How I Thrive//

How You Can Form a Truly Lasting Habit

Behavior scientist BJ Fogg, Ph.D., shares scientifically proven ways to achieve any goal — and how you can undo your bad habits.

BJ Fogg, Ph.D., founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, where he researches how human behavior really works. In his new book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, he shares simple steps you can take to improve your life, based on 20 years of groundbreaking research in Behavior Design. 

“Tiny Habits explains — step by step — how you go from a dream or an aspiration that you might have, and pick exactly the right habits for you to make them a reality in your own life,” Fogg tells Thrive. “You change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad. You don’t have to rely on willpower. You don’t guilt trip yourself. You don’t feel shame. Those things are not productive to creating habits or transforming your life.”

Fogg wants people to find a path that works best in their lives.  “Instead of procrastinating change or thinking that it’s hard, it’s going to be painful, I encourage you to take a radically different view of how human behavior works and how you can transform your life,” he adds. 

Fogg sits down with Thrive to share how Tiny Habits work, offers real-life examples and Microsteps that you can try today, and busts some common misconceptions surrounding habits. 

Thrive Global: Why do tiny habits work?

BJ Fogg: With tiny habits, you look at the habit you want in your life and you make it super, super small, as small as it can be. Rather than doing 20 push-ups, maybe it’s just one push-up. Rather than flossing all your teeth, maybe it’s just one tooth. You make it super tiny. Then you find where it fits naturally in your life. What does it come after? Pushups, at least in my life, come right after I go to the bathroom. If you keep it really tiny, you can do it even when you’re tired, sick, or stressed out.

Then to wire in the habit, you do a technique I call celebration. You say, “Good for me,” or, “Way to go,” or, “Victory” — anything that makes you feel successful, because it’s that emotion that wires the habit into your brain. That’s what makes it become automatic.

TG: Tell us about the idea of celebrating your wins. 

BF: In Tiny Habits, there’s a technique that I call “Celebration.” It’s something you do to create a positive emotion inside yourself, and often that’s a feeling of success. So perhaps you just  say, “Awesome,” or perhaps you play a little sound effect in your mind that helps you feel successful. If you don’t know what the right celebration is for you — because what works for me may not work for you — what you can do is imagine that you’re watching the Super Bowl, and your favorite team is playing, and then in the last five seconds, your team scores and wins the game. What do you do at that moment? That’s a natural celebration for you.

If you want to wire in a habit — let’s take the example of flossing — floss one tooth and go, “Yes.” By doing that, you will fire off a positive emotion and that makes your brain go, “Whoa, what just happened? I feel good. I want to do that again.” As it turns out, it’s emotions that create habits. It’s not repetition. It’s the emotion that your brain connects with the behavior that makes it become automatic, or in other words, a habit.

TG: Why is declaring an end to the day an important step in building healthy habits? 

BF: My partner and I, who’ve been together for almost 30 years, have very different careers. He was in a career where there’s things to do, but then you could be finished at the end of the day. For me, as a researcher,  an investigator, and an innovator, my work is never done. So he would say to me, “Hey, are you done for the day?” And I’m like, “Denny, I’m never done.” But what we had to figure out in our own life is that there needs to be a time when I stop working, I stop checking email, I stop thinking about the challenges I’m facing, and we chill together as a couple. It’s a bit of a journey to figure out exactly how that works. I’m sure it’s different for different people, but for me, there’s a point in the day, whether I’m in California or in Maui, where we stop, we have dinner together, I don’t go back to email, and I don’t answer phone calls. I’m done until the next morning.

TG: What is one Microstep you are working on now? 

BF: A recent one is that I want to be able to squat all the way down and just hold it there. I didn’t grow up doing that, but what I know is if I practice toward that, I will eventually be able to do that.

One of my tiny habits has been that after I pee, I will do two push-ups. So I just shifted it up that after I pee, I will practice squatting. And at the beginning I had to hold onto something in order to stabilize myself and still squat deeply, but eventually I got more and more flexible. And now I can go all the way down. It’s a little bit painful, but I’ve seen the progress, and I’m hoping that eventually I will just be able to go down and do a full squat, and sit there and look at tide pools, or do something in the garden, or just do it as a way of meditating and holding it like that.

Although doing a squat like that may not matter to you, my point is that anything you want to achieve in your life, once you learn the skills of change and once you know how to do it in these incremental small, micro, tiny ways, you’ll know how to solve for it, and you’ll know how to start making progress so you can achieve these kinds of outcomes.

One of the habits that I’ve incorporated in my own life is if I’m in bed at night, and I’m worried about some problem at work, or one of my students’ projects or anything like that, I have the habit of saying, “This can wait until tomorrow.” So rather than sit there and worry or maybe get up and check email, I just say that to myself: “This can wait until tomorrow.” It helps put it out of my mind so I can get the sleep I need to get up in the morning and tackle it.

TG: What if we have bad habits — can we undo them?

BF: Most of the time when people talk about behaviors that they want to stop, they talk about breaking a bad habit. Well, I’m here to tell you that that word “break” actually sets the wrong expectation. When you say the word break, what you’re implying is that if you put a lot of energy in one moment, snap, it’ll be gone and you’ll be done with it. For most of the behaviors and habits we’re talking about, that’s not how it works. It’s not one and done. The word that I think is much more accurate when we talk about bad habits is “untangling” bad habits.

Let’s take snacking, for example: You snack on a lot of unhealthy things and you want to stop that habit. So rather than think about breaking it, think about it as untangling it. In other words, it’s a whole bunch of different snacking behaviors that comprise this big knot, this big tangle. Now, untangling implies it is not going to be one and done. It’s a process. It might seem overwhelming at the beginning, but just like you’ve untangled other things, you get started and you can make progress.

Once you look at all those tangles, you start with the easiest one first, not the hardest. That’s like starting with the very inside of the knot and trying to get that. That’s not how you do it. You start with the easiest one and untangle it. Let’s say, for example, on the way home from work, you eat a candy bar, and it’s not a very strong habit, but it’s snacking and you don’t really like it, so you would start with that one, the easiest one. Once you’ve resolved that little snarl in the tangle, then you go to the next easiest one and so on. And what usually happens is you start untangling the easiest ones. They get easier and easier until you’ve resolved the behavior. You’ve rid yourself of this unwanted habit.

TG: Can you help us myth-bust some habits? Let’s start with, “What creates a habit is repetition.” 

BF: So many people have told us for years that repetition creates the habit, whether it’s 21 days, 66 days, or 108 days. I’m here to tell you that is not accurate. What the research shows is that repetition correlates with habits. It does not show that it causes the habit to form. What causes the habit to form is emotions. The emotion you feel as you do the behavior, or immediately after, is the thing that causes the habit to form.

If your brain associates a positive feeling with flossing, or taking your vitamins, or drinking water, or snacking on broccoli, if there’s a positive emotion associated with it, your brain takes notice, and it will help you remember to do it again. If you’re good at feeling positive emotions as you’re doing healthy and good behaviors, you’ll be really good at rewiring your brain and bringing that new habit into your life.

TG: Myth number two is: “If I miss doing my habit just one time, I need to start over completely.” Why is that wrong?

BF: In 1890, a guy named William James, who was really smart, wrote a book called Principles of Psychology, and it became a standard textbook for decades. In chapter four, he talks about habits, and he is so accurate on so many things, but there’s at least one thing he got wrong. He talked about habits as winding up a ball of yarn, and if you miss one time or if you fail one time, it would all come undone. I’m here to tell you that’s not accurate. As you’re working on creating habits or stopping habits, you don’t have to be perfect. In fact, almost nobody is. It’s a journey. It’s trial and error.

And William James, as right as he was for so many things, that analogy and metaphor of winding the ball and that dropping it and it all comes undone, is not how it really works, at least not in my research. Almost nobody gets it perfect from the start. It’s a lot like decorating a room. You might try something, and it doesn’t work. Well, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t blame yourself. Just move the chair around. Move the picture around and try something else. And you can get better and better at designing from the start because that’s what you’re doing. You’re designing your habits. You’re designing them out of your life, but nobody’s perfect, and just understand that when it doesn’t work as you intended, that’s a sign that you can design again in a different way and try to get all the pieces together.

TG:  Myth three is: “Exercise alone is the best way to lose weight and keep it off.” Why is that wrong?

BF: So many people think that by going to the gym and working out for an hour or two hours, that’s how you’re going to lose weight. Losing weight is primarily a function of nutrition, of what we eat. So if I were advising somebody on weight loss, I would have them spend so much of their energy looking at how to change what they eat, looking at what could be healthy snacks, find snacks that are healthy and that they like, and then make those habits and really double down on healthy snacks. Find what breakfast works for you. Find how you navigate social events like parties and receptions, what are the things you can eat in airports, and so on.

By investing your time and effort in learning to bring good nutrition behaviors into your life, you’re going to make a lot better progress on weight loss, if that’s what you want. Exercise is important. It reduces stress, it helps us sleep better, and so on. But when it comes to weight loss, as I see it, it’s primarily about what we eat and what we don’t eat.

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