Changing our behaviors can feel like a monumental task. We pressure ourselves to go big or go home. Not surprisingly, these big expectations are often unrealistic, and that's a recipe for disappointment and self-criticism.
Instead, we should think small — as in tiny behaviors that can become habits. The idea is to make these behavior changes so small that they're easy to do, according to BJ Fogg, a behavior scientist at Stanford University and author of the new book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.
"It's easier to create habits and change than most people think, and it's faster than most people think," Fogg says. "It can even be fun, if you do it in the right way."
For NPR's Life Kit, I spoke with Fogg about how to form habits that actually last.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is a tiny habit, exactly? Can you define it? How tiny are we talking?
As simple and tiny as possible. So in the Tiny Habits method, you have these three hacks coming together.
First, you take any new habit you want, and you scale it back so that it's super-tiny. In the case of wanting to read more, that might mean read one paragraph. In the case of meditating, it might be take three calming breaths.
You make it so simple that it's almost like you have no excuse not to do it. So even when you're in a rush or you're sick or you're distracted, it's so tiny that you can still do it.
Then you find where it fits naturally in your existing routine. Ask yourself, what does this habit come after? For example, reading might come after you sit down on the subway. That might be the perfect time for you to open a book and read a paragraph. Now, you can read more if you want. That's fine. But the habit is just tiny — you only do a paragraph if that's all you want to do.
The third hack, in addition to making it tiny and then using an existing routine to remind you of it, is to hack your brain by calling up a positive emotion, by celebrating — whether that's fist pumps, raising your arms, doing a little dance, singing "Eye of the Tiger" in your head. Whatever it is that it helps you feel successful, that's what will help wire in the habit.
You've developed a model that explains how behavior change happens. Can you break that down for us?
There are three things that come together at the same time for any behavior to happen.
There's got to be motivation to do the behavior. Second is the ability to do the behavior. And the third is a prompt. The prompt is anything that reminds you or says, "Do this behavior now." And when those three things come together at the same moment, a behavior happens.
It's almost like an algorithm for changing our behavior.
Yeah. The harder the behavior, the more motivation you need. And you can see that all around you. You can just go to the airport and watch. You've got an escalator; you've got stairs. Who's taking the stairs? The people in a rush. They're running to catch their plane, so that's why they're taking the stairs.
Why isn't motivation alone enough to propel behavior change?
Our motivation won't always be high, and the way we get around that is to make the behavior really, really easy to do. The Tiny Habits method came from me looking at my own model and understanding that motivation is going to go up and down over time.
If a behavior is easy to do, it doesn't require a whole bunch of motivation. Let's say somebody wants you to donate 5 cents. You don't have to be super-motivated to do that. But if they're asking for $5,000, that takes a lot of motivation.
In the same way, if you think, "Hey, I've got to clean my entire house," you're going to have to be super-motivated. But if [you tell yourself to] tidy one item, all you need is a tiny bit of motivation.
So basically, the key to change is to set a really low bar?
Well, yeah. You know, there's a part in the Tiny Habits book where I say, "Hey, people, it's time for someone to say it: Lower your expectations." Which hopefully surprises people. But it's also the right way to go if you want to help yourself feel successful and [you want to] progress.
And that makes it easy to actually achieve success.
Yes. You reach and exceed the bar. And when you do more, you count it as extra credit. Like, one of my tiny habits is that after I pee, I do two pushups. And there's a phrasing for it: After I pee, I will do two pushups.
Or, after I sit down on the subway, I'll open my book and read a paragraph.
After I turn off the TV, I'll take three calming breaths.
So you find where [this habit] fits in your life. And then to wire in the habit, you fire off a positive emotion. In Tiny Habits, that technique is called celebration.
For a lot of people, doing a fist pump and saying, "Awesome!" works. For other people, in their heads they might think of a happy song. I know that sounds corny.
Yeah, it does.
I know, right? But the reality is that emotions create habits.
Well, what do you do to celebrate?
I have a variety of things I do. I'll do a double fist pump and say, "Way to go, BJ!" Sometimes I'll do a single pump and say, "Awesome!" And when I need something superpowerful, I think of my fourth-grade teacher in Fresno, Calif., who was this tough teacher and just really great. And I imagine her saying, "You did a good job!" And for whatever reason, that makes me feel so successful that it helps wire in the habit.
OK, but be honest. Did you feel a little bit ridiculous when you first started doing that?
No, I didn't. Some people are natural celebrators ... but they just didn't have a name for it. Other people are skeptical and have a hard time celebrating.
One of the ways to help those folks understand is to tell them: Take two minutes to list all the ways that you criticize yourself when you do a bad job. Now take two minutes and list all the ways you tell yourself you did a good job. And what typically happens is the self-criticism list is long and rich, and the celebration list is very, very short. My point is, don't you think you should balance it out at least a little bit?
So part of Tiny Habits involves learning to have some self-compassion and change the narrative inside our heads, to adopt positive self-talk?
Exactly. Let me give a common example. Load any popular video game onto your phone and notice how quickly it tells you you're succeeding and doing a good job. Any one of the popular ones — notice that even for the silliest of things, it's going to tell you, "Good job. You did awesome. Way to go."
Well, why? Because the most successful games are the ones that help you feel successful, that wire in the habit.
Can you use tiny habits to build up to really big change?
Well, that's what happens — in a few ways. My research supports this. That as you make these changes and feel successful, the way you think about yourself starts to change, your identity starts to change. So you begin to think, "Oh, I'm the kind of person who tidies up" or "I'm the kind of person who meditates" or "I'm the kind of person who reads."
Even if it's just super-tiny, as you start thinking of yourself in those ways, you find other opportunities to tidy up or meditate or read. So the habit naturally propagates to other parts of your life.
When you learn how to feel good about your successes, no matter how tiny, then that changes how you think about yourself and your opportunities. That's what leads to transformation.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis.
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