B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (7): Untangle Bad Habits

After decades of failed attempts at habit change, I was thrilled to read these words from Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg:

The first thing to remember is this: If you’ve followed some misguided advice on breaking habits and failed, I’m here to say it’s not your fault.

The second thing to remember is that you can design for the change you want in a smarter, better way.

As B.J. explains in Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, the better way starts with language.

Don’t talk about breaking a habit, which implies that you can drop it after one forceful intervention. Instead, talk about untangling the habit.

I like B.J.’s metaphor of bad habits as knots — clusters of self-defeating behaviors. For example, eating too much junk food can include many behaviors such as:

  • Eating fries with dinner
  • Having pizza for lunch
  • Ordering a bread basket when you go to a restaurant

This kind of analysis sets you up for success. Instead of trying to change a bunch of behaviors at all once, you can untie one knot (habit) at a time.

Going beyond tips and tricks

B.J. groups habits into three categories:

  • Uphill habits are challenging to maintain and easy to stop (e.g., example, making the bed).
  • Downhill habits are easy to maintain and challenging to stop (e.g., bingeing on Netflix).
  • Freefall habits such as addiction are hard to stop unless you get professional help.

In Tiny Habits, B.J. focuses on untangling downhill habits with his Behavior Change Masterplan. It has three phases:

  1. Create new positive habits
  2. Stop specific habits
  3. Swap in a new habit to replace a current one

The Masterplan is an algorithm, not a random collection of “tips” or “life hacks.” The order of these phases matters.

Many people skip directly to phase three, which is the hardest to implement. You’re more likely to succeed by starting with phases one and two.

Phase 1: Create positive new habits

Instead of stopping the habits you don’t want, begin by starting habits that you do want. This calls for the basic skills of behavior change:

This is an indirect approach to breaking habits, but it makes sense. Starting with small behavior changes sets you up for success.

In addition, “flooding” your life with new behaviors reduces space for habits that you want to drop. Negative habits might simply fall away as they become incompatible with new ones.

Success at habit change also shifts your identity: You start seeing yourself as a person who can design behavior changes and carry them out.

Phase 2: Stop specific habits

If phase 1 does not yield the results you want, then move on to phase 2. This, says B.J., is “when you stare that tangled knot in the face and design your strategy.”

Avoid the common mistake of motivating toward abstractions such as stop stressing out at work and stop being so sedentary. These general habits are too big to untangle in a single attempt. Again, it’s better to untie one knot at a time.

Return to the example of eating too much too much junk food. This general habit involves a cluster of specific habits such as:

  • Buying breakfast at the gas station
  • Adding sugar to coffee
  • Eating a donut during a break from work

Once you target a specific habit to stop, do the following.

First, remove, avoid, or ignore the prompt. As they say in Twelve Step groups, avoid the “people, places, and things” that trigger you. Don’t go to parties with people who repeatedly offer you drinks with alcohol. Avoid watching television news that upsets you. Turn off social media notifications on your phone.

Ignoring a prompt is problematic because it relies on willpower, which can be quickly depleted. If you do succeed, however, be sure to celebrate immediately and powerfully.

Next, reduce ability. Make an unwanted habit harder to do by Increasing the time, money, or effort required. For example:

  • Toss junk food from your refrigerator (making mindless snacking harder to do).
  • Remove comfy chairs from your office (making sitting all day at work harder to do).
  • Choose complicated passwords for your social media accounts (and do not store them in a password manager).

You can also set up an important routine that disrupts the habit. I like to write early in the day, before breakfast. So, I avoid night time habits — such as going to bed late — that interfere with this morning habit.

Finally, reduce motivation. This is the hardest element to change, so save it for last. The goal is to make a habit less appealing.

For example, adjust the settings on your phone so that the screen only shows grayscale. Making the interface less attractive might reduce your motivation to reach for the phone so often.

B.J. does not recommend de-motivators, such as posting on Facebook that you will stop eating dessert. Any failure to keep such a promise provokes guilt. And, as B.J. says, “we change habits by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”

A couple of other points for phase 2:

  • Start with the easiest habit. You might uncover many specific habits that you want to stop, which can be discouraging. Success with dropping a simpler habit gives you confidence to tackle harder ones.
  • Considering scaling back habits that are especially hard to stop. For example, check social media only once per day instead of multiple times.

Phase 3: Swap a new habit for the old one

Here you design a new behavior to take place at the prompt for an existing behavior. This is the most challenging phase, says B.J. Do it only after you’ve experimented with phases 1 and 2.

All the skills that apply to forming new habits apply here:

P.S. Habits for stopping habits

In the appendix to his book, B.J. lists “Tiny Habits for Stopping Habits.” I’m not sure how (or if) these fit into the above phases, but some examples are:

  • After I put my belongings in the car, I will put my phone in the trunk.
  • After I get ready for bed, I will plug my phone in a different room to charge overnight in order to stop scrolling Facebook in bed.
  • After I leave the house for work, I will drive a route to work that avoids fast food restaurants.
  • After I finish dinner, I will immediately brush my teeth in order to stop my snacking in the evening.
  • After I finish a glass of wine, I will put dish soap in the glass.