Transform your routine with Tiny Habits

  • Untitled (detail) by Florence Spurling (Textiles (Knitted), 2013)

Jennifer Chang tried Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg's innovative method to developing new and better habits and routines in your personal and professional life. Read about her experience here, and if you like the sound of making tiny incremental changes that have big effects on your life, sign up for BJ's online seminar on 28 October – booking (RCA only) will open soon

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 behaviour.

Professor BJ Fogg has spent close to two decades founding and directing the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, studying how human behaviour works. His expertise is in creating systems that change human behaviour – as he calls his work, Behavior Design. In exploring a few shortcuts to creating positive behaviour, 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 behaviour without relying on willpower.”

Eventually, Fogg launched a week-long Tiny Habits test programme 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 behaviour is systematic. Each of our actions and decisions is fueled by three components: motivation, ability and triggers. Our behaviour, 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 behaviour – 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 behaviour, 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 behaviour. 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 realise it or not, you have all sorts of routines,” Fogg says. “I call these anchors that you can connect to your tiny behaviour. The key is to pick which routine is the right trigger for your small, simple behaviour.”

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

“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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviours 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 behaviour, 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.”

Read the whole article here (a must if you're planning to attend the webinar!)

Jennifer Chang is social media editor at Success magazine