Imagine you could change your behavior without relying on willpower?

It turns out you can. Human behavior researcher B.J. Fogg at Stanford University has come up with a foolproof method for forming new habits that he calls Tiny Habits.

It all started when Fogg had an insight: “Hey, BJ, you already know how to floss all your teeth. What you haven’t mastered is how to floss every day, automatically.”

For changing habits, he discovered that simplicity matters much more than motivation or willpower. To form the habit of flossing each evening, Fogg broke down this habit routine to its simplest form: flossing one tooth.

This may sound like an insignificant small change, but according to Fogg, starting small is the key. He realized that he didn’t need to learn to floss all his teeth, what he needed to learn was how to make the habit of flossing automatic, which requires simplicity much more than motivation.

The Fogg Behavioral Model

From this fundamental insight into habit formation, B.J. Fogg developed the Fogg Behavior Model. This habit formation framework demonstrates that “if a behavior is really easy, you don’t need much motivation to do it. However, if the behavior is hard, you need a lot of motivation.”

The reality is that most of us struggle to sustain our motivation through the ups-and-downs of forming a difficult new habit. Research shows that both motivation and willpower is unreliable. Eventually, when you feel hungry, angry, lonely or tired — you will lose your motivation to stick to a habit that requires a lot of motivation.

The rule you want to stick to for forming a new habit is the simpler, the better.

The Role of Emotions in Habit Formation

B.J. Fogg also emphasizes that it is emotions that create and reinforce habits.  When you feel positive emotions immediately after doing a new behavior, the behavior will become more automatic. His research has demonstrated that the speed of habit formation is directly related to the immediacy and intensity of the emotions you feel.

The stumbling block most of us face in forming new habits is when the habit is too difficult, it makes us feel bad about ourselves and this undermines our motivation to do it. When we start really small, the effort required is low but the satisfaction level we feel from sticking to our habit is still high.

Fogg found that after a week of flossing a few teeth, he would gradually increase the number of teeth he flossed and then after a few weeks he was flossing all his teeth each evening and the habit became an automatic routine.

When the effort required to do the new behavior is low, you are much more likely to stick with it because you will have no excuse not to do it.

Anchoring New Behavior To Existing Routines:

The last piece of the habit formation puzzle is how you remind yourself to do your new habit. What Fogg discovered in his research is the most effective way to trigger your new behavior is to anchor it to an existing routine.

So, for example, if you want to start flossing your teeth daily, you should anchor the habit to your pre-existing routine of brushing your teeth so when you finish with your toothbrush you have a trigger to start flossing your teeth.

This is where setting clear intentions becomes important. You want to anchor your new habit to something that you are already doing each day. To define your intention and anchor your new behavior in an existing routine, Fogg recommends you create what he calls a Tiny Habit “recipe”, which goes like this:

“After I __________, I will ___________.”

Here’s an example: After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.

I recommend you think of a habit in your life and write a Tiny Habit recipe right now and then follow the behavior design process I will outline in the next section on the Tiny Habits process.

The Tiny Habits Process:

Here’s how to apply B.J. Fogg’s step-by-step Tiny Habits method for forming new habits by using our flossing example:

1. Make sure the new behavioral change you choose is really small.

Just floss a single tooth.

2. Anchor it to an existing behavioral routine as the trigger.

After you brush your teeth.

3. Find a way to feel good immediately after doing your behavior.

Look at your clean teeth in the mirror and smile. Feel a sense of accomplishment.

4. Set the bar low and only increase the difficulty gradually.

Try flossing 1 or 2 teeth for at least 4-7 days then gradually floss more teeth as you feel like it.

5. After a few weeks or so you should be able to naturally build up to your full habit.

A month later you will have built the flossing habit and it will be automatic (meaning it feels easier to do it than not do it).

Keep in mind that more difficult habits are going to take much longer to make automatic.

Why You Shouldn’t Rely on Motivation or Willpower:

You don’t need willpower or even much motivation to form Tiny Habits. It’s just a matter of design. Here’s B.J. Fogg’s advice:

“To be clear, motivation is not the key to habit formation. Yes, you have to pick new behaviors you want (the method doesn’t magically give you the habits you want). But motivation isn’t the critical factor if you make the behavior easy enough.”

Remember, the key is to focus in the early stages on building automaticity. If the new behavior is painful or hard in any way, your lizard brain will find ways to stop you from doing it. You need to start really small.

On days when you feel like doing more, you can do more but don’t make it a requirement. This will help you gradually strengthen the habit. A fundamental law of behavior is the more you do a behavior, the easier it gets. Your Tiny Habits will naturally grow to their expected size if you don’t force it by relying too much on willpower.

Fogg likes to describe building new habits as akin to growing a small plant. You can’t force it to grow. Instead, you need to nurture it and make sure the environment is conducive to its growth.

If you follow the method it’s basically foolproof. You will be surprised at how quickly you will be able to form new habits and you may wonder — like I did — why you didn’t stumble upon this simple process earlier.


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