The Small Changes That Change Everything
“Myth-breaking and persuasive research…balancing useful practices (including many charts, tables, and graphs) with his own story of personal transformation, Fogg’s convincing method will help any reader reconfigure their habits.”
We all have behaviors we want to change for the better. We want to eat more vegetables, be more patient with our children, go to bed earlier. Why, then, do we struggle to make lasting change? The problem, according to Fogg, is threefold.
First, we judge ourselves far too harshly when we fail. Take losing weight, for example. We commit to ridding ourselves of a few unwanted pounds. But, then, we go to lunch with our colleagues and order a big meal. Having fallen off the wagon, we feel bad about ourselves, return to our previous eating habits, and, inevitably, repeat the cycle again and again. People don’t change by feeling bad.
Second, we mistake aspirations for behaviors. A behavior, according to Fogg, is something you can do right now or at another specific point in time. For instance, you can put your phone on airplane mode before you got to bed to get a better night’s sleep. An aspiration, by contrast, is impossible to achieve at any given moment. You cannot suddenly get better sleep.
Third, we set big, loft goals and rely on motivation to achieve them. The problem, as we’ve all experienced, is motivation is unreliable. It’s great, in the beginning, especially when researching a new behavior. But as we’ll learn below, without a trigger, or the ability to do the behavior, motivation won’t take you to where you want to go. We often assume that to get a behavior to happen, we need to focus on motivation, first. But in reality, motivation is not as important as we might think.
How, then, can we create lasting change without risking feeling bad about ourselves or replying only on motivation?
The answer, Fogg writes, is to change our habits in tiny ways. Having worked with thousands of people, Fogg has found that making change tiny is the best way to create lasting change.
“The essence of Tiny Habits is to take behavior you want, make it tiny, find where it fits naturally in your life, and nurture its growth.”– BJ Fogg, PhD
Building Tiny Habits, Fogg explains, is a simple three-step formula:
- Find an Anchor Moment. An Anchor Moment is (1) an existing routine (like brushing your teeth) or (2) an event that happens (like a phone ringing). The Anchor Moment reminds you to do the new Tiny Behavior.
- Make the Behavior You Want Tiny. Focus on small actions that you can do in less than thirty seconds, such as flossing one tooth or doing two push-ups. You need to do the Tiny Behavior immediately after the Anchor Moment.
- Celebrate Instantly. Something you do to create positive emotions, such as saying I did a good job! or Awesome! You need to celebrate immediately after doing the new Tiny Behavior to wire the new behavior into your brain.
The Elements of Behavior
A behavior happens when motivation, ability, and a prompt converge simultaneously. This is known as the Fogg Behavior Model or B=MAP.
For example, while working out, Fogg got a text from Red Cross asking him for a donation. Fogg already had a desire to donate (Motivation), he was capable of replying to the text (Ability), and Red Cross promoted him in the first place with a text (Prompt). If, however, Red Cross had called him, Fogg’s ability to answer may have hindered him from doing the behavior.
What’s interesting is the Fogg Behavior Model applies to all behavior—including those you’re trying to change for the better.
“You can disrupt a behavior you don’t want by removing the prompt. This isn’t always easy, but removing the prompt is your best first move to stop a behavior from happening.”– BJ Fogg, PhD
The key takeaway, then, is that the easier a behavior is to do, the more likely the behavior will become a habit. And that goes for breaking bad habits, too. Watching TV, say, is a lot harder when it’s unplugged, in another room, and you have to carry it down a flight of stairs and plug in to watch.
We discussed before that motivation is unreliable. Yet, we rely on it heavily when trying to make a change. We believe, erroneously, that motivation is, “the true engine of behavior change,” to quote Fogg, when in reality, it’s only one part of the full equation.
In Fogg’s work, he focuses on three sources of motivation:
- Yourself (what you already want);
- A benefit or punishment you would receive by doing the action (the carrot and stick); and
- Your context (e.g., all your friends are doing it).
No matter what kind of change you want to make, matching yourself with the right behaviors is the key to changing your life for good. The best behaviors to focus on are what Fogg calls “Golden Behaviors.”
A Golden Behavior has three criteria:
- The behavior is effective in realizing your aspiration (impact);
- You want to do the behavior (motivation); and
- You can do the behavior (ability).
For example, if you’re trying to curb your scrolling habit, you could charge your phone in the kitchen next to your bed. It has an impact on your aspiration; you’re can get yourself to do it, and you’re capable of making the change. It’s a Golden Behavior.
The reason building Tiny Habits is effective is because it bypasses the unpredictability of motivation. Doing 20 push-ups every day is achievable if you’re you’re motivated every day. But we know by now that isn’t unrealistic. Ability, by contrast, is the opposite. You have far greater control over what’re you’re capable of doing, especially when the habit you’re building is easy. Doing two push-ups after peeing, for instance, doesn’t require any motivation; it’s difficult to say no to.
If you’re struggling to build a new habit, ask yourself what Fogg calls the Discovery Question: What is making this behavior hard to do? Fogg has found in his research that our answer will involve at least one of five factors which he calls the Ability Factors:
- Do you have enough time to do the behavior?
- Do you have enough money to do the behavior?
- Are you physically capable of doing the behavior?
- Does the behavior require a lot of creative or mental energy?
- Does the behavior fit into your current routine, or does it require you to make adjustments?
For example, many people struggle to exercise, not because they don’t have enough time or money, say, but rather, because they’re not physically capable. If, however, they were to make the behavior tiny, they would feel more capable of exercising.
Another question you need to ask is the Breakthrough Question: How can I make this behavior easier to do? Here, there are only three answers:
- Increase your skills. Learn more about the habit you’re building while you’re motivation is high by watching YouTube videos or joining a group of likeminded people.
- Get tools and resources. Buying Tupperware, for instance, increases your ability to prepare healthy lunches for the coming week.
- Make the behavior tiny. Focus on Starter Steps—one small move toward the desired behavior. Or, Scaling Back—taking the behavior you want and shrinking it.
Remember, when it comes to habit formation, simplicity trumps big leaps.
There are three types of prompts in our lives:
- Person Prompts
- Context Prompts, and
- Action Prompts.
A Person Prompt relies on something inside of you to do a behavior such as a feeling of thirst prompting to rehydrate. While useful, sometimes, Fogg says relying on yourself to do a new behavior every day is unlikely to lead to meaningful change due to its unreliability.
A Context Prompt is anything in your environment that cues you to take action, such as app notifications or a colleague reminding you to join a meeting. Like Person Prompts, Context Prompts are sometimes problematic when you have too many to manage.
Fogg’s favorite of the three is an Action Prompt: a behavior you already do that can remind you to do a new habit you want to cultivate. For example, your existing habit of pouring yourself a cup of coffee in the morning can serve as your prompt to take daily vitamins, a new habit.
“Action Prompts are already embedded in your life so seamlessly and naturally that you don’t have to think about them.”– BJ Fogg, PhD
To create a new habit, you need to find what behavior it should come after. For example, if you’re trying to read more, you might decide a reliable Action Prompt—or Anchor, as Fogg calls it—is after you get into bed.
Once you have identified a habit you want in your life, you can create what Fogg calls a Tiny Habit Recipe:
After I (ANCHOR), I will (NEW HABIT).
- After I flush the toilet, I will do two push-ups.
- After I pull the car over, I will write down the most important task of the day.
- After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
In teaching thousands of people how to find good Anchors for their new habits, Fogg has learned that you should take three things into account when choosing an Anchor.
- Match the physical location;
- Match the frequency; and
- Match the theme/purpose.
To match the physical behavior, you need to find an Anchor you already do in that location. In Fogg’s experience, having the Anchor happen in once location and the new habit in another rarely works.
To match the frequency, you need to decide how often you want to do your new habit. If you want to do it once a day, then sequence it after an Anchor that happens once a day. To match the theme/purpose, you need to ensure that the Anchor has the same theme or purpose as the new habit. Sweeping the garage after brushing your teeth will almost certainly fail due to their incompatibility.
In life and work, we’re quick to find fault with our foibles. We self-chastize for failing to do or not take action when needed–raising a concern during a meeting, saying the right thing to a friend going through a difficult time. Yet, rarely, if ever, do we recognize and celebrate our achievements, big or otherwise.
The reality, which might feel uncomfortable for many, is celebrating our achievements, big or tiny, is a critical part of making a lasting change. In fact, Fogg has found in his research that habits can form very quickly, often in just a few days, as long as people have a strong positive emotion connected to the behavior.
For that reason, it’s vital that you celebrate immediately after performing your new habit. “When you celebrate, you create a positive feeling inside yourself on-demand,” Fogg writes. “This good feeling wires the new habit into your brain.” When we feel good, our brain releases dopamine, we remember what behavior led to feeling good, and we’re more likely to do it again.
To help a habit root quickly and easily in your brain:
- Perform the behavior sequence (Anchor > Tiny Behavior) that you want to become a habit; and
- Celebrate immediately.
Fogg’s rule for celebrating is saying or doing something (internally or externally) that makes you feel good and creates a feeling of success. That might be saying, Awesome! out loud, or thinking to yourself, Good job. What matters, more than how you celebrate, is the immediacy and intensity of the celebration after doing the habit.