How Tiny Habits Trump Motivation & Willpower

Have you ever found yourself wishing that when it comes to caring for your wellbeing, you had just a little more motivation or willpower?  After all, if you could just find a way to feel more motivated, surely it would be easy to get out of bed early each morning and make it to the gym.  And if you just had a little more willpower, wouldn’t it be so much easier to resist those sugary temptations you struggle to resist.

“When it comes to changing our behaviors, the problem is that motivation and willpower are shape-shifters by nature, which makes them unreliable,” explained Professor BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything when I interviewed him recently.  “For example, your motivation for self-improvement vanishes when you’re tired, and your willpower decreases from morning to evening.  In contrast, my research has found that by keeping changes small and expectations low, you can design around fair-weather friends like motivation and willpower.”

BJ acknowledges that one tiny action to care for your wellbeing may feel insignificant at first, but it allows you to gain the momentum you need to ramp up to bigger challenges and faster progress.  In fact, if you can get even 1% better each day for one year, you’ll be 365% better by the time the year is done. 

So how can you make tiny changes that will improve your wellbeing?

BJ’s research has found that behavioral change happens when your motivation – your desire to do a behavior your ability – your capacity to do the behavior and a prompt – a cue to do the behavior all come together at the same moment.  He describes this as the Fogg Behavior Change Model, B = M + A + P, and we need all of these three to be present for an action to be taken.

BJ suggests that you can bring these elements together in seven simple steps:

  • Clarify your aspiration. Identify your more enduring motivations – your aspirations – the abstract desires and outcomes you want for caring for your wellbeing.  What do you want?  What result do you want to achieve?  For example, for a while now, you might have wanted to get fitter, to eat better, or to stress less.
  • Explore behavior options. Note down as many different behaviors – things you can do right now or in the near future – that would make your aspiration a reality.  You can go for a run.  You can eat a salad for lunch.  You can spend ten minutes meditating.  You’re not making any commitments in this step; you are exploring your options, so the more behaviors you can list, the better.
  • Match with specific behaviors. Now it’s time to get practical.  Which of the behaviors on your list will be the most effective in helping you to realize your aspiration?  Circle these.  Of the ones you’ve circled, which of these behaviors do you want to do – rather than the ones you “have to” or “should do”?  Mark the ones you are motivated to try with a star.  Finally, of the ones you’ve circled and marked with a star, which of these behaviors are easy for you to do regularly?  Mark the ones you have the ability to do regularly with a second star.  These are your golden behaviors – the behaviors best matched to achieving your aspiration.
  • Start tiny. Making your golden behavior radically tiny is the foolproof way to ensure a change is easy to do.  You can start tiny by focusing on a starter step – one small move towards the desired behavior like putting your sneakers on to go for a run – or by scaling back – shrinking the behavior like running for 30 seconds.  Simply ask yourself, “What will make my golden behavior hard to do?”  Do you have enough time, enough money, are you physically capable, do you have the creative or mental energy, does it fit into your current routine?  Then ask, “How can I make this behavior easier to do?”  What starter step or scaled-back approach to your golden behavior will set you up for success?  Making your behavior easy to do, not only helps it take root so it can grow big, but it also helps you hang on to when the going gets tough.  Your goal is not perfection; your goal is to keep the behavior alive consistently.
  • Find A Good Prompt. No behavior happens without a prompt to nudge us into action.  BJ suggests an effective way to create a prompt is to anchor your starter step or scale back behavior to come after an existing habit you have already established.  Just make a list of all the habits that already fill for your day for example, getting out bed, traveling into work, getting your more coffee, packing up to go home, etc.  Pick one existing habit that you never forget to do and would provide a reliable and sensible anchor for the starter step or scaled back behavior you have chosen to follow.  Your goal is to flow seamlessly from your existing habit into your new habit, so it requires as little physical and mental energy as possible.
  • Celebrate Success. The celebration of success is a powerful catalyst for change.  It turns out that it is not repetition, but emotions – particularly the feeling of celebrating your progress – that builds your wellbeing habits.  Take a moment to reflect on what you do when you feel really happy and successful – do you smile, shout “oh yeah!”, mentally pat yourself on the back, or take a victory lap?  It doesn’t matter how you celebrate, but as you embed your new wellbeing behavior, it does matter that each time you complete it, you immediately, joyously, and genuinely celebrate the tiny change you have just accomplished.  This may feel a little strange at first but be in no doubt that celebrating your progress lights up your brain’s reward system, which reinforces your desired behaviors.
  • Troubleshoot, Iterate & Expand. Use one of BJ’s tiny habit receipt cards to note down your prompt (After I …), your tiny behavior (Then I will…), and your celebration (To celebrate I will…) and put it somewhere to remind you each day of the change you are creating.  Then give yourself permission to experiment.  Sometimes these changes happen quickly and joyfully.  Other times they need tweaking – try a different anchor moment, adjust your starter step or scaled back behavior, play with different forms of celebration until you find what works best for you.  When you’ve established consistency, expand the behavior – run for two minutes, and then five minutes, and then ten minutes – or revisit your behavior options and create new habits.

What tiny changes can you make to improve your wellbeing?

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