Forget Big Change, Start With A Tiny Habit by BJ Fogg (Transcript)

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Dr. BJ Fogg- Computer Scientist

It’s great to be with you guys today. I have to get up at 4:00 in the morning because I live in the wine country. And so driving down here early in the morning, when the sun was coming up, it was — on one hand I wanted a little more sleep, and on the other hand, it was a beautiful morning coming in.

I teach at Stanford University. I do that one day a week. I figured out how to do that along with the Internet and phone calls, and what have you. My work is all about behavior and how you design to change people’s behaviors.

And what we’re going to do right now, we’re going to practice some behavior change. And the organizers of this event have been very good at providing some supplies. So I want all of you to look under your seat, right now, and see what surprise is waiting for you.

What I want you to do, and we debated whether we should really do this or not, but we’re going to do it. If I want you to tear off one piece of floss like this. And what we’re going to do, don’t do it quite yet, but we’re going to practice what I call a tiny habit. And in this case, we’re going to do something very, very small, and I’m going to have you floss one tooth. Not yet, we’re going to do it all together. I know some of you think that’s kind of gross. But we can do this.

Now, there’s one more piece, and I’ll explain this a little bit later in my presentation. After you do a tiny behavior that you want to repeat in the future, or maybe expand, what you need to do is celebrate victory immediately, right away. So I’m not talking about going out to the bar, or going and making cookies, or what have you. You need to tell yourself, in some way, that you’re awesome.

So we’re going to practice this. There’re a few ways to do this. I have about 10 different ways to celebrate, but we’re going to start with one that’s pretty common, that works, and it goes like this. I’m awesome!

You ready? One, two, three, I’m awesome!.

[Audience: I’m awesome.]

Let’s try another celebration. This one is bingo. Ready? One, two three, bingo!

[Audience: Bingo!]

Awesome. I’m awesome.

There are some people, when they’re working with tiny habits with me they like doing a little dance. That makes them feel like, “Yeah, I’m rocking it.” Okay, ready? Little dance. One, two, three. Awesome!

Now we’re going to get to this in a minute, so just hang tight. I’ll give you a little bit of background, and we’re going to practice this together. You guys are great sports in practicing the celebrations with me.

I’m obsessed with how behavior works. Even on vacation, I’m thinking about behavior. I’m watching behavior. I’m reading stuff on it. I’m trying to understand it systematically. And when I’m sleeping, and this is a little bit scary, I’m thinking about behavior model, behavior grid, domino actions, motivation waves, in my sleep. And this happens almost every night now, so that’s a little freaky. But I learn things, so that’s nice.

I would’ve never expected that a year ago that today I would be doing 50, 60, 70 push-ups a day, but all this is part of being obsessed with a behavior. One of the things that you need to do is practice changing your own behavior. That gives you an understanding of how behavior works.

The way I arrived here was very much like the flossing, but a little bit different. This was the equation. After I pee, I will do two push-ups.

I’d use the facility, yes, technically, you flush the toilet first, and then two push-ups, and you’re done, and you go, “Awesome!”

Okay, awesome, yeah. Well, after two it’s really easy. You move on, and then you do five, then you do eight. Where I’m at now, I do eight, but I always do extra credits, so I tend to do 12 or so, and it adds up over the day. I end up doing, who knows, 50, 60, 70 depending on how much water I’ve had and other factors. [

The good news is that behavior and behavior change is not as complicated as most people think. It’s systematic. There are ways to understand behavior that are pretty straightforward and simple, and I’m going to share some of those with you today.

There are 15 ways that behaviors can change. There are not hundreds of behavior types. There’re 15 ways. When we talk about health behavior change, people are mostly talking about long term change. This row, these are the five that represent different types of long term change. I’m not going to go into depth here, but what I want to explain to you is that when it comes to long term change there’s only two ways you can get it done.

Change Your Environment

Number one, you can change your environment. Before, here’s your environment, certain behavior. And then after, the changed environment changes your behavior. That’s a reliable way. It also includes your social environment. Before. After.

Now, changing your environment is a reliable way to change your behavior. However, it can be tricky. Especially, the social environment with families and coworkers, and so on.

So there’s one other way of changing your behavior long term, and I’ll give you a hint. It does not have to do with motivation. Surprise.

Motivation actually applies to other kinds of temporary behavior change, but not long term. In other words, relying primarily on motivation to change your behavior long term is a losing strategy, and similarly for willpower. So you can take those off the table if you make the behavior change tiny enough.

Now, in this grid this is where habits live, the blue path. It’s something familiar that you do from now on. If you make that very tiny, like two push ups, floss one tooth, and so on, it’s very easy to repeat and make that become a habit.

Think about it this way. You already know how to floss all your teeth. That’s not what you’re lacking. What you’re lacking is the automaticity of flossing. You don’t need to train flossing all your teeth. You need to train making it automatic.

Now in the persuasion boot camps that I teach we geek out about this stuff. This is one of the crews with me up in the wine country during it. We look at the sequences of behaviors that eventually land you here to habit. We won’t go in that kind of depth today, but what I do want to say, and this is a little bit controversial, is this puzzle is solved. I’m going to share the pieces with you, and I’m going to share some ways that it got solved. We’ll see what you think.

There’s a new way to create habits that is reliable and it’s systematic.

Now we we look at health outcomes, bulls eye, what do we want to do? Well things like lose weight, manage stress, and so on. But if you design for the outcomes, you’re designing at the wrong place. You need to design for the behaviors that lead to the outcome. If you take an issue like weight loss there are many, many behaviors that can contribute to that outcome. Stress reduction, eating better, and so on. I would propose that most of the behaviors that we need to do are habits.

So of the 15 ways that behaviors can change, the ones that matters most to long term health are habits. And as we create what I call these tiny habits, and we can’t do it all at once, little by little we will approach this health outcome in a very reliable way, in a way that doesn’t regress, in a way that doesn’t make you, “Oh, I give up, now I’m just going to go back to how I was.” Let me share a personal example, and I hesitated about including this, but I will.

In 2010 I got one of these scales that’s super high tech, and it can tweet out your weight. Okay. I set it up so it’s tweeting my weight. I started tweeting it out in 2010. This is about a year, so you can see what’s going on. Not much changed up and down, up and down. What I learned was, number one, simply tweeting your weight didn’t seem to have any effect on me. I looked up others who had done it and didn’t seem to have lots of an impact.

Number two, my Twitter followers hated it, so I stopped. But I made it a habit of stepping on the scale. It was right there. A few months later, going up. At one point I thought, “I’ve been doing this thing called tiny habits, something I’ve applied elsewhere. Now I’m going to apply it to weight loss because I want to lose some pounds.” After creating many, many, many, many tiny habits this is where I am this week. That’s probably the course of a year or so. You can see, no real change.

And then putting them together, little by little, these tiny habits that took root and would grow. I believe I’ve made a long term change. We’ll see five to 10 years from now, but it seems like these habits will be very hard to undo. I put this out there.

When you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your behavior and your life forever.

Now let me back up and explain how I honed in on the formula of tiny habits, and you can see whether it syncs with how you think about it.

There are three things that have to happen, at the same moment, to cause a behavior.

Number one, there has to be some level of motivation. You’ve got to want to keep your teeth clean. You’ve got to want to get stronger with push ups, or something like that.

Next, you’ve got to have the ability to do it.

Then, there has to be a trigger. Now when I say trigger, I mean I call to action. It’s the thing that says, “Do push ups now,” “Floss your teeth now,” and so on.

It’s these three things together when they combine at once then the behavior will also occur, whether it’s floss your teeth, do push ups, what have you, send a thank you note. Now motivation and ability are trade offs. This curved line represents that trade off. If you’re anywhere above the line and the trigger occurs, you will do the behavior.

So let me get some examples of this. Here below the line, let’s say I want you to run a marathon, and you have no motivation to run a marathon. Both low motivation and it’s hard. When I say, “Run a marathon. Run a marathon,” you’re not going to do it, no matter how many times I make that call to action.

In contrast, if I say, “Oh, walk outside and walk back in,” maybe 30 seconds, simple to do, you’re above the line. Still you may not be very motivated, but because it’s so easy to do.

Let’s move up here. It’s hard to do. I’m asking you to do something very hard. In order to do something that’s difficult, you need high levels of motivation. In fact, I think that’s the purpose, that’s the only use of motivation in our lives, is to allow us to do hard things.

If we’re not doing hard things, we don’t need that much motivation. When our motivation lags, boom, can’t do it. Motivation is very slippery. If you set yourself up to do something hard, and you have to somehow sustain the motivation, the motivation is going to drop down. There’s going to be a point where you don’t do it. And habits are about repeating it, and you won’t create the habit.

So as I looked at this –as I looked at my behavior model, I thought, “Let’s go right here. Easy to do.” Stuff that’s so easy to do it doesn’t require much motivation at all. So whether your motivation is high, you’ll still do it. Whether it’s low, you’ll still do it. and so this is where the insight around, “Let’s make it really tiny. Really tiny like one, two push ups, one sip of water, and so on.”

Well,when you look at it in this way the smiley face we’re accounting for motivation, we’re accounting for ability. In the equation B = MAT, those things are done. What wasn’t done, and what I hadn’t solved was the trigger.

How do we trigger that behavior? Easily. One day, I came home from the gym. I went into the bathroom. I got into the shower. I turned on the shower. I got out. I dried off. I went into my bedroom. I opened the sock drawer. At that moment, it hit me. After!

The secret was after. If you use an existing behavior in your life, and you put the new tiny behavior after it, you can use the existing behavior to be the trigger.

So I was looking for what is the T what is the trigger? The triggers are your existing behaviors. I was pretty happy about this. I thought this was a breakthrough. It means you don’t have to put up post it notes. You don’t have to set alarms, and so on. You just establish what it will come after.

So I went off, mapped this out, and started practicing tiny habits more and more on my own, applied them to many things. And then about a year ago after I had done this a while I thought, “You know, I’m going to invite some friends to do it,” and it kind of grew from there. So today, I’ve actually coached over 20,000 tiny habits, and this is a snapshot from the spreadsheet.

Here’s the format for tiny habits. It looks like this. After I — whatever your existing behavior is, I call that an anchor I will floss one tooth, do two push ups, and so on. What kinds of tiny habits do people create? This is from this upcoming week. I grabbed this out of the database. A lot of habits are geared toward the morning. After I start my morning coffee, I will tidy one item in the living room.

Other habits are toward the evening where you have routines already set up. After I enter the house at the end of the day, I will kiss my wife for ten seconds. These kind of tiny habits work out really well.

As you think about changing your life, think about framing it in terms of this format. After I pick an existing habit that you do every day with the same frequency that you want the new behavior to happen I will, and you’ve got to make it super tiny. After I pee, I will do two push ups. After I walk in the door, I will hang my keys on the hook. After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth. That makes sense, right? That brushing becomes the trigger or the anchor for flossing one tooth, and then you celebrate it.

Now we’re on to the practice time. You ready for this? Everyone get out your floss. Okay, in your minds visualize you’re brushing your teeth. Oh, I think we need to practice celebration. We’re going to go, “Awesome,” right? Ready? One, two, three…

[Audience: Awesome!]

All right. We brush our teeth. Floss one tooth. One, two, three, awesome!

[Audience: Awesome!]

If you keep at that, over time, it will get easier and easier to floss your teeth, and you can floss more and more.

There are different ways to celebrate. Find the celebration that works for you. Here’s the phrase, and it comes down to this. I live up in the wine country. I do a lot with the earth as much as I can, and this seems to map exactly what I’m talking about. Plant a tiny seed in the right spot, and it will grow without coaxing. The tiny seed.

This pumpkin came from a tiny seed that, actually, we didn’t even plant. It came from the chicken manure that we put in the garden, and it grew. We didn’t have to do anything to it. It just grew. Tiny seed in the right spot.

So I encourage you to look at your lives, look at what you want to change, break it down to tiny behaviors and put them in the right spot. The right spot is after something you’re already doing, and allow it to grow. You don’t have to amp up motivation. You don’t have to draw that much on willpower. All you have to do is plan it out and let this natural process emerge.

Thanks everybody.

 


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