Taming Your Gremlin: A Guide to Everyday Joy

Rick Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin: A Guide to Enjoying Yourself begins by announcing its modest aim:

This book is not intended to guide you to enlightenment, to eternal bliss, or to riches. It will, however, help you enjoy yourself more and more each day.

Rick Carson is a psychotherapist, executive coach, and trainer who works with mental health professionals, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. He is a former faculty member at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and an approved supervisor for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Carson’s premise is that we enter this world as beings who are capable of constant enjoyment. Yet by the time we become adults, this innate capacity is long forgotten.

How does this happen?

Enter your gremlin.

Recognize the gremlin

Carson defines your gremlin as “the narrator inside your head.” This is the constant stream of thinking that interprets your experience and evaluates each event in your life.

The problem is that the gremlin is:

  • constantly active
  • highly critical
  • committed to making you believe that his arbitrary interpretations are absolutely true

According to Carson, your gremlin is happiest when you worry about the future, rehash events from the past, dwell on failures, and analyze other people’s faults.

Of course, the gremlin is simply a metaphor for the systems of irrational beliefs that cognitive psychologists have explored in such detail.

Carson’s gift is suggesting that we visualize those belief systems as pesky little demons and give them comical names.

An example is The Reverend:

Katherine is 40. Her gremlin looks like her grandfather only he engages her by preaching to her from the New Testament. He especially likes to make appearances when Katherine is having sex with someone. Until Katherine began to tame her gremlin, she was not only good and righteous, but lonely, emotionally isolated, and unable to have an orgasm.

Other gremlins include:

  • The General
  • The Hulk
  • The Big Ugly
  • The Grim Reaper

Labels such as these allow us to detach from gremlins and loosen their grip.

What gremlins say

While everyone’s gremlin is unique, none of them are wholly original. In fact, gremlins tend to hammer on some core messages. For example:

  • Your true self is unlovable.
  • You can only enjoy yourself for short periods of time.
  • Fast is good and slow is bad.
  • To show sadness is to be weak or childish or unreliable or overly dependent.
  • Asking for what you want is selfish.
  • To show anger is to be sinful, childish, unprofessional, and/or out of control.
  • To express uncensored joy is to be silly or unprofessional.
  • Not acknowledging and/or not expressing feelings will make them go away.

How the gremlin wins

Our natural response to a gremlin is to argue with him — to deny, resist, and refute our irrational beliefs.

According to Carson, this attempt is doomed to failure.

Why? Because the gremlin thrives on attention and opposition.

He is also a master debater. The moment that you engage with him in intellectual battle is the very moment that he wins—and you lose.

Simply noticing

The alternative to arguing with your gremlin is simple (though not easy). It is to simply notice the gremlin at work.

Awareness of the gremlin — not thinking or arguing — is your most powerful response.

Carson reminds us that:

…as you begin to simply notice your gremlin, you will become acutely sensitive to the fact that you are not your gremlin, but rather his observer. You will see clearly that your gremlin has no real hold you. As this awareness develops, you will begin to enjoy yourself more an more. It is to you, the observer, that this book is written.

Here Carson aligns with the newer schools of cognitive behavioral therapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. With these approaches, clients learn to greet their irrational beliefs with mindful attention rather than refute those beliefs and replace them with more rational alternatives.

In brief, Carson writes: “I change not by trying to be something other than I am. I change by being fully aware of how I am.”

Playing with options

One of the most refreshing aspects of Taming Your Gremlin is Carson’s approach to behavior change. He suggests ways to do this without creating a new gremlin.

Trying hard and attempting to figure everything out are not recommended. Instead:

  • Simply notice emotions as physical sensations.
  • Relax and let those sensations circulate through your body.
  • From that state of relaxed power, choose what to do next.
  • Do all of this in the spirit of being in process and playing with options.

Carson reminds us that we can choose a new behavior in any moment. And we can change for today rather than worrying about changing forever.

So long as you are willing to ground yourself and simply notice, you will never lose the vantage point of the current moment, and from this home base of operation you can always choose to tame your gremlin. Every moment holds the potential for compete self-enjoyment and for complete misery. The choice is yours.

Werner Erhard’s Transformation

On a March morning in 1971, Werner Erhard started his car and began the commute from his home in Corte Madera, California to his office in San Francisco. He was working for an encyclopedia publisher and headed to a meeting.

Erhard never made it there. Instead, he spent hours roaming around Twin Peaks, which overlooks San Francisco, trying to understand the epiphany that happened while he was driving.

Werner’s own description of this experience includes the following comments:

What happened had no form. It was timeless, unbounded, ineffable, beyond language. There were no words attached to it, no emotions or feelings, no attitudes, no bodily sensations.

Part of it was the realization that I knew nothing. I was aghast at that. For I had spent most of my life trying to learn things. I was sure that there was some one thing I didn’t know, and that if I could find it out, I would be all right.

I saw that the fundamental skew to all my knowledge, and to unenlightened mind, is survival, or, as I put it then, success.

In the next instant — after I realized I knew nothing — I realized that I knew everything…. It was so stupidly, blindly simple that I could not believe it.

I saw that there were no hidden meanings, that everything was just the way that it is, and that I was already all right.

Not only was I no longer concerned about success; I was no longer even concerned about achieving satisfaction. I was satisfied. I was no longer concerned with my reputation; I was concerned only with the truth.

I realized that I was not my emotions or thoughts. I was not my ideas, my intellect, my perceptions, my beliefs. I was not what I did or accomplished or achieved. Or hadn’t achieved. I was not what I had done right — or what I had done wrong. I was not what I had been labeled — by myself or others. All these identifications cut me off from experience, from living.

I was simply the space, the creator, the source of all that stuff…. Experience…is simply evidence that I am here. It is not who I am.

I no longer thought of myself as the person named Werner Erhard, the person who did all that stuff. I was no longer the one who had all the experiences I had as a child. I was not identified by my ‘false identity’ any more than by my ‘true identity.’ All identities were false.

I was whole and complete as I was, and I now could accept the whole truth about myself.

I had reached the end. It was all over for Werner Erhard.

For more about the work of Werner Erhard, see:

The Flower Sermon at the Bar: A Story

I was at a bar sharing a table with a Buddhist monk. He was in full regalia — bright orange robes and shaved head.

The monk was an American who’d converted to Buddhism and gone off to Thailand for a few years to meditate in the forest.

This monk, in fact, was an old high school buddy of mine — Stephen Wexler.

Wexler was back in the States to visit his family. We made time during his visit to meet for a couple of drinks and catch up.

Wexler was a Buddhist monk, but he was not monastic. His order allowed him to live as a layperson. This meant he could still dance, sleep on a soft bed, and drink alcohol once in awhile. He chose to take a vow of celibacy, however.

I knew Wexler well. This meant that we didn’t have to mince words. He’d loaned me some of his books about Buddhism. While at the bar we were talking about them, and I was playing devil’s advocate about his religion.

“Wexler, you’ve got a hell of a lot to prove,” I said, emboldened by a martini and ready to puncture his metaphysics. “And what you’ve got to prove is that nirvana is inherently more compelling than chocolate and sex and money. You want me to give up my orgasms for your holy Void. You’re saying that Nothingness matters more than credit cards. Gee, I don’t know about all that.”

“And what could you possibly mean by saying that this life is just a dream?” I added. “If I throw this drink in your face, is that a dream?”

“A dream is something that takes place in your mind and then passes away,” Wexler replied. “And that’s a perfect description of your life and just everybody else’s life. You think you live in the world, but you really just live in all your ideas about the world. When have you ever experienced a single sensation without the violence of your demands — declaring that this feeling is pleasant and has to last forever, or that it is painful and has to stop right now?

“And your orgasms,” Wexler added, “are they any basis for wisdom and compassion? Sex for you is a desperate dance that you do to distract yourself from the fact of mortality.”

“So I’m going to die,” I said, “and that’s supposed to be news? So what? That’s all the more reason to get nude and crude and drink wine and go shopping when I can enjoy it. You’re telling me that there’s something more real than pleasure, more real than a paycheck — some state of mind that’s more secure than having money in the bank and time to spare? I have no conception of that state of mind. Do you?”

“You’re right,” Wexler rejoined. “You’re right that I have no conception of all this. Nirvana transcends all conceptions. In fact, it is our conceptions that cloud our direct perception of nirvana.”

Wexler paused, letting that comment sink in.

“Nirvana is not a thing,” he added. “You can’t place it in time and space and give it a name and a street address and a social security number. Because if you could, nirvana would just be something else that arises and passes away. Nirvana is simply something that we see to when the mind is silent.”

“There’s something real that you can’t locate? Really? Tell me, Wexler, what the hell is that?”

Wexler opened his mouth to reply. Then he stopped. For a few seconds he just stared at me.

Silence.

Then his eyes melted into a soft gaze and closed. I saw him take a deep breath. It was a breath that stopped time and rippled right through him, chest to toes. I could see that single breath melting him, softening and freeing each muscle along the way.

After a moment that seemed eternal, Wexler reached for a small vase full of fake flowers sitting on the bar. From it he plucked a single plastic daisy and held it out to me.

I knew what he was doing. He intended to stop my stream of thought in its tracks. He wanted me to take refuge in direct perception — to just see something right in front of me without having any conceptions or inclinations about it.

He also wanted to reveal the state of my mind in that very moment — my agitation. My attachment to opinions. My rightness.

It was a cheap move.

And it worked.

Bodywork as Spiritual Practice

Meditation is not restricted to the mat.

We can turn bodywork (therapeutic massage) into meditation.

During traditional meditation retreats, I notice the sensations associated with breathing — the feeling of cool air drawn up into my nostrils.

The gentle rise of my belly with each inhale.

Warm air exhaled as my belly falls.

Bringing mindful awareness to such sensations brings me into the present moment.

And when past and future disappear, so do my problems.

During bodywork, I work with stronger sensations — the experience of being touched rather than the experience of breathing.

When a massage therapist’s hands move, my awareness follows. When her fingertips meet my skin, my attention goes there.

I sink into pure sensation, become a body, and see where that leads.


Our lives are the story of how we relate to pleasure and pain.

We cling to comforting sensations and we resist discomfort, but these primal strategies never yield more than passing satisfaction.

The alternative is to cultivate a mind that does not cling or resist.

This bright, shining awareness is able to witness the rising and passing of any sensation without a sense of suffering.

Both pleasure and pain can lead us to this high plane of realization, say the meditation teachers.

But pain is so oppressive and hard to learn from. Pleasure can also teach us.

Perhaps the path of mindful pleasure will take me to nirvana as readily as sitting meditation.

Sometimes I’m not sure I want to spend hours with my butt parked on a zafu. I’d rather be on the massage table — supine, serene, and caressed.

Why not use bodywork to take pleasure to its limits and then die to it?

Just feel whatever arises without limitation, without longing or loathing.

Beyond that is the peace that passes understanding.


My body will die soon — today, tomorrow, or years from now. (From the standpoint of eternity, it makes no difference).

All the more reason to make the body the vehicle of practice.

Many spiritual practices are slow to tap into our energetic core. Bodywork offers a direct path.

Let’s begin with touch.

Let flesh meet flesh and spirit meet spirit.

This is how God enters the world — through a human body.


Bodywork is pure paradox. It is intimate and distanced, professional and personal, private and public.

These qualities exist as opposites only in my mind.

The bodyworker’s touch erases all distinctions.

They are not part of the body’s vocabulary.


During sitting meditation I have an intuition that there is more to “me” than a physical body.

Paradoxically, the body itself is a path to this knowledge.

While on the massage table, my eyes close and my mind settles.

Thoughts are not needed. Words are crude instruments, too blunt to be used.

All the necessary information flows through the bodyworker’s hands. She writes entire books on my body.

Our edges blur. Our boundaries soften.

There is only motion and sensation — one unfolding event with two poles, her and me.

The two of us are not so separate.


As the bodyworker’s fingers tunnel deep into my tissues, I am complete.

I fear nothing and want nothing. I feel empty and full at the same time.

The need for effort and meaning and self-definition drops away.

Life is simply a given — empty, meaningless, and immense.


Undress. Climb on to the massage table.

Close your eyes. Be quiet. Silence your mind.

Surrender your clothes and your categories.

See the whole world in a single moment and understand everything at once.

“Stop talking and thinking,” Seng-tsan wrote, “and there is nothing you will not be able to know.”


What are the boundaries of the body? Where do I end? Where do you begin? 

Bodywork raises these questions.

I talk about my body, my hands, my legs. My words set me apart from you.

You touch me while I lie on the table. At that moment, sensation arises “inside” me and “inside” you.

But these events are simultaneous, and we are in direct physical contact.

Where does one flow of sensation end and the other one begin? And who owns those sensations? You or me?

Are we really solid and separate entities? 


During bodywork, I am aware of sights, sounds, aromas, tastes, feelings — five senses, five streams of experience with no visible boundaries. 

You, me, yours, and  mine  are not present in any of them. 

Self is a concept that we layer on top of raw sensation.


During bodywork, we settle into the experience of being touched. Eventually, thoughts stop.

No thoughts, no self.


Bodyworker, your touch dissolves my disguises and distinctions. You take me back to the world before words.

When you touch me, time stops and nothing belongs to me, including this body.

It was never even mine to begin with. 

To be fully embodied and to have no body; these are the same.

Who am I?

I’m no body.

We’re one body.


During bodywork, I am passive and plastic, ready to be molded and reshaped.

What if it were possible to live this way all the time — not caring about people’s judgments, not worrying about appearances, not needing to look good?

To be free of psychological draping and the need for approval lightens our load.


The challenge for the person on the massage table is the same as a challenge for the person sitting in meditation: distraction.

During bodywork, my mind proves that it has a mind of its own. Even during blissful sensations, my thoughts often take me elsewhere.

More than once I arose from the massage table at the end of an hour and realized that I had yet to show up for the session.

My mind drifted for the entire time.

Then suddenly there’s a thought: Where am I? How did I get here?

And I barely remember being touched.


During bodywork, the practice is simply to bring attention to physical sensation and let it rest there — and to do this a hundred times each hour.

When I can maintain that focus, time fades away, no more real than a dream.

I wake up in my body.

I incarnate.

My heart is a little more open. My mind is a little more clear.


No resistance.

The whole of meditation practice reduces to those two words.

No matter what thought or feeling surfaces in your awareness, just greet it. Just notice it, register it, and observe it. Don’t judge it, indulge it, or repress it.

And if you notice that you’re resisting any thought or feeling, then just notice that resistance.

Any thought or feeling that you allow to arise and pass without interference will take you to nirvana.

Remember this when you are dying on the massage table.

B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (8): Stay Flexible and Have Fun

In his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, psychologist B.J. Fogg tells the story of Sukumar, who struggled with weight loss for years.

After learning about B.J.’s model of behavior change, Sukumar designed two Tiny Habits: doing 2 pushups after brushing his teeth and a 5-second plank. Eventually he “grew” these behaviors to 50 pushups and a 5-minute plank every day.

Habits grow and multiply

Sukumar’s experience is not an exception, B.J. writes. Well-designed habits scale naturally from tiny to transformative. And, this happens without extra doses of motivation or ability.

Here B.J. distinguishes between two kinds of Tiny Habits:

  • Growth Habits, such as expanding from 2 pushups daily to 50
  • Multiplication Habits, such as doing 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.), which leads to also making your bed.

Trust the process

Growing and multiplying habits does not call for new strategies. These benefits flow naturally from the fundamentals of the Tiny Habits method:

  • Start with a clear aspiration or outcome that matters to you.
  • Design habits that 1) you want to do, 2) you can do, and 3) will make a positive impact on your life.
  • Choose an effective anchor for each new habit (most often, an existing habit).
  • Choose whether to ramp up a habit or back off to your baseline behavior — whatever works for today.
  • Celebrate every time you do a habit.
  • Focus on frequency — having many small and immediate successes rather isolated big ones.

B.J. predicts that success in habit change will gradually shift your identity positive ways. You turn into the kind of person who actually “walks the talk” by aligning your behaviors with your values. This is deeply satisfying, and it builds momentum for creating more new habits.

You can do simple things to assist this process:

  • Socialize with people who share your aspirations.
  • Find products and services that support your habit changes.
  • Share your experiences with habit change on social media.
  • Get coaching in habit change.
  • Coach other people in habit change.

Lighten up

Habit change is like learning to cook. View each habit that you design as a recipe. Tinker with the ingredients (anchor, behavior, celebration) to get your desired results.

I like this analogy. It underscores the value of staying open, curious, flexible. View habit changes as experiments, and troubleshoot until you find behaviors that “stick.”

Above all, says B.J., have fun. There is no failure on this path — only feedback. Play with the possibilities until you discover what works.

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.

B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (6): Celebrate Success

According to Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg, the most important skill in behavior change is celebrating success.

In fact, he singles out celebration as the main takeaway from Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.

“People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad,” B.J. writes. Celebrate every time you do a habit that you’ve designed — no matter how small.

Celebration changes shifts our mindset. This is not “positive thinking.” It is simply noticing what works.

Many of us find it easy to beat ourselves up about failed behavior change. Designing Tiny Habits and celebrating them undercuts our collective negativity bias.

Ways to celebrate

What you would do if:

  • You received an email telling you that you got your dream job?
  • Your favorite team won a championship in the last seconds of a game?
  • You threw a piece of paper into the recycling bin and it landed perfectly?

Your answers to these questions reveal your personal celebration preferences. Experiment with a variety of methods until you discover what works.

In Tiny Habits, B.J. gives many examples of celebration, such as:

  • Say, “Yes!” while you do a fist pump.
  • Do a subtle head nod.
  • Smile big.
  • Do a double thumbs-up.
  • Think of your favorite teacher saying, “You did a great job!”
  • Raise your arms and say, “Victory!”

Include at least one power celebration — a potent method to use when you want to wire in a new habit immediately.

Feel like you’re faking it?

The trick is finding ways to celebrate that feel authentic for you.

If you ever feel that you’re faking celebration, keep the following points in mind:

  • It really is a big deal to design a new habit and actually do it — no matter how small the behavior.
  • Remember how your habits connect to your core aspirations, such as being more happy, productive, or loving.
  • Positive emotion helps you develop stable habits.
  • Celebration is a skill that improves with practice.

When to celebrate

Make your celebration immediate and intense, doing it:

  • When you remember to do the habit.
  • While doing the habit.
  • After doing the habit.

In addition, you can celebrate any positive behavior — even those that you don’t design.

Also experiment with a celebration blitz. For example, go the messiest room in your house and spend three minutes cleaning it. Celebrate every single item that you toss an item or put it away.

You don’t have to celebrate a habit forever. But you can choose to celebrate it when you:

  • Start doing it again after falling off
  • Increase the intensity of the habit (such as doing deeper squats)
  • Increase the duration of the habit (such doing 20 push ups instead of 2)

Creating “shine”

B.J. has a term for the positive feeling that comes with successful habit change — shine. Every time that you celebrate a habit change, you add a little more shine to the world.

This is a service to yourself and others. As B.J. notes:

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.

B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (5): Find a Good Prompt

The A in B.J. Fogg’s ABC recipe for Tiny Habits stands for Anchor. This is included because all behavior follows a prompt (which B.J. also calls an anchor). If you don’t design a prompt for your desired habit, says B.J. — well, that behavior won’t happen.

One of the many cool things about the Tiny Habits program is applying this to your own life.

Immediately I saw that I live in a fog of unconsciousness. I encounter countless prompts each day without noticing them. All those prompts are triggering behaviors, and the whole process unfolds beneath my awareness.

In short, I’m living like a machine rather than a human being.

B.J.’s program offers a way wake up.

Recognize anchors

Some common anchors are:

  • Starting a coffee maker
  • Brushing teeth
  • Turning on the shower
  • Waking up in the morning
  • Putting on shoes
  • Starting a car
  • Feeling the urge to snack
  • Starting up a computer
  • Starting a dishwasher
  • Plugging in a phone to charge

Most anchors occur in the morning, but look for them in afternoon and evening as well.

Choose effective anchors

When designing Tiny Habits, your best bet for anchors are existing habits. Find behaviors that you do consistently.

Also make anchors precise. Look for the trailing edge of an anchor — how the behavior ends. For example:

  • After I put down the carafe rather than After I pour coffee.
  • After I start the dishwasher rather than After I finish dinner.
  • After my feet hit the floor rather than After I get out of bed.

In addition, match anchors with your desired habit. Think in terms of:

  • Physical location. Design a new habit to take place in the same location as an existing habit.
  • Frequency. If you want to do the new habit twice a day, for example, then find an existing habit that you do twice per day.
  • Theme or purpose. Say that your aspiration is to be more productive. Link your new habit to an existing habit that’s about being more productive.

B.J. gives this example of an anchor and habit that do not match: After I brush my teeth, I will sweep the garage.

Some anchors involve pockets of waiting time during the day. B.J. calls these “meanwhile” anchors. Examples include:

  • After I turn on the shower, I will do two squats.
  • After I stop at a red light, I will, I will take a mindful breath.
  • After I get in line at the grocery store, I will think of one thing I’m grateful for.

Another interesting variation is the “pearl” habit. B.J describes these as “creating beauty from irritation.” For instance:

  • After I feel insulted, I will think of something nice to do for myself.
  • After I hear a car honk, I will smile.
  • After I get in line at the grocery store, I will relax my face and neck.

Start with a list

Mentally review your typical day for useful anchors. Look for habits that you do:

  • First thing in the morning
  • Right before lunch
  • During lunch
  • Right after lunch
  • At the end of the work day
  • Right before you go to bed

Creating this list of your existing anchors — and keeping it updated — will make habit design easier.

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.

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.