Tiny Habits

Behavior scientist BJ Fogg explains a painless strategy to personal growth.
October 8, 2013

For years, I’ve aspired to achieve the same simple goal: Floss daily.

It seems so easy. But time and again, after being faithful for a few days, I fall off the flossing wagon. And each failed attempt makes me feel lousier about myself. After all, it’s just flossing! Then earlier this year, while surfing the Internet, I stumbled upon the social scientist who may have found the secrets of human motivation and behavior.

Professor BJ Fogg, Ph.D., has spent close to two decades founding and directing the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, studying how human behavior works. His expertise is in creating systems that change human behavior—as he calls his work, Behavior Design. In exploring a few shortcuts to creating positive behavior, Fogg found a particular method that worked extremely well. He called it Tiny Habits. “I started doing it on my own, and decided to share it with friends and had no idea it would keep going and going,” Fogg says. “It is a way to change your behavior without relying on willpower.”

Eventually, Fogg launched a weeklong Tiny Habits test program online, asking participants only to stick to the methods, and offer constructive feedback. The results have been groundbreaking. Perform a quick search on Twitter and you’ll find hundreds of #tinyhabits testimonials, an underground stir that earned Fogg a platform at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin this year, to present his “life hack.”

Three Baby Steps

Fogg’s research has taught him that human behavior is systematic. Each of our actions and decisions is fueled by three components—motivation, ability and triggers. Our behavior, particularly our habits, comes from an underlying motivation, the ability to complete the particular action and a stimulus that provokes the action.

For example, your morning alarm blares and you immediately turn it off and get out of bed—or you do after a couple rounds of hitting the snooze button. Getting up to start the day is your motivation, locating your alarm clock within arm’s reach creates your ability to fulfill it, and the loud, incessant beeps are the triggers, reminders to your instincts that the next action is to turn off the alarm.

The road to any desired behavior—say, increasing productivity on the weekends, making more sales calls or eating healthier—can be jump-started with three baby steps:

1. Start small.

“Pick a small step toward your goal—a step so tiny, you’ll think it’s ridiculous,” Fogg says. Because it’s radically easy, you’re more likely to actually complete the behavior, regardless of how much or how little motivation you feel.

2. Find an anchor.

Choose an existing routine in your life to act as a trigger for your new behavior. Parking your car, brushing your teeth or taking a shower are all routines that can act as great anchors to trigger a new habit. “Whether you realize it or not, you have all sorts of routines,” Fogg says. “I call these anchors that you can connect to your tiny behavior. The key is to pick which routine is the right trigger for your small, simple behavior.”

The blueprint for your new behavior should complete the following sentence: After I (routine), I will (tiny behavior).

“I’ve created all these tiny habits in my life, from really practical to kind of crazy,” Fogg says. “One practical habit is, as soon as the phone rings, I put on my headset and I start walking. This has grown to lifting kettlebells or doing little one-leg squats while I’m on the phone. The desired behavior is to be active and working out in these small ways. I’m on the phone two to three hours a day, and now it’s a habit that I probably can’t stop. When I take calls, I’m up and walking around.”

Another habit Fogg has introduced into his life—one that might be considered crazy—is meant to build his upper-body strength. “After I pee, I do push-ups,” Fogg says with a big laugh. “And then I promptly wash my hands. I mostly work from home—I wouldn’t do it in a public restroom.”

In the beginning, Fogg would do only two push-ups after using the restroom. Because doing two push-ups was almost effortless, it quickly became a habit for Fogg to hit the floor right after using the restroom. Once two push-ups became too easy, he started doing five. When doing five became really easy, Fogg increased it to eight. Eight push-ups became habitual, and soon he was doing 12 to 15 push-ups every time. Now he effortlessly incorporates north of 100 push-ups into his daily routine.

He’s since transitioned into lifting kettlebells. “My arms have gotten so much stronger,” Fogg says. “Since I focused on these Tiny Habits, I’ve lost 25 pounds and am back to my college weight. And frankly, it has not been hard. It’s a lot of little teeny things. I’m drinking more water, I’m doing push-ups, and just little by little as you do these things, you start seeing progress.”

Part of good behavior design is evaluating which existing routines to use as anchors for new habits. Because the average adult uses the restroom seven times a day, it was the perfect anchor for Fogg’s habit of doing push-ups.

Fogg advises that someone like me, who aspires to floss every day, anchor the new habit to its natural trigger, teeth-brushing. Like a seed flourishing under favorable conditions, if you plant your new behavior in the right spot, it’ll naturally grow without further coaxing. “If you try to start a habit and it hurts, you’re making it too hard. It has to be something that’s not a big deal, where you just think, Oh, it’s just two curls with the kettlebells. And after it’s over, be happy that you did it when you had planned to do it.”

3. Celebrate immediately.

In building a habit, it helps to reward yourself in positive ways that are as small as your tiny behaviors themselves—give yourself a thumbs-up, a smile in the mirror, or tell yourself good job! “Notice how often athletes celebrate and when they do it—immediately,” Fogg says.

Not only do small celebrations reinforce desired behavior, but they design for what Fogg calls “tiny thrills.”

“Our brains are very bad at distinguishing between I did this huge thing and I’m feeling awesome about it and I did this tiny thing and I’m still feeling awesome about it,” Fogg says. “Somehow in our heads we exaggerate, which is a good thing. That’s part of the hack—building success momentum, allowing yourself to feel successful, allowing that success to be larger than it rationally should be, then growing and leveraging that attitude into bigger things.”

Forward Progress

Perhaps more helpful than the tiny habits themselves is the success momentum they build. When participants in Fogg’s Tiny Habits online program were asked whether the strategies affected their confidence in creating good habits in the future, a whopping 91 percent said it increased or greatly increased. When participants were polled on whether the Tiny Habits had rippled out to create other positive changes in their lives during the week of the program, 65 percent said yes.

There’s a snowball effect: When you achieve a goal by integrating simple daily habits into your life, no matter how small, you gain a confidence that helps pave the way to reach bigger goals. The success momentum you gain from creating positive habits is the method’s secret sauce.

“Every time a company convinces you to try its new health platform and you don’t succeed, I believe your ability to change in the future decreases. In other words, they are stealing away from you the ability to change,” Fogg says. “We’ve all been there and experienced it. If you set somebody up on a path where they’re likely not to succeed, or you set yourself up to ‘run two hours every day, no matter what,’ when you stop, it’s not a neutral event—you come back worse. That’s one of the problems in our culture—we overreach.”

Overreaching and falling short is the antithesis of Fogg’s Tiny Habits method. Unless your environment or social circle drastically changes, it’s almost impossible to implement radical changes or big leaps. The only way to make behavior changes that actually work is through tiny steps, performed patiently and methodically.

“One thing we have to move away from is this idea of big and brittle—I’m going to do this big thing and if I fail once, it’s over,” Fogg says. “It’s not that [high achievers] are necessarily in better condition, it’s their routine that makes the behavior easier to follow. This is true of virtually all behaviors that are simple. They’re easier the more you do them.”

That’s what I’m finding on my ongoing quest to become a daily flosser. I started by flossing one tooth a day, and now, 2½ weeks later, I’m currently flossing exactly 10 teeth a day.

Yes, of course it felt silly to floss a single tooth for the first week. In and of itself, flossing one tooth probably didn’t go a long way in warding off gingivitis. But I haven’t missed a single day of flossing since I began my tiny habit. So I’ve successfully created an ongoing behavior, and I have confidence that it’ll continue to work.

“It’s more than a feeling,” Fogg says. “When you [create a habit], you’re signaling to yourself, Yes! I can change my behavior. I’m doing it right now! You’re telling yourself this at least once a day. Just have patience, keep going and don’t give up.”

And really, who doesn’t have the patience to floss one tooth?

Fogg-y Thoughts

Almost 20 years ago, before iPhones and way before Google Glass, Stanford professor BJ Fogg coined a term for the potential of computers to influence human behavior—“captology,” from the acronym Computers As Persuasive Technologies.

When Fogg first posited that computers could shape human behavior, people thought him preposterous. “When I came to Stanford in ’93 to specifically look at how computers can be designed to influence people, nobody had ever done any systematic work in that area,” Fogg tells SUCCESS. “That was considered kind of freaky and scary by some people; they just didn’t think of computers as that instrumental.”

Indeed, everywhere digital technology touches our lives—purchasing something online, going on Facebook, reading a text message—we are being persuaded to take action. The technology is molding our behavior. “My bias is that a positive use of technology can bring out good outcomes in the world,” says Fogg, “not to enslave people or to separate people from their money.” Why we need to study captology, Fogg argues, is that “we are creating machines that control humans and human behavior.” Kind of gives you pause, right?

Fortune has named Fogg, 50, one of the “10 New Gurus You Should Know,” and Forbes states that “no one [else] has perhaps been as influential on the current generation of user experience designers,” the architects of our new interconnected society.

As a professor, he’s never taught the same class twice; there was one that explored how social media can promote world peace and another teaching students how to use online videos to persuade people. Perhaps Fogg’s most famous curriculum, the “Facebook Class,” built apps and, for some students, fortunes. (Among his former pupils is a co-founder of Instagram.)

“I think every good business is about helping people do what they already want to do,” Fogg says. “That’s what we’re figuring out: What do people want to do and how do we make it simple for them to do it? That’s one of the things I teach a lot now to my students—help people do what they already want to do.”

Sounds like the secret to entrepreneurial success.

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