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Revisiting the work of Dr. BJ Fogg—tiny habits


This time last year, our very own Tina Rawlins wrote an article about goals, and how to make them really happen. She discussed a few apps designed to help you achieve your goals and the insights from a few Ted talks on the subject. When I read that article, the linked TED talk from Dr. B.J. Fogg resonated with me. For the space of a year I’ve been using B.J. Fogg’s method on one habit that has made a huge difference in my life.

If you aren’t familiar with his work, Fogg is a behavior scientist; he’s often billed as an expert on habit creation; and he is a proponent for the method he calls “tiny habits”.

His formula for creating a new tiny habit is B=MAT (Behavior = motivation ability trigger). Rather than offering aphorisms meant to increase your motivation, Fogg recommends accepting that your motivation is low. If it was high, you’d just do it, right? So if your motivation is low, the behavior you want to create must be small—it must be tiny.

He also recommends using a trigger to get the habit going. Triggers should be things you already do on a regular basis—ideally things you already do as often as you want to do the new habit.

The example tiny habits he likes to give when he speaks publicly are flossing one tooth (seriously tiny) after you brush your teeth or doing two push-ups after you go to the bathroom.

Finally, he recommends celebrating immediately every time you accomplish the tiny habit. So you floss one tooth and then congratulate yourself. This may feel a little bit silly, but it’s important. The moment you do that tiny thing, you boost yourself with positive emotions, and it sets you up to feel even better about doing it the next time. If you really appreciate each little success, the cumulative effect of those frequent little successes feels huge, which encourages you to keep going.

The science behind his method is sound, and what could be easier than doing something tiny? So, at the beginning of the year I designed a tiny habit: every time I drive home from work, I stop at the gym. I don’t have to stay. I don’t have to exercise. All I have to do is walk into the gym.

Getting fit is a common New Year’s resolution, and often the people who make it fail to follow through (as is obvious by the gym parking lot which is packed in January and sparse by March). But it was important for me. For the entire preceding year I had been experiencing chest pain. I was terrified that my body was warning me of a serious problem in my heart-health—a common thing in my family—but I’m still under thirty. I needed to make a change, fast.

Armed with my trigger, my tiny habit, and my willingness to celebrate walking through the front door, I made the change. Not once did I walk in the door and then turn back around; I exercise every time I go. My chest pain went away in the space of a few months, and stayed away. Going to the gym is now just a trivial thing I do every time I drive home from work.

Unfortunately, not all of the tiny habits I tried to make for myself stuck, but Fogg has a new TED talk out, in which he talks about the same difficulty I’ve faced. In his new talk, Fogg talks about self-forgiveness, saying “Don’t worry about being perfect. I don’t really know, in our culture, where this notion of ‘you know I gotta be perfect every day and if I miss one day it’s over.’ Black and white thinking.” He discusses the importance of modifying, revising your tiny habit until you find the perfect fit, as though the habit was a piece of furniture and you just need to find the right place to put it.

It’s a new year, and I’m going to keep trying, revising as I go, and I recommend that you give it a try too.

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