09/17/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Clearing Life's Clouds With Fogg

"A behavior change isn't really about motivation or willpower," pronounces BJ Fogg.

The statement flies in the face of everything the self-help industry is selling. Fogg, who will be speaking at TEDxMaui on September 28, has the creds to make such a pronouncement plausible. He's a Stanford educated psychologist who teaches there now, and that equals brilliant. Why? If a university hires its own graduates, that can be called academic incest, and it generally reduces the credibility of an institution. Unless, and this is big, the person is just too good to let go. Objective evidence suggests Fogg is such a uniquely valuable creature.

Fogg has two really big ideas in play. One is the Fogg Behavioral model, and that one affects many of your mouse clicks every day. Fogg's website says he spends about 50% of his time teaching for Stanford and 50% on "industry innovation," which means 1) he's a great researcher and teacher, and 2) Silicon Valley knows he understands the subtle rules influencing the difference between a successful tech startup and a flop. He has clear and effective techniques that work to induce people to do just about anything online. This makes him wildly popular for tech corporations. Surprisingly, he seems refreshingly not at all evil.

The other big idea, if you search the web for info about Fogg, is called Tiny Habits, and yes, it is a trademarked cottage industry that makes him some good money. But that's not his TEDxMaui talk.

"I'm not going to talk that much about Tiny Habits," Fogg explains. "I'm going to talk about behavior change more generally, but drawing off of what I've learned running 28,000 people through Tiny Habits, coaching them personally through Tiny Habits."

Really. He's trained 28,000 people in a very short time. Fogg has been running Tiny Habits seminars for about three years, in which he coaches each participant via email to create three new habits. The specific habits are not major, but learning a process to reshape your behavior can rock your world, and he has people lining up in droves for the experience.

"I have 420 people signed up for this next week," Fogg relates. "And not all of them will have breakthroughs, but the majority of them will be able to change their life. So I've just kept doing it. How do you say no to that?"

And there is his inspiration to teach Tiny Habits again and again, and to spend the unbelievable hours needed to coach that many people through their tiny changes. His investment of time makes my head spin, but the fascinating element is how small the changes can be to reshape a life. Thousands of incoming 'thank-you' notes seem pretty motivating. Coming up with a systematic way to achieve that kind of change must be a major boost in self-confidence also, but Fogg seems quite humble, and he explains his ideas in simple terms.

"You should think about changing your behavior the same way you think about redesigning your house," Fogg explains. "There are good ways to design your behaviors and bad ways, and I'm going to talk about the good ways."

Fogg had a pretty clear idea when he started Tiny Habits. After 28,000 experiences coaching positive life changes in just three years, he has simultaneously created and taken a crash course in what works.

"It's not helpful, when you're trying to change your behavior, to be tight and anxious about it," says Fogg. "That seems to work in the opposite direction. What does work is to be playful and light. If you bought a chair and you put it in the corner of the room and it just doesn't work, you'd say 'oh well, let's try another spot.' You wouldn't blame yourself, you wouldn't say you lack motivation."

The theme for TEDxMaui 2014 is "A Brilliant Life." Those three words are nebulous at best: are they about achievements of the speaker or about the audience, for instance?
"I like this theme. I think it's very versatile, and it's very aspirational," Fogg relates. "I think what will come across in my talk is that improving your life, changing your behavior, is easier than you think. If you do it the right way."

TED is about presenting something extremely important to the speaker, in concise and perhaps flamboyant terms. Entertainment value and/or real life applicability may be rewarded in volume of online views, and in subsequent success of the idea one pitches, though TED is adamantly about ideas and not products. Fogg's 2012 TEDx talks at Fremont did not hurt his career, but even for a veteran, doing a TED talk is not without hurdles. At least not if making a difference really matters, and to Fogg it does.

"Eighteen minutes is really short," Fogg says. "I usually teach for two days, sixteen hours. So I'm thinking what are the most important things I can share in terms of helping people have a brilliant life."