To Change Behavior, It’s Best To Start Very Small

BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits® course offers a simple way to learn how to create new habits.

When I got out of bed this morning, right after my feet touched the floor, I stood tall and proclaimed: "Today is going to be a great day." And then I celebrated with a solid "Yes!" Then after turning on the shower a few minutes later, I did two push-ups and pumped my fists in another gesture of triumph, this time saying, "Awesome!"

Weird? Well, I was just following the instructions of Dr. B. J. Fogg, the creator of Tiny Habits®, a free five-day course, offered Monday through Friday every week, for learning how to create habits and practicing the skills involved.

Dr. Fogg, a 51-year-old consulting professor at Stanford University whom Fortune Magazine named one of the 10 New Gurus You Should Know in 2008, specializes in changing behavior, what he dubs "Behavior Design." His approach is summed up in his Fogg Method, which outlines three basic steps: get specific, make it easy, and trigger the behavior, principles that inform much of the Tiny Habits program.

By 6 PM Sunday, I had to come up with three very small actions I would perform daily to practice forming habits. In his introductory email, Fogg explained that a Tiny Habit is something you do once a day that takes less than 30 seconds and requires little effort. And it's important to anchor the desired behavior to a "trigger." The third Tiny Habit I've been practicing, for example, is this: After my head hits the pillow, I will think of something I'm grateful for. (More examples of recipes for Tiny Habits can be found here.)

Courtesy BJ Fogg, PhD 

A key step in the Tiny Habits method is to celebrate right after you do what you set out to, which helps make the habit automatic. "It's really your emotional response to the behavior that forms the habit," Dr. Fogg says, "and you can hack into that and tell yourself 'good job,' 'way to go,' whatever works for you, and that forms the habit."

Fogg happened upon this approach in late 2011. "I was just playing around with my own behavior," he says, as any behavioral scientist is wont to do. Then he decided to try it out with a few friends, and it took off. Now, hundreds of people take the course weekly, and over 35,000 have participated so far, with lots of positive feedback. Also, there's a Tiny Habits Masterclass for certifying coaches, generally those in the business of helping others, who add it to their repertoire of tools.

He has given formal talks about Tiny Habits, and though he has yet to publish an academic paper on it and a book is still on the way, the course is firmly grounded in his own research. 

After checking in daily with participants by email as well as offering tips and encouragement, Fogg assesses how the week went with a follow-up questionnaire every weekend. He has found that the course gives most participants increased confidence in changing their behavior, with three out of four saying they made other changes in their lives. Also, nearly two-thirds report that their best habit became "very automatic" or "automatic." (I said "slightly automatic" because I got too preoccupied with making sure I didn't forget.)  

"I'm watching those numbers every week," he says, adding them to a mountain of data points about how habits work, "and I look at results over time." He is continually refining the program, using the course itself for experiments, like one he's going to conduct soon in which 100 participants will try out new approaches to celebration along with a control group of the same size. "It's a petri dish in which I can run experiments very effectively," he says.

BJ Fogg.
BJ Fogg. Courtesy BJ Fogg, PhD

An important skill in creating habits is to know when to revise them if they're not working, he explains, making them tinier or choosing a better one to practice. "Forming habits is not about willpower," he says, "it's about design and revision." 

The program lets you see evidence of your power to change and provides you with insight into how habits operate. By systematically practicing behavioral changes, you can learn how to take the reins and add new habits to your life as needed.

"Tiny Habits is a breakthrough," says Fogg, "because the success rate is so high and it's accessible to pretty much anybody who will just follow directions, with no need for any special skill, training, background or willpower."

There's a renewed interest nowadays in the science of habits, with two recent books on the topic. First was Charles Duhigg's 2012 best-seller, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," and then earlier this year, Gretchen Rubin's "Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives" came out. 

"Ten years ago 'habits' was a mostly negative word," he says, but today it's viewed much more positively. "There's been a shift in the whole attitude toward behavior change, and I think habits have come along with that."

As for my own tiny habits, one has lasted beyond the course. Now, every night when I lay down to go to sleep, I take a moment to dwell on something I'm grateful for. And then I drift off into my slumber full of nice thoughts.

Cover image via iStock.