B.J. Fogg is a behavior scientist and author. He is the founder and director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab.
Here is the full text of Fogg’s talk titled “Tiny Surprises for Happiness and Health” at TEDxMaui.
Today I want to share with you my favorite habit. I’m a behavior scientist, and in my research I’ve never set out to find my favorite habit.
But I guess it’s sort of like a geologist who’s studying a landscape, in a new way. And as he’s doing the research, he stumbles across a gem, and that’s hard to ignore. And that’s what it’s like with me, as I am doing my research – here’s this gem, it’s my favorite habit; and I’m going to share it with you today, in a way that might surprise you.
I’ve been studying human behavior for about 20 years, and in 2011, I started sharing a new way to bring behaviors into your life, a method that I call Tiny Habits. And along the way as I was sharing it, I’m a researcher, so of course I’m doing research, on how to teach it better, and what works and what doesn’t, in terms of creating habits.
And, the bigger questions, you look at the data and you see some of the bigger research questions getting answered.
For example: What is it that makes a behavior become automatic? In other words, become a habit. The short answer on that is emotions create habits.
Another big research question: What is the relative importance of simplicity and motivation, when it comes to behavior change? The short answer on that is, when it comes to long term change, simplicity is the more reliable factor. So those are some of the big research questions, and I look at the data and you try to make sense of it.
And at this point, I have about a quarter million data points around habits and what works and what doesn’t. And every week, I’m getting about, at least, 2000 new data points. But the data itself, doesn’t tell the story of what’s happening in somebody’s life. You try to interpret the data, you try to make sense of it, you see patterns.
But when I go to a conference and people who’ve done Tiny Habits, come up and talk to me, I see into their lives. And then I’ll get emails where people will write me and explain what’s going on.
Ten minutes before I got on the plane to come here to Maui, I looked at my inbox and I had this kind of email, from a young father, and I’ll call him Kevin.
Kevin, as he explained his story, hadn’t been paid for 5 months in his job, so he’s needing to look for a new job. His wife left him, 4 months earlier, and his 3 boys. So he is there with his 3 boys. And he said he was in the dark of broken nights, a pretty bad space. And somehow he came across my Tiny Habits Method, and started learning the method.
And one of the habits he chose was this gem, what I’m calling my favorite habit. And as he started doing it, he found that naturally, he did it first thing in the morning, and then he found that he started doing other positive things. He explained that after doing this one little thing in the morning, that I’m going to tell you about soon, he then — he then started doing a 7 minute work out.
And then at 6:30 in the morning, when his 3 boys got up hitting the ground running, as he said, he was ready to help them. And so doing this little behavior then led to these positive outcomes. And he thanked me. And he said, “Finding the right tiny behavior helps you defeat giant sized self-sabotage.” Wow!
So, what I want to share with you today, this my favorite habit, has influences from Hawaii. A few years ago, it was my birthday; my partner and I were sitting out on our patio in California, enjoying the evening, on my birthday, outside.
And our neighbor, Charlotte, her Hawaiian name is Halaki, came walking out playing the ukulele. And she was walking towards us, and she was our best friend. And as she got closer I could hear that she was singing “Happy Birthday.” She was about 75 years old at the time and she came up, finished the song, it was charming, and then she took the ukulele and she handed it to me and said, “I’m giving you this gift, Happy Birthday.” Oh my gosh!
And then I was blown away when she explained this next thing.
Charlotte grew up in Hawaii. Her mom was a schoolteacher. I knew that, but what I didn’t know was this ukulele, it was an old Martin, with strum marks into the board, was her mother’s ukulele that she used as she taught kids in Hawaii.
So this treasured possession she was giving to me. Wow! She also gave me a card, a birthday card, and the front of the card said, “Everyday is a gift.” And it had a picture of a sailboat on it, on this water.
So, blown away, I took the card that evening, put it on the fridge, where we would see it all the time. So as we would walk through the house, we would see “Everyday is a gift.” It was on our minds thanks to Charlotte, thanks to Halaki.
Well, what we didn’t know, it was about 3 months later when Charlotte came and said, “Hey, will you come to a doctor’s appointment with me.”
I’m like, “What’s up?”
She said, “I think something’s up.”
What we didn’t know is, she knew she had a terminal illness. She wanted us to come to the doctor, to be there with her. We went to the doctor and learned, that indeed, it was serious and that she would pass soon. And she did.
So then as we walked through the kitchen, months later, that card’s still up. “Everyday is a gift”, had a lot of meaning in our lives. And we started saying naturally, my partner and I to each other, to optimize that gift: “Everyday is a gift.” We started saying, “It’s going to be a great day.”
And in the morning we would say, “It’s going to be a great day.” This then led to what is now my favorite habit, that I’m going to share with you, and I’ll show you how it works.
So, in the morning, when you wake up and you put your feet on the floor, you say, “It’s going to be a great day.” That’s my favorite habit. That’s the habit, that’s what Kevin did, that’s what many many others are learning. It takes what, 2 seconds and it has this big effect in your life.
So what I wanted us to do right now, and I’ve never done it like this before, so we’ll see how it goes, is practice together, this habit. And here’s how we’re going to do it. I’m going to go 1, 2, and like on the count of 3, your feet come down, you don’t actually have to stand up, but your feet come down, and then we’re going to say, “It’s going to be a great day.” Ready.
So you can lift your feet, and they come down on 3 1,2,3, “It’s going to be a great day.” Awesome.
Let’s try it one more time, I’m all about practice. Ready 1,2,3 “It’s going to be a great day.” Thank you. Very Good. Nicely done.
Wow, that went better than I expected, thank you all. This, you know as a researcher, as I look at the magic in this habit, it matches patterns that I see in the data. And, one of the things that really matters if you want a habit really to stick, one of the patterns that works reliably, there are various patterns just like there are various chord sequences in songs that work really well, but this one that works very reliably is something that happens in the morning, it’s really easy to do, there’s an obvious spot for it in the morning, and it’s kind of fun, or it makes you feel good.
Those combinations of items lead to something that you can create a habit quickly around it, it’ll be effective. In doing Tiny Habits, it was about a year ago, that I started offering this as a default option, for people who couldn’t think up habits they wanted to work on, here was a default option.
And I opened up the latest database, I have various databases, and out of 10 861 people, 27% of them chose this habit to work on. At the end of every week I do an evaluation of the people that have done the Tiny Habits program. And I went through and I grabbed a sampling of the last 1000 people who have done Tiny Habits. And of all the habits people could be working on, this was the number one habit that became the most automatic.
In other words, it became something people did more and more automatically. Let me compare that to a different habit that, the number one habit that people choose, from the options, so they don’t make up their own, is one about expressing gratitude.
As soon as my head touches the pillow, I’ll think of one thing that I am grateful for that day, 30% of people picked that. Slightly higher than 27%. However, the stickiness of it, the automaticity is only one third of the, “It’s going to be a great day” habit.
So this combination of people want this, they resonate, with the ability for this to become automatic in your life, makes it my favorite habit.
Plus some other things. So, as I look at this I think wow this is a special behavior. I think it needs a name. And I thought, well, I can call it the Stanford habit. I can call it the BJ Fogg morning habit, and then I thought why don’t we call this the Maui habit. Maui, yeah!
And I think there are some reasons why this makes total sense to me. One, Halaki’s influence, Hawaii’s influence Everyday is a gift, optimizing that by saying “It’s going to be a great day.” Maui, is very small, but it can have a big impact in your life.
When you are in Maui it is so easy to get up and think, “It’s going to be a great day.” And for those reasons, I think calling it the Maui habit is perfect. Now what I want to share with you, to challenge you to do, is to practice the Maui habit in your life.
There are some variations to it that I want to share with you. Some people say, “It’s going to be an amazing day.” Kevin says, “It’s going to be an awesome day.” One of my habiteers last week reported he says, “Today is going to bring good things.”
As a couple, what you may want to do is, as soon as you turn off the alarm in the morning or wake up, turn to each other and say, “It’s going to be a great day.”
In my own life, there are some mornings where I think, “This is really going to be a hard day”, that I have these challenges coming up. Here’s what I do, I get up and I say, “It’s going to be a great day somehow.”
And I am surprised how often that works, so I get to the end of the day and and it’s like “What was I thinking it was a great day.” So, I do have the habit even if I am not feeling quite sure it’s going to be a great day, somehow and sometimes I laugh at myself.
It’s like “Hey this has worked so many times.” Anyway, as you practice this habit, I mean, statistics and data are one thing but I think really put it to the test in your own life. Practice it 3 days, 5 days, 10 days, whatever.
Watch for 3 things. Number one, watch how quickly this becomes automatic in your life. A habit is kind of a sloppy word, it describes something we do automatically. So, watch how within a few days, as the feet go to the floor you’ll think, and I would say it out loud, “It’s going to be a great day.” Watch for that automaticity.
Number two, watch for how the Maui habit leads to you doing other good things, right after and through the morning, and day after day. Watch for the ripple effects. And, what I also want you to watch for is how your behavior works, how human behavior works, how you can welcome habits into your life.
Sort of a meta level of, wow I’m doing this Maui habit, I’m seeing the ripple effects, it’s making me happy, how do I apply this in other ways. How can I understand my own behavior, by practicing this habit.
One of the things I’ve learned in my work, is that behavior change is a skill. Just like practicing the piano, or cooking, or dancing or surfing it’s a skill and you can get better if you practice. I didn’t know that 20 years ago. It’s one of my main messages for people today is practice.
But, I think you need to practice in the right way. Let me give you an example where I practice in the wrong way; paddle-boarding. I was here in Makena, first time ever trying to paddle, get on a paddle-board. So I went out, I stood up, paddle paddle, I fell in. I got up again, paddle paddle, I fell in.
So, the afternoon kind of went like that I kind of called it a day, and I thought, “Man, I can ski, I used to skateboard, why am I so bad at this?” And, I started blaming myself, that I wasn’t good at paddle-boarding. But notice, I was practicing in the wrong way.
And then the next day when I was bringing the board out, a guy named Keony, who ran the activity shack there, said, “Hey, when you go out there” he gave me some tips, but the one that really mattered was, “Don’t look at your board or the water, look at the horizon and orient to the horizon.” He was telling me how to practice in the right way.
So, I go out on the board and I did that, and I was like, “Oh my gosh” paddle, paddle, paddle, then I’d fall in but, I did better and better. I stayed on longer and longer because I was practicing in the right way. Well I’m still not an expert in paddle boarding, not at all, but when it comes to behavior, and helping people practice behavior, I want to share with you some tips for practicing in the right way.
One of the most important things, is to pick behaviors to bring into your life that you want to have. Not behaviors you think you should have, you can save those for later when you’re more skilled at behavior change, focus on behaviors you want, first and foremost, and new behaviors you’re bringing into your life.
As you’re practicing the behavior and it’s not working, revise it! Revision is part of the method. I think of it a little bit like rearranging a room. You buy a chair you really like, you put it in the room, if it doesn’t fit there, don’t blame yourself; I don’t have willpower, I don’t have motivation. You don’t do that. You don’t do that. You try another spot. And if it doesn’t fit there, you try.
That’s how you should practice the skill of bringing new behaviors into your life. It’s a design challenge, not a motivation challenge. Surprise, I didn’t know that, even 10 years ago.
And, the last thing when you’re practicing changing your behavior is, have fun with it. If you’re uptight and serious and stressed it actually reduces your ability to change. Be playful. Be light. And that opens you up to possibilities.
Now if I had heard this, as a scientist, a while back I’d think, “Hmm.” So I’m challenging you to put this to the test, practice, practice in the right way. Don’t worry about being perfect. I don’t really know where in our culture, where this notion of, you know I’ve got to be perfect everyday, and if I miss one day it’s over black and white thinking, and I’ve been studying that.
And I think it goes back to a guy named William James, who was a brilliant philosopher, psychologist. He published a book in 1890 that was very influential called, The Principles of Psychology, Chapter 4 is about habits. He and people back then weren’t researchers, they weren’t scientists in the sense today where you run studies and look at the numbers and interpret. They’re more like philosophers.
But, despite that he got so many things right, and his book was so influential. However in Chapter 4, the book they call it “the Jimmy”, you know so go read Chapter 4 in “the Jimmy.” In Chapter 4 he says, to absolutely never fail to do the new habit. Very black and white thinking, and I think that’s where it came from.
Well, he got so many things right he could be forgiven that. Sorry William James, but my data shows, my experience shows, working with people, is that it’s not like, get uptight and you’ve got to be perfect, it’s be flexible, adjust, adapt. If something’s not working, try something else, until you find the fit.
One of the things I teach, and I think it’s absolutely dead on, for bringing new behaviors in your life is this, plant a good seed in the right spot and it will grow without further coaxing. The good seed, is a small behavior, that you want. The right spot is, where in my day, where in my life, does this fit.
And if you get that combination right, it will grow, it will blossom on its own. I find it terribly exciting to study how human behavior works, to share it with innovators, people creating products and services.
It’s really fun to share, behavior, design, with you, and the Maui habit “It’s going to be a great day.”
To wrap this up, and people know that I’m all about putting things into practice. It doesn’t help that much to talk and talk and talk. Try stuff and learn and adapt as you go along. So I want us to put the Maui habit into practice right now.
One, two, three, “It’s going to be a great day” and it is.
Thank you everybody.
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