful.

If the answer to either question is No, then keep thinking.

More specifically, behavior crafting involves:

  • Choosing habits that align with your aspirations
  • Choosing how many new habits to adopt at one time — and when to add more
  • Staying flexible about which habits you choose and going for variety
  • Making habits easy to do

B.J. suggests a two-step process for behavior crafting.

First, brainstorm a list of behaviors that align with with an aspiration. B.J refers to this list as a swarm of Bs (behaviors). For this step, be imaginative. Wave a mental magic wand and assume for the moment that you can do any behavior that matches your aspiration.

Also be thorough. On your list, include one-time behaviors, habits to start, and habits to stop.

Second, refine your brainstormed list. Look for golden behaviors. These are behaviors that:

  • You want to do
  • You can do — even when you don’t feel motivated
  • Make a positive impact on your life

Here we transition to another skill in behavior design — start tiny, the subject of my next post.