Tiny Habits: How Small Changes Can Lead to Big Outcomes

By Jimmy Warden

A lot of us set out to make changes about ourselves, most often around habits we want to create or habits we want to stop. Perhaps, we want to start exercising more, eating healthier, begin a meditation practice, save money, build better relationships, drive in a safer manner, start reading again, begin writing. Perhaps, we want to stop impulse spending, eating so much sugar, scrolling social media, binge-watching tv, absorbing negative news sources, or something else.

No matter what the change is we want to make, just about everything we do in life is a behavior that has been turned into a habit. From the time we wake up in the morning, to making our morning cup of coffee, to the route we take to work, to the way we enter our home after work, to what time we have our meals, to the time we brush our teeth, and just about any other behavior we take part in everyday. The big challenge with these behaviors is that we often want to change a lot of them at once or make a grand change with one of those behaviors overnight. Unfortunately, we are setting ourselves up for failure when we do that, and often times a side of guilt and shame towards our actions, or lack of change in our actions. The good news is, it’s not that we lack anything; or that we are insufficient, but rather we lack the proper systems and routines to go about our changes.

The Importance of Starting Small

There is a brilliant book that was recently published in December 2019 titled, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, by BJ Fogg. Fogg is a behavioral scientist at Stanford University who has studied behavior for over 20 years, founded the Behavior Design Lab, and put his “Fogg Behavioral Model” to the test on over 40,000 people, including himself. His book stresses the importance of starting small with the changes we want to make in our lives, which will help us put the correct systems and routines in place, so that we can build our skills to eventually make those large changes we desire.

As stated, the book starts by discussing why it’s important to start small, even if we have lofty ambitions about what we want to change. When we start small, it gives us a higher chance at creating small successes because starting small is very doable and not overwhelming. It could be meditating for 30 seconds, doing 2 push-ups, flossing one tooth, or anything in between. These ideas are more likely to create the beginnings of change as opposed to trying to meditate for 30 minutes, or doing 200 push-up, or flossing all of our teeth on day one of starting a new habit. Whatever habit we want to create, we should try to think of the smallest action to implement. Starting small also allows us the opportunity to start right away, knowing we don’t have to commit a ton of time to kickstarting some changes. The variable of time is often one that gets in our way when we decide we want to start making some more changes in our lives. There also seems to be a “luring effect” that starting small has. Once we’re engaged in the small behavior, there’s a chance we could surpass our intention by engaging for a longer period of time.

By starting small, we also create a feedback loop for ourselves to make decisions about whether or not our implementation plan is working. Is the change a “just right” start? Did we bite off more than we could chew? Did we start too simple? Whatever the answer is, we should use it to analyze whether or not our plan got off on the right foot or needs some adjustments.

Components of Behavior

To start, it’s important to know that all behavior can be “mapped” (Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt). What that means is that any behavior we engage in takes a certain amount of motivation; combined with a certain level of ability to do the behavior, which gets prompted. For example, we get hungry (prompt), we search for food (motivation), we take a few steps from the living room into the kitchen to grab a snack (ability). The behaviors that we tend to engage in the most are the behaviors that we are highly motivated to do and have the ability to do, whether it is due to the fact that we are skilled; or that the behavior is simple. However, there always needs ot be some type of prompt present for the behavior to manifest. Therefore, any behavior we engage in has those three components, and they place us over the “action line”. The action line is the threshold that we need to pass in order for us to engage in a behavior. This can happen in a few ways. One, we have medium to high levels of ability and motivation, so they meet past the action line. Two, we have extremely high levels of ability (or the behavior is super easy so we already have high ability), but might not be super motivated, but our ability is so high it pushes us past the action line. Three, we have extremely high levels of motivation, even though our ability to perform the behavior isn’t super high, but the high motivation is enough to push us past the action line. There is a great model that Fogg has in his book that I have included below.

BJ Fogg Behavior model, copyright 2007

Cues and prompts are the most important aspect when it comes to implementation because without a cue or prompt, there is no behavior. By creating a prompt, we send messages to our prefrontal cortex (our decision making area of our brain) that inform us it is time to engage in a behavior. We often have unconsciously created with a lot of things we already do. We drink coffee when we’re tired. We eat when we’re hungry. We scroll social media when we’re bored. All of those cues that precede those habits are cues for the behaviors that many of us have already created as habits. If we’re trying to create a new habit or take an old habit out of our life, we must examine the cues, because those prompt behavior. Some examples of cues and prompts that we might need to start consciously building (depending on what we’re optimizing for) are to lay out exercise clothes the night before a workout the next day, to turn our phones off at a certain time before we go to bed, or enter a certain area of your living space to focus deeply. Whatever the behavior is we’re trying to add, it’s crucial to think of some prompts that will stimulate the behavior. If we’re trying to remove a habit from our lives, we should take the opposite approach. If we are trying to eat healthier, remove the snacks and junk food; or at least make them harder to get to. If we’re trying to start a meditation practice, try to remove noise and distractions that cue distraction; for a small period of time. Although prompts are an extremely important aspect of behavior, the next most important aspect of behavior is motivation.

Motivation can be thought of as our willingness; or level of inspiration, to engage in a specific behavior. The challenge with motivation is that it is very fleeting, but it can be a powerful component of behavior on a moment to moment basis. Fogg mentions that there are different types of motivation that we experience. One type is the motivation wave. This looks like the person who sets out on their New Year’s resolutions full steam ahead and really crushes it… for a short while. Eventually, their motivation crashes like a wave, and they return to their old habits. Another type of motivation is motivation fluctuation. This is when we have high levels of motivation to do something one day, and almost no motivation to do it the next day. Similar to the motivation wave, but we can at least ride the wave for a bit, whereas the fluctuation is like a rollercoaster that goes off track. The main reason that motivation is so tricky is due to the fact that it is variant on the “PAC principles” (Person, Action, and Context). Motivation strength and endurance varies from person to person, therefore different people are able to stay motivated (or not) for different amounts of time. There is an action which we either receive a reward or a punishment from. The strength of this reward or punishment heavily influences whether or not we’re likely to engage in a behavior again. For example, it probably only takes most people touching a hot stove burner one time to not repeat that behavior again because the punishment is high for most people. Lastly, the context of the environment matters because we often want to be engaging in socially accepted behaviors to stay part of an “in group”, to reinforce that we matter to others. Not only that, but there are also environmental influences (whether it’s people, places, or things) that influence us. This is why people who see advertisements for fast food on billboards or on tv while dieting may have a high likelihood of getting off that diet once their threshold of resistance is broken with the subliminal messaging.

Lastly, in order for behavior to happen we need to have ability in order to make the behavior happen. Whether it is an action or activity that we are highly skilled in (this creates high levels of ability); or an activity that is easy for anyone to complete (therefore those engaging in it have the ability to do it), we must be able to complete the action that constitutes the behavior. This is a big reason why we engage in easy behaviors repetitively, like scrolling social media. It is very easy for this to become a habit because our phones are often right in our pockets; or are within arm’s reach, then we tap the app we want to use, and scroll away. This is also why it is hard for us to stick with certain behaviors to create habits. If something that we’re trying to create as a habit is too difficult to do every day, it makes that habit less sticky. Not only that, but there are other factors besides our physical capabilities that affect our abilities, such as time, money, mental energy, and whether or not we can fit the behavior into our current list of daily habits and routines. If we don’t feel like we have the time (or literally don’t have the time) we won’t do it. This is a big reason why people start and stop exercise habits. Reason being is that we are told we need to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, and that doesn’t always fit into our current day. It also might be too mentally draining or physically demanding for people to exercise that long. And if they don’t have the money to invest in a gym membership, people often say forget exercise altogether. This can be said for other habits like meditation, healthy eating, journaling, and others.

Implementation

When we’re trying to create a plan for change, it’s important to try to ask a set of questions that can help us create a road map for our success. The first question that we should try to ask is “what habits do I want to add or remove in my life?”. It’s important to try to be specific, that way we can try to start to think of some behaviors that can help kick start the habit. Again, the smaller the better because we want to try to be consistent with these behaviors over time in order to create a habit. A second question for us to think about is, “what prompts or cues need to be added or removed to trigger the new behavior?”. Cues or prompts are the most important aspect of behavior because it is the cue or prompt that signals an onset of behavior to the brain. A third question to ask is “what is my motivation?”. It’s crucial for us to know the reasons why we want to change. Yes, it can be fleeting and come in go in waves, but a clear motivation can help serve as fuel at times, and help us come up with aspirations and goals. These aspirations and goals can help to fuel brainstorming of small behaviors that we can add to our everyday lives and routines to start turning small changes into big changes. Lastly, it is important to ask the question, “what is my current ability level?”. This will give us an honest starting point for what our skillset is (or isn’t) and from there it will be easier to generate implementable ideas because we’ll be more realistic with them. Not only that, but it could be the perceived difficulty of feeling the need to implement larger changes that has been holding us back up to this point.

When it comes to adding a behavior to create a habit, a great starting point would be to think of the habits that we’ve already created that we’re more than likely going to keep. Maybe it’s waking up at a specific time, making a cup of coffee in the morning, eating meals at the same time, or exercising at a certain time. Whatever the habit is, we can use that as an anchor to stack another habit on top of it. For example, if we want to create a new reading habit, after making a cup of coffee, we could immediately begin reading a book. This strategy is referred can be referred to as an implementation intention. Essentially, “after X, I will do Y”. This helps a tremendous amount because it creates a system and procedure for a new change that is specific in its time and location. We all have great ideas about what we want to change, but we don’t always get super detailed about how we’re going to change, which is why implementation intentions will help tremendously. They give us the clarity that we need in order to know when to engage in the new habit. This will also help us follow through even when our motivation levels are low because we’ll have created a cue or prompt to start the behavior.

Feedback

When we do make mistakes, these are ways that we can tweak the systems and processes that we’ve put into action. This is another crucial aspect of implementing new habits or stopping old habits because it is based on the understanding that we’re not flawed, our systems are. With that said, it is important that we refrain from shaming ourselves because Fogg states (and I’m sure many others would agree) that the best changes take place when people are feeling good. Feeling good about themselves, their actions, and their surroundings. The more shame or blame that we put on ourselves, the more guilty we’ll end up feeling, and soon enough our motivation and drive to change is as flat as a popped tire. This is another reason why people often start and stop multiple times when it comes to habit changes.

On the contrary, when we’re feeling good about ourselves and the actions we’re taking, we’re much more motivated and inspired to keep going because that good feeling is coming from the micro-progression that we’re making towards a better version of ourselves. The more positive emotion that we experience during the changes we make, the more likely it is that we’ll want to repeat those changes in order to repeat the feeling of positive emotion. It is also important to celebrate our micro-progression because it is an acknowledgement of a job well done and an acknowledgement that we’re on the right path to bettering ourselves. This often releases dopamine from our brain, through our body, and will make us want to do more of that behavior, due to the dopamine release.

Conclusion

In sum, when it comes to making sustainable changes in our lives, it is best to start small. Remember that we are not flawed, but rather our systems of implementation are. This is why we should try to understand the components of behavior, so we can figure out a system that works for us. Not only that, but remember that all behavior is “mapped” because behavior is the sum of motivation, plus ability, plus prompts. Without these prompts, there will be no behavior, and without the removal of prompts, behaviors are much harder to be removed (if that’s our goal for change). When it comes to motivation, we should remember how unreliable it truly is, because how it comes in waves and is fleeting. It also fluctuates from moment to moment. This is why it is also important to be transparent about our current abilities, as well as the ability of how easy or difficult it is to implement the change we want to make; right away. We mustn’t get down on ourselves when we fail, but rather see them as learning opportunities to make new changes to our current plans. We must take pride in all of the glory of improvement, because at the end of the day, that’s all that we’re all trying to do.

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