We’re a month into the new year now. How are you doing on your resolutions? Have you already fallen off the wagon? Maybe the goal you set for yourself was just too big to successfully tackle. You need to think smaller. Tiny, even.
That’s the argument my guest makes. His name is Dr. BJ Fogg, and he’s the founder and director of Stanford’s Behavior Design Lab, as well as the author of the new book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Today on the show, BJ walks us through the three components that drive our behavior, including the simple yet overlooked relationship between motivation and ability. He then explains how to build habits that feel easier and require lower levels of motivation by picking behaviors that are good matches for you and breaking them down into smaller parts. We also talk about the need to tie your habits to turnkey prompts, the importance of celebrating your successes, no matter how small, and the way tiny habits can lead to bigger changes. We end our conversation with why you should think about the process of getting rid of your bad habits as untangling them rather than breaking them.
- What is the Fogg Behavior Model?
- The relationship between motivation and ability in our behaviors
- Why relying on motivation isn’t the best bet for behavior change
- The 3 characteristics of Golden Behaviors
- How to make behavior change easier for yourself
- Making behavior prompts more effective
- BJ’s pee/push-up prompt, and why it works
- Creating tiny habit “recipes”
- Celebrating when you’re successful with your recipes
- Using these tips with kids
- Why we should “untangle” habits rather than “break” them
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- What Makes Your Phone So Addictive and How to Take Back Your Life
- A Proven System for Building and Breaking Habits
- How to Create Habits That Stick
- How to Hack the Habit Loop (and my podcast with Charles Duhigg about habits)
- The Motivation Myth
- How to Stress Proof Your Body and Brain
- Counterintuitive Advice on Making Exercise a Sustainable Habit
- Stick With It — The Science of Behavior Change
- 7 Tips on Making and Breaking Habits
Connect With BJ
Listen to the Podcast! (And donâ€™t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We’re a month into the new year now. How are you doing on your resolutions? Have you already fallen off the wagon? Maybe the goal you set for yourself was just too big to successfully tackle. You need to think smaller. Tiny, even.
That’s the argument my guest makes. His name is Dr. BJ Fogg, and heâ€™s the founder and director of Stanfordâ€™s Behavior Design Lab, as well as the author of the new book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Today on the show, BJ walks us through the three components that drive our behavior, including the simple yet overlooked relationship between motivation and ability. He then explains how to build habits that feel easier and require lower levels of motivation by picking behaviors that are good matches for you and breaking them down into smaller parts. We also talk about the need to tie your habits to turnkey prompts, the importance of celebrating your successes, no matter how small, and the way tiny habits can lead to bigger changes. We end our conversation with why you should think about the process of getting rid of your bad habits as untangling them rather than breaking them.
After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/tinyhabits.
All right, BJ Fogg, welcome to the show.
Hey. I’m happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
I’m really excited to have you on because I have been following your work through other people, students you’ve had on your classes that you teach about behavior design, and I was so excited to see you have a book putting this all together in one place. You’ve spent your career researching developing what you call behavior design. How did you get involved with that?
Well, if you rewind about 25 years, I was really interested in the overlap between technology and persuasion or influence, which hadn’t happened yet, but I in some ways just sensed that computers would be designed to influence our attitudes and our behaviors, and I wanted to study this. That’s what I did in my doctorate work, ran a series of laboratory experiments to show this could indeed happen, and then predicted it will, and then set out some warnings and some guidelines for this. I called that persuasive technology.
About 10 years ago, my labs work at Stanford shifted away from persuasive technology. We just really weren’t interested in that anymore, and we thought we’d really done what we needed to do there. Then it became what we now call behavior design, which is different than persuasive technology. It still has to do with human behavior change, but doesn’t have to do anything with technology directly.
The interest is a long-held interest, and I think it actually goes back to my Mormon roots. I was raised Mormon in California, and probably most people listening understand that that culture, that religion is a lot about behavior change. There’s a lot of restrictions, a lot of things you can’t do. When people become Mormon, they have to make a lot of behavior change. At least the way I see it in retrospect, I grew up very, very young talking about behavior change and doing behavior change things and helping other people change their behavior.
Well, and your work with persuasion technology, this has been used by… This shaped a lot of the apps we use today, Instagram, Uber. The companies that developed these apps, they used insights that came out of your research.
Yeah, I think the biggest takeaway from my work is simplicity. Simplicity is the thing that I saw early on that made technologies that engaged people. Unless you were forced to use it like an Office suite that was complicated, yeah, you were forced to use that complicated thing, but everything that people were choosing for themselves and using, the overriding pattern was simplicity. That’s really what I taught and advocated at Stanford and elsewhere. It’s one of my maxims today that you’ll find in Tiny Habits, is simplicity changes behavior.
As you said, you shifted focus more towards behavior design. It’s not just tied to technology; it’s about designing behavior, making new habits, untangling habits you don’t like. We’ll talk about why you call it untangling, not breaking habits. In this model of behavior design… First off, the behavior design, you have a model that explains human behavior and methods that you can use to change behavior. Let’s talk about this model first, because I think it’ll help people understand why we do what we do. Part of that model, you mentioned simplicity. Walk us through the Fogg model of behavior.
Yeah, so there’s various models in behavior design. The cornerstone is just this one, called the Fogg Behavior Model, and it goes like this. Behavior happens when three things come together at the same moment, motivation to do the behavior, ability to do the behavior, and a prompt. That model describes any type of behavior. It can also be used to understand how to stop the behavior. You remove motivation or you remove ability, in other words, you make it harder, or you remove the prompt. I write it out as B, B is behavior, equals MAP, Motivation, Ability, Prompt. It’s a model, not an equation, but I still write it out with the equals sign.
Walk us through a behavior that can highlight this connection of motivation, ability, and prompt.
Oh, wow, there are so many. Let’s say that your son is sitting around playing video games, and you fix dinner for him. Your son is motivated to eat and is capable to eat, but until you prompt your son, say, “Hey, time for dinner,” he’s not going to come to the dinner table. In that case, there’s motivation because he’s hungry. There’s ability because he’s just sitting around, he’s not busy, and it doesn’t cost anything for dinner, so he has ability. In that case, the thing that he’s lacking to do the behavior, come to dinner, is the prompt.
As you look at any behavior that you do, you will always have some level of motivation, there’ll be some level of ability, and there will always be a prompt. You can look at any behavior you do, whether it’s opening a certain email or answering your phone or texting your mom or eating an apple for lunch, all of those behaviors can be understood in terms of those components, behavior, motivation, ability, prompt. It also helps you design for behaviors. That’s what the Tiny Habits method is all about. You’re hacking those components to make the process and method of habit formation really, really easy to do and really reliable.
Your behavioral model was really eye-opening. One of the things that I got out of it, that really hit me hard, was this connection of motivation and ability. If something is really hard to do, well, that means you’re going to need more motivation to do it. But if something is easy to do, you don’t need as much motivation to do it.
Yeah. I am so happy that in my book Tiny Habits, I unpack that. For the first time, I really dive into the behavior model and I talk about the components, and I show that relationship between motivation and ability. You summarized it well. There’s a graphic. Yes, there’s a written version of the model, but there’s also a graphic. There’s a curved line on the graphic that shows that relationship.
It’s embarrassing to say that it took me eight years to figure out the right word for that relationship, but I’ll share it here. It’s kind of geeky. It’s a compensatory relationship. They can compensate for each other, like teammates. If motivation is low or weak, then ability has to be high. It has to be really, really easy. In other words, if you’re not super motivated to do something, the only way that you’ll do it is if it’s really, really easy to do. On the flip side, if a behavior is hard to do, the only thing that puts you above the action, the only thing that gets action is if your motivation is high,
Understanding that motivation and ability… I used to talk about it as trade-offs. It’s not really a trade-off. They compensate for each other. Actually, it was that insight that led to developing the Tiny Habits method. As I looked at my own graphic, the two-dimensional version, I saw in the lower right-hand corner a space where, if the motivation is low, you could still do the behavior if it’s easy enough, if you make it radically easy. Boom, there’s some motivation. It’s not zero. And you make it really easy. That means the only thing you’re lacking is a prompt. There was a moment when I figured out how to hack the prompt, and then they all came together. That then became the Tiny Habits method. It got derived from looking at my own graphic going, “That’s a really interesting space right there.”
The opposite is people picking something hard to do. If you pick something hard, like “I’m going to work out for two hours every day” or “I’m going to do CrossFit from now on” or I’m going to save $1,000 a month,” that means your motivation has to be high and stay high. You have to sustain motivation. That’s really unrealistic. We don’t have that much control over our levels of motivation, and that means, by setting yourself up for these hard behaviors, these hard changes, you somehow have to magically find a way to keep your motivation high, and that doesn’t work very well. Tiny Habits acknowledges that and says, “No, scale it back, make it really easy, so you don’t have to mess around with motivation and you don’t have to rely on willpower.”
Well, let’s unpack this idea of motivation, because I think you’re right. When people decide they want to change a behavior, start a habit, they think, “I have to do something really hard, and then I’ve got to motivate myself.” Motivation is an interesting part of psychology and behavioral science because you see different definitions of what motivation is, and there’s a different definition for the layperson. I think a layperson thinks, “Well, motivation is like reading quotes and telling myself mantras.” How do you define motivation in your behavioral model?
Well, it’s a driving force. It’s something that energizes you to do a specific behavior. I don’t think of motivation as something that is generalized to everything in your life. Your motivation shifts context by context, in some ways, minute by minute. Say I’m in a context where I’m a researcher at Stanford. That means I am more motivated to do things that are in line with that identity. But if I’m at a family reunion with my family in Idaho, I have different motivations at that time.
What had not been studied academically, and this is a huge surprise to me, I’d already mapped out and understood that motivation shifts over time. Along with some of the bootcampers I work with, we named that fluctuation. We called it motivation wave. I really like that phrase. Basically, I like it because waves don’t always stay high. They come and go. There are big ones; there are small ones. They shift.
The academic work on this had not existed until, oh, there’s some early sense of it in 1999, and then more work in 2007, in other words, from an academic perspective, really recently. That may not sound recent to people listening, but work goes back decades and decades, so it’s just in some ways very surprising that there was no acknowledge or research around shifts in motivation until relatively recently. The fact is we’ve all experienced that in our life. People get really motivated in early January, and the motivation drops off. We get motivated for something else around February 14th. We get motivated for something else around April 15th, which in the U.S. is taxes. We have different motivations that shift over time.
One of the key, what shall I say, challenges is that when people sit down, and you said this well, and said, “Hey, I’m going to change, and I’m going to do these big things,” at that moment when they’re making those decisions and making the plan, yes, their motivation is high. In that moment, they can do hard things. Well, we seem to be terrible, as human beings, is projecting our future levels of motivation. Even though we’ve seen that, oh, two weeks from now, I may not be so motivated, we seem to make the same mistake over and over and over, and we just assume that we’ll be able to sustain high levels of motivation, which doesn’t work.
That’s what Tiny Habits is… In some ways, in the book, I… Attack is too strong a word. I dismantle that. I’m just like, “Hey, people, be realistic about what happens with human motivation. There’s no magic way to keep it sustained. There’s a much better way to create habits that doesn’t require you to rely on high levels of motivation.”
The other problem you talk about with motivation is that people get motivated towards abstract ideas. It’s like, “Lose weight.” It’s like, well, okay, but are you motivated to do the things to lose weight. You have to look at behaviors that will allow you to achieve that goal.
You’re right on. What doesn’t work is trying to motivate yourself toward an abstraction, like lose weight. That is an abstract thing because you can’t in this moment lose weight. You can drop down and do 20 or 30 or maybe 50 push-ups in this moment. That’s a behavior, but lose weight is not a behavior. It’s an outcome. It’s a result to other behaviors.
One of the methods I developed over the years was a way to take that outcome or the aspiration, that vague, abstract thing, and then break it down into specific behaviors that you can then design for. That’s a couple methods put together that I explain in Tiny Habits that can be really liberating and insightful.
Somebody might have motivation to reduce their stress, in fact, probably everybody listening to this. Stress is a massive issue right now in our world and, in some ways, just getting worse. Just motivating yourself to reduce stress, as you can tell, isn’t the best answer. Then some people might guess at the solution, and I’m against guessing. There’s a systematic way to do it, but the guess might be “Oh, I’ll meditate for 30 minutes a day. That’s how I’ll reduce my stress.” Well, that might be a good match for people, or it might not. For some people, it’s a terrific match. For many people, it’s a very challenging habit to wire in, especially meditating 30 minutes.
Instead of having people go the wrong direction and just focus on these abstract things, and instead of having people just guessing, I love systems, even since I was a kid. Let’s systematize it. That’s what behavior design is. It’s a system step by step, so you don’t have to guess. By following the steps, you can derive what is the best new habit for you that will help you reduce stress or lose weight or be more productive, or whatever you want. That means that you can move forward with confidence that you are figuring out the right behavior. I call that the golden behavior, or a set of behaviors, gold behaviors. Then you can make those a reality in your life much more readily than a guess like meditating for 30 minutes.
I thought it was interesting what you said there. You’re looking for matches in behavior. You’re trying to find something that you would already want to do. That’s one of your principles throughout this, help people do what they already want to do.
Yeah. It comes down to three criteria. If you’re looking for a habit or behavior change to help you reach whatever aspiration, the best matches, the golden behaviors have these three characteristics.
Number one, it’s a behavior that you want to do. If you want to be more active, don’t pick an exercise that you hate or a behavior you hate. Find something you want to do. In my life, when I’m in Maui, it’s surfing. I am just crazy passionate about that. Not everybody has that available to them, but dancing or group activities.
Number two, make sure it’s a behavior you can do. Again, surfing is not available to people who don’t live by waves, and dancing may not be available to people who don’t have any kind of dance resource, if they want to dance with other people.
Then the third criterion, this is important, it needs to be a behavior that will have impact, that will actually take you toward your aspiration or outcome. A negative example of this, or a bad example, and some people are going to hate me for this, is people are set up to believe that taking 10,000 steps a day will lead to weight loss. I challenge that notion. I don’t think 10,000 steps a day is very effective at weight loss. It’s great at other things, and it’s great to do, but weight loss is primarily a function of nutrition, and then after that, in my amateur opinion, I would say strength training.
But people have believed the media or the advertising around 10,000 steps, and they may match themselves with that. And as they do it, they’re not seeing the weight loss. What it’s lacking there is that third criteria of it being impactful, of it being effective.
I’ve done this, too. On my journey to lose weight and keep it off, I somehow thought that popcorn was a healthy snack. It turns out it was an awful snack. But that’s what I thought. I thought that nonfat yogurt was a great snack. It turns out it’s exactly wrong for me. Matching yourself carefully matters. Again, it’s behaviors you want to do, you can do, and that will be effective, that will have impact.
Instead of relying on motivation, pumping yourself up, the idea is match yourself with behaviors you want to do. That connects to ability, too, because you want to find behaviors that are easy to do. You want to make it easy for yourself, not harder.
Right. Or if you already have… We’ll go back to surfing. My motivation for that is pretty darn high. That means it can be a little harder to do. I don’t have to just walk out to the waves. I drive about 12 minutes and get my board off my little Honda Element and get in. However, here in California at my home gym, I can’t surf. I have an air assault bike in my home gym here in the garage.
Those are terrible.
Yeah, I don’t love it, but it’s okay. That is 15 feet away from me. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It’s 20 feet away from me. It’s so easy to just go get on the air assault, because I know there’s going to be days when my motivation is not that high, so I’ve designed my context so it’s just so easy.
Then I further trick myself. On the days that I’m feeling too tired to go work out, I make it even easier. I just say to myself, “BJ, just do four minutes on the air assault, and you don’t even have to go hard. Four minutes and you’re done. You don’t even have to dress out. Just wear whatever you’re wearing.”
What I’ve found in my life, and other people have found this too, is at about three and a half minutes, yeah, I’m not motivated. I’m like, “Okay, I’m getting this done, getting it over. I’m not going hard like at CrossFit,” but at about three and a half minutes, something changes in me and I want to keep going. Even though I know when I say I’m just going to do four minutes, yeah, odds are I’m going to keep going, sometimes I stop, but how do you make it so easy that low motivation won’t tank you? You’ll still do it, or in this case, with tricking myself on the air assault, you’ll still get started. Scale it back. What’s four minutes? I can do that. As a result, I get the workout here in California.
With ability, you’re jiggering with things like time. Reduce the amount of time to make it easier, or just put the stuff closer to you so it’s easier. You were talking about food. Weight loss is driven by what you eat. Well, just make it easy to eat good foods, or make it harder to eat bad foods.
To eat bad foods. Yeah, exactly. There’s a model, not the Fogg Behavior Model, but a different model, and it basically has these components. Something can be difficult if it requires time and you don’t have time, so the way to make it easier is to shorten the time frame, like four minutes rather than 30 or 60. It can be difficult if it requires money and you don’t have money. On the flip side of getting people to drink less soda, when they put a tax on soda, it decreases consumption by making it harder to do, more expensive. Third is how much physical effort something requires. For me, knowing here in California there’s going to be moments where I’m not so motivated to work out, guess what, the gym is 20 feet away, so I’ve reduced physical effort.
The last one I’ll talk about is mental effort, how much you have to think about stuff. Let’s say you want to stop using social media. You can tweak your ability by making your password really difficult and not allowing your app to save the password. That doesn’t mean you can’t launch social media. It just makes it harder to do. You have to think harder, and it takes more time.
Those things together would… If I ran an experiment on that, it would reliably show that people are less likely to use social media if they have really hard passwords that their system didn’t store. There’s a systematic way, even that ability component. Then there’s a system underneath that that allows you to hone in on what to tweak in order to get yourself to do the behavior or get yourself to stop doing a behavior.
We talked about motivation. If there’s high motivation or it’s easy to do, you’re more likely to do it, but there has to be a prompt. You said you figured out something with your 20 years of doing this, that you hacked the prompt. What are some insights that you’ve figure out about prompts that make them more effective to get us to do the things we want to do?
There is another model for this. I love models and systems. I’ll be brief. There are three sources of prompts. One source is, I call it, person prompt. It just comes from you. You just happen to remember or something happens internally, like “Oh, I’m hungry” or “I have a headache.” Those are prompts. They just come from you. Those are not reliable for most kinds of habits people want to form, like “I’m just going to remember to go to work out” or “I’m going to just remember to do my weekly expense report.” Bad idea, but they do happen.
Next, you have prompts that I call context prompts. We’re surrounded by these. Context prompts are things in your environment, whether it’s a Post-it note, an alarm, a notification on your app, somebody else reminding you. There’s tons of these.
Then the third type, and this is the hack, this is what Tiny Habits leverages, it has to do with your existing routine. I call it an action prompt. A routine you already do can serve as your prompt for a new habit. Brushing, which pretty much everybody does, can be your reminder or your prompt to floss. Sitting down in your car and turning it on can be your prompt to turn on your audiobook, so you can listen on the way to work. Now, notice you’re not just relying on yourself to remember or you’re not having Post-it notes everywhere. What you’re doing is designing your routine, and you’re finding something you already do that can serve as your prompt for a new habit.
Well, tell us about your pee/push-up prompt.
Oh my. Yes. An odd example, but it totally works for me anyway, is after I pee, I do two push-ups. In Tiny Habits, that’s the recipe. After I pee, I will do two push-ups. Well, today I did 25 and 12 and 20. I’ve peed three times already. I guess that means a lot of water and coffee.
You can do more than two, but the tiny habit is very small. For me, because I work mostly from home, that works really well. It’s really after I flush the toilet, I do two push-ups. I can do as many as I want, but if I’m rushed or tired or sick, I do two, and I chalk it up as a victory. Then, of course, I wash my hands and I go about my day.
That seems probably odd to a lot of people, but it allows me to “Well, it’s not even noon, and I’ve done 50 push-ups.” It allows me to get some strength training in throughout the day, at least when I’m working at home, and it allows me to almost seamlessly put a new habit into my routine, so it doesn’t feel like something that’s just bolted on.
If you find the right place for new habits, they just feel like, “That’s what I always do.” I always, after I go to the bathroom, I do push-ups. Now, if I’m in a public space, I’ll do squats. In hotels, I don’t really like getting down on the floor, so I’ll just do push-ups against the sink. It just has become really wired in to do that.
I know that example is really quirky, but some things make total sense, like after you brush, you will floss one tooth. That makes total sense that you would floss after you brush.
Well, I just like that example because it takes something people do every day multiple times a day, and you build a habit into it. It’s very illustrative of that idea.
Well, and do you know what, I’m sure many people listening to this know this, push-ups are such a good gateway to other kinds of exercises. Even if you can only do a couple wall push-ups or knee push-ups, there’s something about it, and I’ve heard from lots of people on this, that makes you… I think there’s probably… This is my opinion, not my research. I think there’s something physiological that happens, and then you do see gains quickly. You do see your arms get stronger and your chest get stronger. There is something pretty great about push-ups. For people that can do them safely, if you don’t have that habit, figure out where push-ups fit in your life, and lower the bar to two or just wall push-ups, and you can do more when you want to, but you don’t have to do more. Just focus on consistency of the habit, not size of the habit.
We talked about the model, and throughout this model, you can start using the Tiny Habits method. We’ve been talking about this throughout the thing. You look for a prompt. When I brush my teeth, I will do X. It could be floss. But the Tiny Habits thing is you don’t have to floss all your teeth. You start really, really tiny, just one tooth.
I know, and that sounds crazy to people. As we talked about my model, by making it so easy and tiny, then you’re not affected by fluctuations in your motivation. That’s the hack, is you make it so tiny that this thing about us as human beings, the fluctuating motivation, won’t get in your way.
Also, and this surprises people maybe even more, as you progress, you will naturally do more push-ups, you will naturally floss all your teeth, but what you don’t do is raise the bar on yourself. That’s the old not-very-effective way of thinking. It’s like “Oh, two push-ups, then I have to do five, then I have to do 10, then I have to do 20,” and you raise the bar. What you’re doing there is you’re setting yourself up to fail.
The bar always stays low, but you can do more when you want to. Then, and this is part of the mindset of Tiny Habits, any extra you do, like I did 25 out of the gate this morning… I only had to do two, but it was like, “Good for me. Awesome. I did 25. I got extra credit. Look at me.” There is this thing that happens when you keep the bar low, that when you go above it, that feeling of “I’m the kind of person who overachieves” then affects you in other parts of your day. It shifts your identity.
Also, as you do this starting small, your ability increases, right?
When you first start out, you’re not going to be able to do 50 push-ups, but as you do two push-ups every day, you’re going to get stronger, which will allow you… It’ll make it easier to do more push-ups.
Exactly. As it gets easier to do with the same level of motivation, you can do more push-ups because now they’re easier to do. That’s right-on. It’s a little bit of a technical point, and it might be a little subtle, but yeah, that’s how it works.
For most behaviors, not all, but for most behaviors, the more you do it, the easier it gets to do. Push-up is a great example, because you get better at form, you know exactly where to do them in your home, and you get stronger.
What I love about the Tiny Habits method, it’s basically a recipe. After I do this, when I do this, I will do this one really small thing, and that’s it. In the back of the book, I love it, you have just this giant list of tiny habits recipes you can do if you want to be more productive, stay organized, business travel. It’s like after I walk in the door, I will hang my keys on the key hanger, which you’re supposed to do, but make that connection to that anchor of walking through your door.
Yeah. So glad you brought that up. Yeah, in Tiny Habits, I have an appendix that has 300 recipes for tiny habits, and there’s topics, like Tiny Habits for Busy Moms, Tiny Habits for Dads Who Work From Home, Tiny Habits for Travel, and so on. There’s 20 each. Those weren’t random guesses. I did some work to figure out what are the most important topics, including topics like Tiny Habits for Caregivers, which can be crushing emotionally and physically.
I wanted to do 1,000, and I had 1,000 ready to go. My publisher was like, “Oh, BJ, this is like 60 pages. There’s no way we’re putting 60 pages of recipes in the back of the book. We’ll give you 300.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll take it.”
That’s book number two, the 1,000 recipes.
The other insight that I got from this that I’ve been incorporating with myself and my kids from Tiny Habits is not only, okay, you make it easy, the thing you want to do, the habit easy, but also connect it to something you already do. But the one thing that I’ve been doing and teaching my kids is this idea of celebrating what you do. Why is that so important that you celebrate that you flossed one tooth or that you did two push-ups? I think people hear that and they’re like, “I’m going to feel silly celebrating myself.” What’s going on there?
Let me give the psychological explanation. I would love to hear how you guys are celebrating. Celebration is anything that you can do that will fire off a positive emotion, especially the feeling of success. For me, a go-to celebration is to do a fist bump and go, “Awesome,” or raise my hands over my head after I do push-ups and go, “Way to go, BJ,” the self-cheer, and it helps me feel successful. Now, what works for me may not work for you. There’s a wide variety of approaches. In Tiny Habits, I list 100 different ways to celebrate, and I also give some exercises, really simple ones, where you can figure out what is the natural celebration for you.
The reason it matters is this. The emotion you feel as you do the new behavior is what wires it into your brain as a habit. In other words, it’s emotions that create habit. If your brain does push-ups and it knows, “Wow, I’m going to feel awesome after I do these push-ups,” it’s going to remind you and it’s going to want to do push-ups in the future. There’s actually a physical restructuring of your brain that happens because of the emotion.
This goes in contrast to what probably everybody has heard about repetition. It takes 21 days and 66 days, and repetition creates habits. That’s not true. If you look at the research carefully, it correlates with habit formation, but there’s no evidence in that research that shows that repetition causes the habit to form. What causes it is the emotion that you feel. If you’re really good at…
Let’s say you want to drink more water. Really good at pouring the glass of water. I’ve got a glass of water here in front of me. And as you’re doing that, you put it down on your work desk, so that’s my habit. Fill a glass of water, put it down. If I can cause myself to feel positive, to feel successful, what I’m doing is making my brain take note of that and wiring that into my brain. The more effective you are at celebration, the faster you can create habits.
My son, he’s nine. He does the fist pump in the air. He’s like, “Yes.”
Mine is silly, but it works for me. I just make the noise for the intro guitar riff of Back in Black by AC/DC.
Love it. Do you want to give us a demo?
I have some songs too. I have Eye of the Tiger. I have “Hey now, you’re a rock star,” whatever that is. I don’t know what the words are, but just-
… calling up the music. Yeah, Smash Mouth. Those work for me, and sound effects sometimes. I use different celebrations for different things. If I’m in public, I’m not singing a song or I’m not going “Doot doo doo doo.” If I’m in public, then it’s just more of a quiet “You nailed this beach. Good for you.”
I’ll just imagine in my head AC/DC.
That’s great. Now, your nine-year-old son, I am so glad you’re teaching him. If I could, and I won’t ever do this work because I don’t work with kids and don’t do research on kids, it’s a lot more complicated, but I’m hoping somebody will do an intervention where they teach kids, fifth grade, nine and 10 years old, how to celebrate in order to wire in habits, that age before they get all skeptical and all teenager-like, where they have that skill and they learn to apply it.
I would just be… Wow. I would just love… I know some parents have done that with their kids, like you, but there’s not a systematic program for that yet. Delighted to hear that you’ve shared that with your son, and he has a celebration that works. Do you ever find that you celebrate together, that he sees you or you see him, and you both go, “Yeah, good for you”?
Yeah, we started to do that. I see him do it, and I’m like, “Hey, all right, you did it. That’s cool.” We’re having fun with it. At first, he was a little… He’s getting to that age where he’s becoming self-conscious a bit. He was kind of, at first, like, “This is kind of dumb.” I’m like, “No, that’s fine. Go do it.” And he does it. We’ve gotten him to do it.
Do you know what to show him? Just go online, find videos of athletes-
Yeah, that’s where he got it from. “I’m doing the Tiger Woods fist pump,” he says. That’s what-
There we go. Find athletes he admires, and then show videos of them excelling. They almost always will celebrate. Just watch what happens when Caeleb Dressel the swimmer nails it in the 50 free, and watch what Serena Williams does when she nails a key serve. I have found that’s a helpful way for guys who are skeptical or kids that think they’re too cool. It’s like, “Look at what these athletes do. That’s how they wired in these high-performance habits.”
The Tiny Habits method, people are probably thinking, “Well, how is this going to lead to bigger changes?” As you said, as you do the stuff more and more, you’re working on consistency, your ability increases, and so you’ll be able to start adding more. You don’t have to force it, though, but it’s just going to come, like “Today, I’m going to do 10 push-ups instead of two.”
Yeah. You naturally will do more. The habit that was designed as tiny, you naturally will do more, so it grows. Also, people naturally do other habits that are related. There’s this ripple effect. I’ve seen this in my data since the beginning.
I started teaching tiny habits in 2011, five-day program online helping people, and then measuring it week after week after week, because I’m that kind of person. Of course, I want to measure stuff. What I’ve found from the beginning is there are these ripple effects. People make other changes in their life naturally.
For example, let’s say somebody wires in the habit of taking three calming breaths. After I sit down for my morning lunch break, say they’re at work, after they sit down, I’ll take three calming breaths, just try to keep my mind free and clear. Once they feel successful doing that habit, what they will find is they start taking those three calming breaths at other parts of their life, even without designing an explicit habit for it. It generalizes.
In my own life, the way that’s worked is even when I’m sleeping and there’s all these things going through my head, like “Oh my gosh, I got this. I have that. What’s going on here, my students and my class?” there’s this reaction. Once you start thinking and knowing that three calming breaths can shift your level of anxiety, I guess, or increase your calm, you will naturally start applying that elsewhere in your life. There is this ripple effect that happens to almost everybody.
You’re talking about creating new habits, but you also talk about, well, people would say breaking habits, but you don’t actually like that. You say untangle bad habits. Why untangle bad habits instead of using breaking bad habits?
Yeah, when it comes to stopping behaviors, one phrase that people often use that takes us in the wrong direction is breaking a bad habit. I think that’s a bad word to use, or maybe not the optimal word, because it implies that it happens in a moment. If you just apply enough force in one moment, it’s broken, you’re done. You’re not smoking anymore. You’re not drinking. You’re not gambling, whatever. That’s not how these habits work.
Instead, I outline how you should think about it or can think about it as untangling a bad habit. That sets up a much better expectation in three ways. Number one, it’s not just one behavior; it’s a whole bunch of different snarls, whether that’s smoking or drinking or snacking or what have you.
Let’s take snacking. If you think, “Wow, I really got to stop the habit of bad snacking,” there’s probably a variety of times during the day when you snack, and so think of each one of those as a tangle on this big knot. What you do is you find the easiest tangle, and you get rid of that one first. You don’t start with the hardest one. You start with the easiest one, then you go to the next easiest, and so on.
The other reason I really like untangling is that it sets up… When you see a big tangle, even if it’s just with your phone headset, it’s all tangled up, you look at it and you have no idea how to solve it instantly, but you know if you just untangle one thing, then you know you can get it done. I think for a lot of these bad habits, that’s how people feel. They look at something, they’re overwhelmed, “How do I stop this smoking habit or this snacking habit or snapping at my kids?” and it might just seem like, “I don’t know how to get this undone.” But just like untangling a cord, it’s a process, and if you just start with the first thing and then do the next thing, you can do it.
Yeah, so that involves using this behavioral model again. Going back, okay, the thing I want to do is stop spending too much time on social media. Well, that’s sort of abstract. There’s a lot of behaviors associated with that, so you do a brainstorm. What are all the behaviors that I do that cause me to surf on social media all the time? Then you go for the easy one. Stop the easy one first.
Then you use this stuff of, okay, I can make it harder. If I make it harder to do, I’m less likely to do it. Or increase my motivation. Then also find a prompt there. Find out what the prompt is and maybe eliminate that prompt. I imagine as people start working with this model and the method, it’s a skill that they get better at. It actually gets easier to do behavior change.
Yeah. I think the best… This is not in the book. The best analogy is maybe driving. Before you learn how to drive, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, how do I do that? It feels so complicated. I’m scared to do it.” Now, once you’ve learned how and you’ve done it, it’s easy. You don’t even think about it.
Behavior change seems complicated, overwhelming. People are afraid of it. But you can learn the skills and change, to the point where it’s no big deal. If you want to create a new habit, you do it. If you want to design a habit out of your life, you do it. You don’t make a big deal of it, just like you don’t make a big deal of driving to the airport.
It all starts with a single flossed tooth.
Bam. It can. I like that, not only because it’s true. That’s how a big part of the method back in 2010, when I was goofing around with myself, that was a big deal. Next, your dentist will love you, or your hygienist will love you. But it’s the same process. The way that you wire in the habit of flossing one tooth is the same way you do all of the other habits. If you’re not flossing, start there, and learn how the method works, skill up, and then as your skill increases, you can tackle harder and harder things.
Well, BJ, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Well, tinyhabits.com about the book. You can buy it at Costco. You can buy it at your independent bookseller, which would be awesome. You can buy it online. Then more generally about me, bjfogg.com.
Fantastic. Well, BJ Fogg, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you so much.
My guest today was Dr. BJ Fogg. He is the author of the book Tiny Habits. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, bjfogg.com. That’s Fogg with two Gs. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/tinyhabits, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. A lot of them are about habits, so check that out.
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