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Life Changes: How to Create New Habits

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By Leigh Newman

B.J. Fogg, PhD, a social scientist and behavior researcher at Stanford University, helps people kickstart positive changes in behavior with his project Tiny Habits.

Sure, we all want to change. We want to read more poetry, do more sit-ups and eat less fried calamari dipped in so-called dipping sauce, which is really just straight mayo with squirt of lemon. We want to take up the cello and accomplish one kind act per day. And yet, when we make these decisions -- enthusiastically in the middle of night, scribbled down as an absolute-to-do list in the margins of an old magazine (where are the Post-its when you need one?) -- we tend to wake up the next morning and not follow through... or follow through for one day or two, then quit.

Enter B.J. Fogg, PhD, a social scientist and behavior researcher at Stanford University who has helped such innovators as the founder of Instagram understand why and how people respond to invitations to participate on the Internet -- such as why and how people want to share pictures. These days, Fogg has taken his skills to the virtual streets in a lesser-known personal project called Tiny Habits. People following his online program execute three teeny-tiny tasks each day for five days. The idea? They learn the process of habit creation; and once they know to create habits, they can leverage those habits into bigger positive changes in behavior.

Just over 3,000 people -- known collectively by Fogg as the Habiteers -- have tried the program since its kickoff in December 2011, including myself. Here's what we learned about how to actualize some pretty respectable self-transformation with the least possible amount of effort.

Abandon Your Faith in the 21 Days
There's a lot of habit mythology out there, says Fogg. The ideas he hears most frequently are that a person can only commit to one habit at a time and that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. "Neither is accurate," he says. "You do not need to perfect one habit before you go onto another. And you can create a new habit relatively quickly."

The first crucial step is rethinking what a habit is. In the old world order, you might say perfecting the tango or following a low-fat diet is a habit. But these habits take an awful lot of motivation. For example, the habit I would like cultivate is running. But running has remained a fantasy for quite a while, because it requires finding the time and surviving the pain. Not to mention buying a jog bra, because mine dates back to 1995; and a new one will require a trip to Target, which in turn requires parking in the lot and fighting over carts.

Obstacles like these are why "people tell themselves things like 'You just gotta have the willpower!' or 'You've gotta motivate yourself!'" says Fogg. "And then soon, that motivation slips," regardless of how many days you've spent trying to acquire the habit or how many other habits you're trying to.

Think Smaller Than Small
"The number one mistake people make," says Fogg, "is not going tiny enough." If you're trying to make a change in your life, you need to add something to your routine that is smaller than small, smaller than tiny, something that is minuscule, that takes almost no effort and also almost no time. This eliminates not only running as new habit (my original goal: to go running every morning for five days), but it also eliminates running around the block or even running down the driveway.

"Just put on your running shoes," Fogg tells me. "That's it. Put them on in the morning every day for five days. You're done."

"Okay," I say, trying to sound chipper and optimistic despite the voice in my head going, "Uh??? Are you kidding?"

Fogg brings up other examples from other Habiteers: Push-ups? You don't do 10 push-ups. You do one. Flossing? You don't floss your teeth. You floss one tooth.

Fogg is working on scientific evidence as to whether these wee actions result in longer, more complex behaviors. But having tracked 10,000 tiny habits (he emails with each Habiteer in the program daily), he does have some ideas as to how they work. "For example, let's say you chose to floss one tooth as your tiny habit. The first few days, this one tooth does take a little bit of effort. But as you floss more and more, it requires less and less and less effort because you know exactly where the floss is, you know how to tear it off, you know how to wrap it around your finger," says Fogg. "It hurts less too, because your gums are used to it." So over time, flossing more teeth becomes just as easy as flossing one tooth used to be.

Find Yourself a Crisp Anchor
When developing the Tiny Habits idea, Fogg had a classic eureka moment. "I was opening my sock drawer, and I got some socks out, and the word 'after' just struck me.” He realized that he knew what he always would do after he took out his sock: close the drawer. He'd been trained over a lifetime to close that drawer. There would never be a time he wouldn't close it. What if he attached a new tiny habit to this chain of events in his brain?

Closing the drawer -- is what Fogg now calls your anchor. You execute your new tiny habit after an old tiny one. For example, putting on my running shoes. I'm not supposed to just wake up and put on the shoes. I'm supposed to put them on after I've pushed the "on" button for the coffee machine, which I do every morning, like one of the cute sad robots left behind after the decimation of the planet, still picking up trash.

How does this turn out? At the grim hour of 5:38 a.m. (I have two kids and a full-time job -- this is my only time), I stumble through the dark, hit the button, then sit down on the floor and smash on my running shoes while the coffee machine wheezes and gurgles to life. Then? I do not go running. I do not go outside. I go out of the kitchen and enter the bedroom and shove my husband over and get back into bed (my running shoes still on) and sleep until 7 a.m., when my toddler son exercises his favorite tiny habit of blowing on my shut eye.

"Success!" says Fogg when we talk on the phone later. The reason, he explains, why I was able to put on those shoes is that my anchor was very "crisp" and "precise." Apparently, saying that you will play a chord on your ukulele after dinner or before breakfast or as soon as you wake up doesn't work. Those anchors are too vague. You need to play the chord on you ukulele after you put your plate in the dishwasher or as soon as I take my head off the pillow.

"Um... " I say. "I'm still not running."

"You're not trying to run," says Fogg.

"Right," I say (long, stubborn pause). "I'm just putting on my running shoes."

As I hang up, I wonder if I should have mentioned that I failed at my other two tiny habits. Fogg's program requires you to pick three, after all. I was supposed to say thanks for my family being healthy after getting into bed. I was also supposed to do three pliés after I filled up a glass of water, which on some days I failed to fill up. Both were limp anchors in retrospect, not crisp at all. I revised my gratitude to after I turned off the tacky rooster lamp that sits on my bedside table and revised my plies to after I turned the key in the door to get into my house.

Force Yourself to Celebrate
One of the secrets to making a Tiny Habit work, says Fogg, is celebrating every single time you complete it. "You need to have a set of ways to celebrate," says Fogg.

"Candy?" I say.

"No," he says. "Sing a little song in your head. Some people literally pat themselves on the back. Some people do a fist pump and go, 'Awesome!'"

I picture myself doing this, and a little flower deep inside blackens and dies.

Self-celebration, however, is crucial, insists Fogg. You have to have something physical to affirm the great but tiny thing you've done, which is actually two great tiny things: 1) remembering to complete the habit after the anchor and 2) actually completing the habit. Remember the ukulele? That is Fogg's Tiny Habit. Each morning he strums his chord progression and then says, "Hmm, I'm awesome!" For me, he suggests "Way to go!"

The next day, I approach the front door, turn the key, do my three pliés, and then I say very quietly to myself, "Way to go... ?" I feel not empowered, not psyched; I feel preposterous, as if my ear had suddenly begun to grow as large as my head.

"Some people are really good at the self-celebration," says Fogg when we catch up later, "and some people -- it embarrasses them, and they just can't do it."

"I can't do it," I say. "I'm WASP. We stand around and feel bad."

"The emotion of celebration glues in the tiny habit," says Fogg. "The reason why is that your brain wants to feel happy and excited." So, do your habit enough times and your brain starts saying, "Oh, key goes in, do the plié, I get happy."

I'm pretty sure that my inability to self-celebrate is part of a larger life problem -- one thankfully, I don't have to deal with right now. However, there is hope for people like me -- in that sometimes the celebrating can come externally. Because at 5:38 a.m., I manage to put on my running shoes and not run. But I do remain upright, and since I am upright, I'm able to work for one hour before the kids get up and then make them waffles. There are very few things that make me happier than making my kids waffles -- the look on their sleep-stunned faces when you open up that iron, as if they expect a giant live butterfly to peel off the griddle and fly through the room. That is my "Way to go!"

Failure Is Success
The whole point of Tiny Habits, says Fogg is not necessarily to accomplish your habit. In fact, he asks that each Habiteer pick three habits, so that, with luck, one will not work out, and that you'll begin to understand why that is the case and be able to design more effective habits for yourself the next time.

By day five, the last day of the program, I give up on the pliés. Either three pliés are too many or pliés are too awkward for a woman to perform outside a ballet class or I'm trying to do them at a time when I can't concentrate on habits (I'm at the door, I just want to get inside that door and see my family). The next time, I decide, I'll do one plié, after I brush my teeth in the morning.

I can, however, mumble my gratitude before turning off the light, and I can slap on those running shoes at 5:38 a.m., then remain vertical, then work for an hour, then make the kids some kind of breakfast, at which point my kindergartner says, "You're not allowed to wear shoes in the house."

"These aren't shoes," I say. "These are running shoes."

"You're not running," he says. "You're eating my cereal."

I look down at my feet. The shoes are there -- fresh green with white stripes, not a splash of mud to mar their breathable nylon uppers. "Oh, for God's sake," I say, and leave my husband in charge of the kids while I run out of the house and down the street and all the way to the ice cream parlor (which is closed, nevertheless inspirational) and run back to the house. This time, I do plenty to self-congratulation. I run around my living room with my arms straight up, going, "Look at Mommy! Mommy rocks! Mommy rocks!"

At the end of five days, Fogg emails a survey to me and all the other Habiteers. The first question is: How did your tiny habits affect your competence and ability to change your behavior in the future? Each week, results are almost always identical. Thirty-eight percent of the people say it greatly increased their confidence. Fifty-nine percent say it increased their confidence, and two percent say no change. Only on very rare weeks does he get a decrease.

"This is part of the reason I keep putting time into this," says Fogg. "I don't get paid for this. It's not really academic research, but it's so rewarding hearing from people who you've helped."

"You helped me," I say. "I'm one of those people. You helped me run!"

"No," he says. "I helped you put on your running shoes."

Some hints and tips

Create, don't break. Tiny Habits are for the creation of positive habits, not the ending of negative old ones. "Breaking habits is a whole different psychology," says Fogg. But what you can do is create a new habit that blocks an old habit. Let's say you eat too many potato chips at night. Quitting chips would not be a tiny habit. But deciding to take out (not eat) celery and carrots would be one -- even if the celery and carrots were placed on the coffee table by the bag of potato chips.

Practice. The first time you assign yourself a tiny habit, repeat it five times from beginning, to end to "seal in the habit," says Fogg.

Go early or late. Morning and evening habits seem to work much more effectively. The middle of the day, says Fogg, is usually too crazy to focus on habits.

Skip meditation. Meditation is one of the most life-altering practices you can do for yourself. But in Fogg's experience, it doesn't work as a Tiny Habit. It maybe that it's too difficult to break down into one teeny-tiny step.

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