B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (4): Start Tiny

It’s not motivation or “willpower” that changes behavior, says Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg. It’s simplicity.

If you want to succeed at habit change, then “go tiny.” Start with small behaviors that you can do even when you’re not motivated. Keep expectations low.

In his book Tiny Habits, B.J. recommends behaviors that might seem embarrassingly small, such as:

  • Floss one tooth
  • Pour a cup of water
  • Read one sentence in a book
  • Put on walking shoes
  • Take one deep breath

All of these are things you can do when you lack motivation — a key factor in successful habit change.

Avoid the “motivation monkey”

Most of us experience moments when we feel highly motivated to do something hard — clean out the garage, for example, or weed a big garden.

But there’s a problem: Motivation is fickle and unpredictable. It changes from minute to minute and day to day.

Big spikes of motivation — the peak of the Motivation Wave — are useful for doing difficult, one-time tasks. But that peak is temporary.

B.J. urges us to avoid the “motivation monkey” — planning big behavior change that requires sustained and high motivation. This strategy puts us at the mercy of chance.

It also underestimates the role of ability in habit change. As B.J. says, “The harder a behavior is to do, the less likely you are to do it.”

The inverse is also true: Easy behaviors are more likely to get done. And, they create an instant feeling of success that reinforces the behavior.

Go tiny with these questions

Tiny behaviors present a low risk of failure. Designing such behaviors is a learned skill, however.

Start with the ability chain — a series of questions about what makes any behavior hard to do:

  • Does it require too much money?
  • Does it require too much time?
  • Does it require too much effort, physical or mental?
  • Does it disrupt of your daily routine?

Then ask the breakthrough question: How can you make a behavior easier to do? Some possibilities:

  • Increase your skills by working with a coach or taking lessons.
  • Access tools and resources, such as buying a new kitchen tool that makes it easy to slice veggies.
  • Scaling back the behavior — for example, writing one sentence in your journal instead of a paragraph.

Also consider context: How can you change your environment to make a behavior easier? For instance, fill your refrigerator with ready-to-eat foods that you can have for snacks.

Consider these examples

To get started with Tiny Habits, take the five-day email course. It’s free.

B.J.’s book is excellent and filled with examples.

I’ve also heard B.J. repeatedly recommend two Tiny Habits.

One is: After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.

Another is the the “Maui habit”: After I wake up and put my feet on the floor, I will say: It’s going to be a great day. This habit has an inspiring backstory — and it works.