Talking 'Tiny Habits' With BJ Fogg: Life Kit Want to start a new habit? Think small. That's the counterintuitive idea in BJ Fogg's book, Tiny Habits. Fogg explains that making small behavior changes requires just a little motivation and lots of celebrating — and can lead to big change.
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'Tiny Habits' Are The Key To Behavioral Change

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'Tiny Habits' Are The Key To Behavioral Change

'Tiny Habits' Are The Key To Behavioral Change

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MARIA GODOY, HOST:

Hi. I'm Maria Godoy, and this is NPR's LIFE KIT. A lot of the episodes we do at LIFE KIT involve changing behavior. From reducing food waste to reading more to setting up and sticking to a budget - forming new habits is key, so you can think of this episode as a sort of companion episode; a booster shot, if you will, for any of our other ones.

BJ FOGG: When it comes to lasting change, you basically have three approaches to it.

GODOY: That's BJ Fogg. He's a behavior scientist at Stanford and the author of a new book, "Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything." And he's here to tell us how to make habits that actually last, no matter what habit you want to start. And that begins with understanding how behavior change happens.

FOGG: No. 1 - you can have an epiphany. Well, guess what? Epiphanies happen, but you can't design one for yourself.

GODOY: So take that one off the table.

FOGG: No. 2 - - you can redesign your environment to change your behavior.

GODOY: That can work, but BJ says there's an even simpler way to start a habit.

FOGG: No. 3 is to make tiny changes and wire in new habits in these small, incremental ways. And that's a very consistent and a reliable way to do it, and that's what "Tiny Habits" is all about.

GODOY: In this episode, we'll learn all about tiny habits and how to make them work for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODOY: We often tend to think of changing our behavior as, like, a monumental task. Like, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. You know, there's that saying, go big or go home. And oftentimes, I think we just end up going home.

FOGG: (Laughter) You know, it's - for decades, the way that we're told to change and change our behavior sets us up to fail. It's easier to create habits and change than most people think, and it's faster than most people think. And it can even be fun if you do it in the right way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOGG: There are three things that come together at the same time for any behavior to happen. There's got to be motivation to do the behavior. Second is the ability to do the behavior, and the third is a prompt. And the prompt is anything that reminds you or says, do this behavior now. And when those three things come together at the same moment, a behavior happens.

GODOY: It's almost like an algorithm for changing our behavior.

FOGG: Yeah. The harder the behavior, the more motivation you need. And you can see that all around you. You can just go to the airport and watch. You've got escalator. You've got stairs. Who's taking the stairs? The people in a rush. They're running to catch their planes, so that's why they're taking the stairs.

Our motivation won't always be high, and the way we get around that is to make the behavior really, really easy to do. If a behavior is easy to do, it doesn't require a whole bunch of motivation. If you think, hey, I've got to clean my entire house, you're going to have to be super motivated. But if it's tidy one item - hmm. Yeah, all you need is a tiny bit of motivation.

GODOY: So basically, the key to change is to set a really low bar (laughter).

FOGG: Well, yeah. You know, there's a part in "Tiny Habits," in the book, where I say, hey, people, it's time for someone to say it. Lower your expectations - which, hopefully, surprises people, but it's also the right way to go if you want to help yourself feel successful and progress.

GODOY: So what is a tiny habit exactly? Can you define it? Like, how tiny are we talking?

FOGG: As simple and tiny as possible; so in the "Tiny Habits" method, we have these three hacks coming together. First, you take any new habits you want, and you scale it back so it's super tiny. In the case of reading more, it might be - read one paragraph. In the case of meditating, it might be three calming breaths. You make it so simple, it's almost like you have no excuse not to do it. So even when you're in a rush or you're sick or you're distracted, it's so tiny you can still do it.

Then you find where it fits naturally in your existing routine. You look for, what does it come after? So, for example, reading might come after you sit down on the subway. That might be the perfect time for you to open a book and read a paragraph. Now, you can read more if you want. That's fine. But the habit is just tiny. You only do a paragraph if that's all you want to do.

GODOY: So it's, like, easy to actually have success.

FOGG: Yeah, so, you know, you reach and exceed the bar. And when you do more, you count it as extra credit. You know, like, one of my tiny habits is after I pee, I do two pushups.

GODOY: (Laughter).

FOGG: OK, I'm saying that. Yes, I'm out on that one. And there's a phrasing for it. After I pee, I will do two pushups. After I sit down on the subway, I'll open my book and read a paragraph. After I turn off the TV, I'll take three calming breaths. So you find where it fits.

And then to wire in the habit - this is part three - you fire off a positive emotion. And in "Tiny Habits," that technique is called celebration. For a lot of people, doing a fist pump and saying, awesome, works. For other people, in their heads, they might think of a happy song. Other people - sound effects, like (singing) do do do do (ph).

GODOY: (Laughter).

FOGG: Like, good for me for doing it. Now, I know that sounds corny.

GODOY: Yeah. It does (laughter).

FOGG: I know, right? But the reality is emotions create habit. Whether that's fist pumps, raising your arms, doing a little dance, you know, singing "Eye Of The Tiger" in your head; whatever it is that helps you feel successful, that's what will help wire the habit in.

GODOY: Well, what do you do?

FOGG: I have a variety. One is I do a double fist pump, and I go, way to go, Beej (ph).

GODOY: (Laughter).

FOGG: Sometimes, I'll do a single one and go, awesome. And when I need something super powerful - and I don't use this very often. I think of my fourth grade teacher in Fresno, Calif., Mrs. Bondietti (ph), who was this really tough teacher and just really great. And I imagine her saying, you did a good job. And for whatever reason, that fire - that makes me feel, like, so successful.

GODOY: (Laughter).

FOGG: And that really...

GODOY: Rosebud (laughter).

FOGG: Yeah, boom. That helped wire in the habit, so I have a whole range.

GODOY: OK, but just be honest. Did you feel a little bit ridiculous when you first started doing that?

FOGG: No.

GODOY: No (laughter).

FOGG: I didn't. There's a whole range of - you know, some people are natural celebrators. In fact, some people that are listening to this probably already celebrate. And it works, but they just didn't have a name for it. Other people are skeptical and have a hard time celebrating. And one of the ways to help them understand it is, OK; take two minutes. List all the ways that you criticize yourself when you do a bad job. Great. Now take two minutes and list all the ways you tell yourself you did a good job. And what typically happens is the self-criticism list is long and rich, and the self - you know, the celebration list is very, very short. And then my point is, don't you think you should balance it out at least a little bit?

GODOY: Right, so it's basically like - part of, I guess, "Tiny Habits" is learning to have some self-compassion and change the narrative inside our heads - like positive self-talk.

FOGG: Exactly. Let me give a common example. Load any popular video game onto your phone, and notice how quickly it tells you you're succeeding and doing a good job. Any one of the popular ones - notice. And even for the silliest of things, it's going to say, good job. You did awesome. Way to go. Well, why? - because the most successful games are the ones that help you feel successful, that wire in the habit.

GODOY: OK, so when we're talking tiny habits, what's the tiniest habit that can be effective?

FOGG: Oh, my gosh. Eight years ago, like many, many people, I show up at the dentist, and they're like, you're not flossing, are you? - 'cause they know. And it's like, no, I'm not. And you resolve to do it. You don't do it. So...

GODOY: Guilty (laughter).

FOGG: ...Which, for me, as a behavior scientist, was extra embarrassing. I had the insight that I already know how to floss all my teeth. That's not the issue. The issue was I didn't know how to do it automatically, so I thought, well, let's scale it way back. Make it tiny; just one tooth. And then learn how to make that automatic. And once it's automatic, then I can grow the habit. And one tooth you can do when you're busy, when you're stressed out, when you're sick. It doesn't take a whole lot of motivation - where all your teeth might. Now fast forward to today. I floss twice a day. I floss all of them most of the time, and I'm, like, my dentist's favorite patient.

GODOY: (Laughter).

FOGG: And I could readily form the habit because, you know, the more you practice creating habits, the better you get. Habit formation is a skill. Just like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you get. And pretty soon, it feels quite automatic. And then once the habit gets wired in - and what happens is that habit will naturally grow. You will naturally start flossing more of your teeth till you're flossing all of them.

GODOY: So, you know, how long does it take a habit to build? - 'cause you know, there's a saying that it takes 30 days to build a habit. Is there any truth to that?

FOGG: No.

GODOY: (Laughter).

FOGG: Next question - no. I know that's a common thing people say - 21 days, 30 days, 66 days. If you look carefully on the most recent research people cite, that research shows that the strength of the habit correlates with repetition, but it does not show that repetition causes the habit to form. The thing that causes habits to form is the emotion that your brain connects with the behavior, especially at the early stages.

The problem with people believing that repetition is the key to create habits - besides it not being accurate and not being supported by science - is, No. 1 - if you think - let's just take 21 days. If you think it's going to take 21 days to create a habit, then you have the perspective of, OK. If I just suffer for 21 days of going to the gym or if I just endure this, then somehow, magically, it wires in. And I have the habit. So the perspective then on habit formation is one of suffering and endurance, whereas in the "Tiny Habits" approach, it's, no; pick what you want, and celebrate it. And feel good.

You know, the particular habits you have, yeah, some really matter. But, you know, whether you're meditating for 20 minutes or playing the flute for 20 minutes probably doesn't really matter in the bigger scheme of things. But whether you're able to say, yeah, I did a good job, and be open to the positive emotions and help other people do it - that's what matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODOY: OK. That was BJ Fogg, head of Stanford's Behavior Design Lab and author of the new book, "Tiny Habits." So remember. Take the behavior you want to change, scale it way back, further than you think so it's so, so easy, you have no choice but to do it. And then anchor it into your existing routine. And lastly, celebrate even the tiniest little effort, even if it feels goofy. Even if it makes you feel a little bit - or more than a little bit - ridiculous, you have to celebrate because that positive emotion is a what will rewire your brain and allow your habit to grow. And remember. Forming habits is a skill just like anything else. The more you do it, the easier the process becomes.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. There's one about how to start a creative habit, one on how to quit smoking and so much more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter. And here, as always, a completely random tip - this time from NPR's Travis Larchuk.

TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: All right. Here's a tip. If you're going to join a gym, do not do it online. That rate online is usually way more than they'll just quote you if you go in person.

GODOY: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor.

I'm Maria Godoy. Thanks for listening.

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