Tiny Habits, by BJ Fogg

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I went through BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course back in 2014 with limited success in creating my intended habits. I was planning to skip the book since I figured it was more of the same, but after hearing a podcast interview with him, I realized he covered more in the book than what had been in the course.

In Fogg’s Behavior Model, Behavior is a function of Motivation, Ability and Prompt (B: MAP). In this conception, all behavior is instigated by a prompt, although that prompt may be internal (e.g. we know that when we are going to bed that we should brush our teeth). If our combination of Motivation and Ability is above a threshold when the Prompt occurs (he calls the threshold the Action Line), we will do the behavior.

The clever thing about this model is that it takes the focus off of motivation as the key to changing behavior. People tend to subscribe to the New Year’s Resolution model of behavior change, where they believe that if they just want the new behavior enough, they will change. But motivation is variable – it can be diminished on days when we haven’t gotten enough sleep, when we haven’t eaten well, when we are in a fight with a friend or loved one, etc. If we rely only on motivation, then when motivation is low, we will revert to our previous habits.

Fogg suggests that rather than rely on motivation, we can explore the space of Ability and Prompts to change our behavior, and hence the Tiny Habits methodology. By designing clear prompts, and making the new behavior incredibly easy to do (low ability needed), we can make sure they happen even if the motivation is low. His canonical example is that when he had trouble flossing consistently, he started by flossing one tooth, and celebrating each day that he flossed one tooth (and sometimes flossing more when he felt like it). On a high motivation day, he went out and bought several kinds of floss to figure out which floss made it easiest to floss. By making flossing easy, and celebrating his small wins, he started a flossing habit that sticks to this day.

Fogg also describes other ways you can make the behavior easier:

  • Increase your skills. If you are starting a push-up habit, five push-ups may be a challenge, but if you keep at it, it may soon be easy to do 10 or 20 or more.
  • Make the behavior tiny, as we’ve already discussed. What is the most ridiculously small version of the behavior?
  • Get tools and resources, as Fogg did with finding better floss. He tells the story of a woman in his book who wanted to eat healthier but hated chopping vegetables…but when she got a mandoline, she was able to quickly slice things so that she could always have the healthy snacks she intended.

Designing clear prompts also requires some thought, as I discovered when I previously tried Tiny Habits. I started that course by saying I wanted to do five push-ups before getting in the shower…but of course, “before” is a terrible anchor, as I kept forgetting until I was in the shower, and then I didn’t want to get out and do push-ups. During the week, I redesigned the prompt to be rolling out of bed, which helped, although I still lost the habit within a few weeks. I’ve recently re-started push-ups as part of a larger morning self-care routine that kicks off when I start my workday, where there is a clearer prompt, as well as more of a commitment to being the kind of person who has a regular self-care routine since I often expound on the benefits of self-care to my clients.

Another key point that Fogg makes is that “Emotions create Habits”. Our brain’s wiring is designed to repeat actions that generate dopamine rewards, so we don’t need to repeat actions a certain number of times to create a habit if we feel good about the action. For instance, the first time a child gets ice cream, they don’t need to practice the habit multiple times to know they want more ice cream. So a key part of Fogg’s Tiny Habits methodology is to celebrate each time we do the behavior, even if it’s the tiniest version of the habit. I missed the significance of this when I first took the course, but I see the importance of it now based on what little I know of neurobiology.

Hence, Fogg’s summary of how to create a Tiny Habit is ABC:

  • Anchor Moment: This is the prompt that reminds you to do the new behavior.
  • New Tiny Behavior: This is the simplest version of the desired behavior, done immediately after the Anchor Moment.
  • Instant Celebration: You celebrate immediately after doing the new behavior, to use positive emotions to lock in the behavior as a new habit.

Fogg also lists what he calls the skills of change:

  • Behavior crafting: knowing how many new habits to do at once and when to add more
  • Self-insight: the skill of knowing which new habits will have meaning to you – his maxims are “Help people do what they already want to do” and “Help people feel successful”.
  • Process: the skill of knowing when to push yourself beyond tiny and ramp up the difficulty of the habit (e.g. when to increase the number of push-ups to do). The goal here is to always keep it easy to do (remember B:MAP), but “easy” changes as we get more skilled in the behavior.
  • Context: the skill of redesigning your environment to make your habits easier to do; in other words, designing concrete prompts.
  • Mindset: the skill of embracing a new identity e.g. “I’m now the kind of person who…”, as I discussed in another recent post.

Of course, if you’ve done all these, you may still have setbacks where the habit is not sticking for some reason. Fogg suggests troubleshooting first the prompt, then ability, then motivation. If the prompt isn’t clear, the behavior won’t happen. He then describes what he calls the Ability Chain (Time, Money, Physical Effort, Mental Effort, Routine). The reason it’s called a chain is that these are all linked, and the weakest link will determine our ability to do the behavior. Fogg suggests asking “What is making this behavior hard to do?”, and using the Ability Chain to identify where we should focus our efforts to get us back on track. Only if the prompt and ability have been examined should we examine our motivation – do we really want to do the new behavior?

So those are the basic ideas of the BJ Fogg Behavior Model described in Tiny Habits. I particularly like the emphasis on designing good prompts and identifying ways to increase our ability, as I tend to judge any failures to start a new habit as a moral lapse on my part and/or a lack of motivation; with Fogg’s model, I can instead take a more design-focused perspective to figure out how I can make the habit easier to do with the Ability Chain, or make the Prompt more visible to bolster flagging Motivation.

I’m curious if others find this model useful, and, if so, how they plan to apply it in their own lives?

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