Behavior Design: How We Can Make or Break Habits

By Jimmy Warden

When it comes to our behaviors we exhibit each day, there are a lot of them that we can consider habits. In the grand scheme of things, we can think of habits as things that we do every day, sometimes even multiple times a day. A lot of habits are ones that we are not even conscious of, we just do them. Like flushing the toilet, turning the ignition on in our car, and greeting our colleagues at work. These are behaviors that have become automatized over time without a whole lot of thought. Due to the fact that habits become automatized, it is important for us to critically examine our behaviors if we want to implement some true changes. That way, we have a better formula for success than merely guess work. As stated in my previous post, we aren’t flawed as people, but our systems for habits and behavior often are. This is due to us neglecting the fact that we don’t always think as deeply as we should about these behaviors.

Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt

As stated in a previous post that was inspired by BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits: Small Changes that Change Everything, all behavior can be “mapped” because all behavior is a combination of motivation, our ability to execute the behavior, and a prompt that cues up the behavior. Understanding this equation that Fogg created is key for us to design some thoughtful changes, so let’s start with motivation.

Motivation is the most fickle of the three elements of behavior because of its constant fluctuation. Some days we’re ready to run through a brick wall, other days we can barely get off of the couch. Considering this volatility, it is important that we don’t constantly rely on our motivation to get us in the right frame of mind for change because we’ll soon fall to the level of our systems, which in this case; would be our fluctuating motivation. One vital aspect of motivation is that it does provide us some insight about what we want to change, and with some thoughtful introspection, some insight about why we want to change. This is where the phrase “remember your why” comes from. I do agree that it is important that we always try to remember our why and that it can help us think of our aspirations; but it is not optimal to bank on that always being our fuel, considering the constant changing levels of our motivation and willpower. This is where ability comes into play.

Ability is pretty straight forward in that it refers to our skill level of an activity or the ease at which we can engage in an activity. For example, scrolling through our phones seems to be one of the easiest activities for humans to engage in nowadays, hence why we do it so often (plus many other reasons, but we often have easy access to our devices, so that gives us high levels of ability to scroll). There are five factors that often affect our ability to partake in a behavior (here come some of those reasons about the phone!).

1.) Do we have the time to engage in the behavior?
2.) Do we have the physical capabilities to engage in the behavior?
3.) Do we have the resources(can be associated with money) to engage in the behavior?
4.) Do we have the mental energy to engage in the behavior?
5.) Does it already fit into our established daily routines(this one seems to be the kicker!)?

Asking these five questions will give us a much truer sense of our actual abilities to engage in certain behaviors without our ego getting in the way; thinking that we can just answer yes to all of those questions, when in fact that is not often the reality we live in. To bring it back to the phone example, we do have the time to engage because it doesn’t take much time to open an app or web browser and start scrolling. We have the physical abilities and mental energy because it takes next to no physical or mental effort. We have the resources because we already have the phone. It also fits into our daily routine because we’ve blindly made scrolling a part of our daily routine. Sure, it might happen at different times each day, but it is definitely happening!

Lastly, prompts are the most important piece of behavior because without prompts there is no behavior. Prompts are the signals that get sent to our brain that make us behave. If we’re hungry, we eat. If we’re tired, we try falling asleep. A lot of the prompts that we have are also out of our conscious awareness because we don’t think about them, or analyze them, we just do them. If it’s change that we’re looking to make, it is vital to analyze our prompts that cue our current habits. The more specific and detailed we can make our analyzation, the more salient our results can be. For example, if we want to start implementing a running routine; a prompt for running could be changing into running clothes and shoes. If we want to start running with a friend, the prompt could be texting them to go for a run (or vice versa, they could text us). However, it is important that we pick some strong, specific prompts if we want our new behavior to be something we do consistently.

Steps of Behavior Design

Now that we have an overview of the three components of behavior, it’s important we now think about how to design our behavior. In terms of a sequence, there’s no “magic formula” per say, but Fogg does recommend a highly structured process that could help us start to take better control of our habits.

First, it begins with thinking of our goal or aspiration for change. At this point in the process, it’s okay to be a little broad and less specific, and it’s totally okay to shoot for the stars too! For example, maybe you want to get into the best shape of your life or learn more. Whatever the aspiration is, we need to name it, so then we’ll be able to brainstorm as large of a list of behaviors as possible that could help us get there. Fogg refers to this brainstorming process as creating a “swarm of behaviors”. Considering we might be able to brainstorm a plethora of behaviors, it might also be in our best interest to put a timer on the brainstorming session.

Next, once we have our swarm of behaviors, it’s time to analyze which ones are going to be best for us to implement based on ability. Remember, with habit creation, consistency is king; therefore it’s best for us to try to start as small as we can and put our egos aside. We’re trying to build routines that last a lifetime, not routines that are implemented on a short-term basis (but if that’s your goal this method can still work just fine). When it comes to the analyzation process, Fogg mentions how we can create a four-quadrant Focus Map that assesses two questions.

1.) What is the impact of change?
2.) What is the difficulty of the behavior?

Now, if we imagine the quadrants, the impact of change will be the y-axis and the difficulty of the behavior will be the x-axis. These axises are sliding scales, so the high impact changes will be at the top of the y-axis and low impact changes will be at the bottom of the y-axis; whereas easy behaviors will be on the far right of the x-axis and difficult behaviors will be on the far left of the y-axis. We’re searching for what Fogg calls “golden behaviors”, which we should be able to find in the top right quadrant of the graph (quadrant I for all the math junkies out there). These are the behaviors we’re going to try to start implementing.

Going back to the aspiration examples of getting into the best shape of our lives and becoming more informed, some examples of golden behaviors could be going for a walk down the street or reading one page of a book or article. They’re relatively high impact because they’re getting us closer to our goals and they’re definitely easy to do consistently, so it also falls into the higher end of the ability scale. These behaviors might seem too easy for some, but remember, we want to be pushed past the action line even when our motivation is extremely low, which is why it is vital to start small; and in some cases smaller than we think is necessary. This will enable us to keep our momentum for change going and allow us to stay consistent.

Now that we’ve figured out what behaviors we want to try to implement, we should start thinking of some potential prompts that could lead us to those behaviors. When it comes to prompts, it is best to think about some prompts that already exist in our lives. Some of the previous habits I stated that we do intuitively; like flushing the toilet, turning our car off, or greeting our colleagues at work, could all serve as fine prompts to implement some new habits. For example, let’s say that we want to feel less stressed when we get home from work. We could use the habit of turning our car off to serve as an “anchor moment” that allows us to begin de-stressing. For the habit to be successful, it is vital that we really try to be as specific as we can with our prompt, via an anchor moment that is the tail end of a habit because it gives us an exact time and location for a new prompt. Perhaps, our new habit could be, “After I turn my car off in my driveway, I will take three deep breaths before getting out of the car”. These three deep breaths will help relax both our minds and bodies when we do them properly and will allow us to enter our humble abode, much calmer, and more present.

Putting It All Together and Celebrating the Small Wins

This three step process can now be pieced together for implementing some real change. For example, in my own life, I have an aspiration to get in the best shape of my life. I engaged in creating a swarm of small behaviors that will help get me there and then I played around with which ones are easiest for me to implement, which ones have high impact, and which ones to I want to do. The last thought here is crucial because if it is something that we want to do, motivation will be less likely to wane and teeter, and we won’t be playing around with willpower forcing us to do something we don’t want to. Therefore, I have decided to start with two tiny habits to help me get in the best shape of my life. Those habits are daily exercise and eating more meat. Next, I’ll how I’m setting up these behaviors with habits that already exist in my life, which will now pull double duty, and serve as prompts for starter steps.

For daily exercise, my anchoring moment is when I put my backpack down in my office. I have created the implementation intention of, “After I put my backpack down in my office, I will immediately change into exercise clothes”. I now have an anchoring moment (backpack down) that is coupled with a starter step (changing into exercise gear) to help push me in the direction of exercise. Please note that I have not been super specific about my exercise. I’ve done that on purpose because exercise can come in many various forms like walking, running, yoga, stretching, resistance band training, weight training, high intensity interval training, biking, etcetera. Therefore, I keep a vast variety of options open for when my motivation to run or weight train wanes; I can do something that might be a little easier for me to do like go for a walk. This helps me keep the habit in tact, despite fluctuating motivation, and it helps stave off my inner critic for not doing something as challenging. Once I feel I have really nailed down my consistency of daily exercise, then I can tinker with the challenges that each day could bring.

Speaking of inner critic, we all have one, which is why we should try to fight the temptation to criticize ourselves by celebrating instead. Sure, this might seem quite hokey or lame, but let me assure you, it is crucial for successful change. Celebrating even the smallest of wins like the starter step (putting on exercise clothes) helps us generate more positive emotions (joy, accomplishment, pride, to name a few), which then releases dopamine throughout our body, and that dopamine release will wire into our memory how that celebration made us feel. This wiring of positive emotion will increase the likelihood of us repeating that new behavior because the reward system in our brain will recognize the celebration as a reward. If we don’t celebrate, there’s a much higher likelihood our brains don’t recognize a reward for what we’ve done. No reward, makes it much less likely we will engage in the behavior again. Fogg even mentions in his book that we should try to celebrate at three different points of our new habit. The first point is when we remember to start our new habit, the second point is while doing the habit, and the third point is after the habit. His rationale for this is that celebrating at the three different times of remembering, executing, and finishing is that it helps to better wire in our memory to do the habit and that memory wires in quicker because of the extra celebrations.

What About Breaking Habits?

Breaking habits is another aspect of behavior design that we can also plan for and engage in. We can start by thinking about the components of behavior yet again because it can help us reverse engineer a great plan for ourselves. Considering that prompts are the most powerful component and they’re the signal to engage in our behaviors, it is important we first try to reconsider them.

The first thing that we can try to do in order to break a habit is to remove all of the prompts that remind us of a behavior. For example, if someone is trying to quit smoking, they could throw away all of their lighters, and all of their cigarettes, cigars, or whatever else they might be smoking, so that the prompts to smoke are no longer there. Not only that, but if another one of their prompts is going outside to smoke, another strategy for breaking habits is to avoid the prompt. This will help remove the context of the habit someone is trying to break. The last strategy to try when it comes to prompts is to ignore the prompt. The catch with this strategy is that it relies on willpower, which is always at various levels throughout our days and weeks, so that one will be challenging. If we think about the smoker example, I cannot imagine it would be easy for a smoker to stare at a pack of cigarettes and not smoke one. Therefore, we should try to remove or avoid prompts before we rely on ignoring them.

When it comes to ability, we could also manipulate our ability to do the behavior. If we recall the five components of ability, there could be a strategy that we could use for each one. If we want to involve money, we could make it so that each time we indulge in a cigarette, we have to pay someone a fixed amount of money. Pretty quickly, that money will add up, and could help to break the fix. Another idea that could be implemented that includes ability is to make the behavior physically harder to do. We could throw our pack of cigarettes or cigars on the roof of our house, which would make the act of going to get them much more difficult than picking them up from wherever they were previously. This would also affect the amount of time that it takes for us to engage in the habit, making it more adverse. We could also make the habit interfere with important habits or routines that we’ve already set in place, so that it affects other parts of our lives, and it leads to us think that it’s not worth the interference in our schedule. We could also make the habit more mentally exhausting by having someone hide them in different places, so that it takes a lot of mental effort to get to our smokes. All of the aforementioned ideas make the habit harder to do, which makes it less likely for us to engage. I understand that tobacco is an addictive substance, and I know that these ideas are not necessarily going to “solve everything”, especially if it is a strong addiction, so in that case, I recommend seeing your primary care doctor or someone certified in mental health treatments that specializes in addiction treatments.

The last component of behavior that we could manipulate is motivation. Considering motivation is on a sliding scale and some days we’re much more motivated to do something on one day than others, this is the last component we should try tinkering with. With that said, if we manipulate motivation in the proper manner, we could have some success with breaking an old habit. One way is to decrease the motivation to do the habit. Some of the aforementioned ideas like throwing smokes on the roof not only makes it harder to smoke, but it also decreases motivation considering it would also take a lot of effort to retrieve them. Often times the harder something is to do, the less motivated we become to do it. Another way that we could change out motivation is to add demotivators. Demotivators can be thought of as negative self-talk or even shaming ourselves into or out of behavior. For example, that smoker could ask themselves, “What’s the matter with you, do you want to get cancer?”. This method is one that I mention last because it is actually not the best strategy or approach considering the best way that people make changes is when they feel good about themselves, but there could be some folks out there that are accustomed to this type of demotivation and use it as fuel for change.


To tie all of these behavior design ideas together, it is important to remember the components of behavior and how we can use those components to design our changes. If we want to make some new changes, it is important to create great prompts that serve as anchoring moments; to trigger the behavior. When we remember to engage in these starter steps, along with the new habit, it is crucial to celebrate the fact we did it. This releases dopamine throughout the brain and body, which also allows us to experience positive emotion as a reward. Without the celebration, it is much harder for us to feel that positive emotion and feel shine, so make sure to celebrate! Not only that, but we also need to make sure we have the ability to do our new habits, and if we can’t at first; we must scale back and try again. We could also try to increase our levels of motivation, but it is best to start with creating the best prompt, and move onto making the habit easier to do; in order to execute. We can also use the behavior model to break habits by removing, avoiding, or ignoring any prompts that spark our bad habits. We could also make our habit much harder to do by increasing its difficulty by one of five different ways. Lastly, we could try to decrease our levels of motivation to engage in the habit, or we could add some demotivators to make the habit less appealing. The most important ideas to remember on your habit change journey are two fold.

1.) Do what works for you.
2.) Enjoy the process of playing around with your new habits!

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