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IAN MANN REVIEWS: Tiny habits that can change everything

Feb 29 2020 07:15
Ian Mann

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, by BJ Fogg

Author B.J. Fogg is a social science research associate at Stanford University. He is the founder and director of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab.

In February 2018, Wired Magazine claimed that Fogg's "Stanford lab created the formula to make technology addictive." By applying the insights for which Fogg has been most prominent, businesses (and governments) are able to influence the choices you make every day. These range from what you buy, to who you talk to, and what you do at work.

Most attendees at Fogg’s lab are particularly interested in how the digital interface can shape human decisions. His lab is described as the "toll booth for entrepreneurs and product designers on their way to Facebook and Google." Here they study and develop the techniques to make our apps and gadgets addictive. (This ‘addiction’ was the subject of a book recently reviewed in this column - Digital Minimalism.)

‘Tiny Habits’ is a recent publication in which Fogg uses the same insights for helping people to "change your life by changing your behaviours." What makes this book well worth reading is the word "Tiny" in the title.

What if you really could acquire habits that are necessary for improving your functioning at work (or at home)? What if this was as easy as becoming hooked on an app, but this time to increase the frequency of your reading, your punctuality, your follow-up, your attention to staff and on?

In this book Fogg explains that only three variables drive behaviours to become habits. These are the same three variables that drive your use of social media. The difference is that now they are turned on yourself, by yourself, for self-improvement - that will last.

A behaviour happens when three elements are present in the appropriate quantity. These are: Motivation, Ability, and Prompt.

tiny changes

Motivation can come from an existing desire for the behaviour. Many people believe that motivation is the true engine of behaviour change. It isn’t, it is too unpredictable, fickle and we are unconscious of at least some of our motivation much of the time.

The same teenager who begged to go to the "have to see" concert all week, informs you the day before that she definitely does not want to go anymore. Why? Her best friend cancelled.

The second source of motivation is from the fear of pain, or the promise of pleasure. Few wake up in the morning wanting to pay their income tax, were it not for the penalty for not paying.  

The third source of motivation can come from our environment at the time. Consider why you bought that painting at the charity’s fundraiser art auction. The cause is worthy, and you want to help, people are drinking, and the auctioneer is creating a sustained energy. You are motivated, so you pay a lot for a simple painting.

 "Motivation is not the winning ticket for long-term change," Fogg explains, and the reasons are clear. The components that drive behaviour are the elements over which we have far more control - ability and prompt.

Consider the prompt first. No behaviour happens without a prompt, full stop. Either you are prompted to act or you’re not. Conversely, you can disrupt a behaviour you don’t want by removing the prompt. (This makes Fogg’s model as useful to end habits as it does to start them.)

Do you or your staff need to be on time for meetings, and aren’t? Just design a good prompt.

You could prompt yourself based on doing what you already want to do. "After my feet hit the ground in the morning when I get up in the morning (the prompt), I will…; After I close my computer at the end of the day (the prompt), I will write on my desk-pad the most important thing I must achieve tomorrow …

And most behaviours become easier to do when repeated.

The most reliable thing in the B=MAP model (Behaviour is a function of Motivation, Ability and Prompt), is your ability.

What makes a behaviour hard to do? Do you not have the ability because you do not have enough time for the behaviour? Do you not have enough money? Are you not physically able? Does the behaviour require a lot of creative or mental energy? Does the behaviour fit into your current routine, or does it require you to make difficult adjustments?

This is where the "Tiny" part of the title comes in. The starter step is a tiny behaviour and it is the only action you need to do at the start of the development of your new habit. Because it is tiny, you have the ability to do it.

When you are designing a new habit, you are really designing for consistency. For that result, simplicity is the key. Simplicity changes behaviour. If you know you need to take a long walk each day as your basic exercise, tell yourself: I don’t have to walk. I just have to make sure I put on my walking shoes each day. That is the first tiny action you need to take every time, whether you walk to the corner or walk 5 kilometres.

The "tiny habit" method requires taking the behaviour you desire and shrinking it to the first tiniest step in completing it. You can make the habit of doing twenty push-ups tinier so it is easier to do. Just do 2 standing push-ups against the wall before getting into the shower each morning. 2 push-ups are easy because you already have the ability. Everything big started small.

Consider that most products that launch with lots of features and complexity fail eventually. What’s the difference between Yahoo! and Google? Simplicity.

No behaviour happens without a prompt. People respond reliably to prompts when they are motivated or able, which is exactly what makes well-timed prompts so powerful.

With the Tiny Habits method, you celebrate successes no matter how small they are. Feeling successful helps us wire in new habits, and it motivates us to do more. People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.

The harder a behaviour is to do, the less likely you are to do it. The easier a behaviour is to do, the more likely the behaviour will become habit.

Is all this a new knowledge breakthrough? Hardly. It is old fashioned behaviourism – first described in 1913 by John Watson. What is new and makes this book worth reading is the power of this stripped-down version, and the techniques Fogg describes vividly and accessibly.

Does it work? Yes, it is based on the same theory that was used to get people to reach for their phone as soon as the wakeup alarm goes off, and to have difficulty putting it down at meals.

We improve our output by improving the behaviours that become habits. This book offers a practical, accessible technique.

Readability       Light -+--- Serious

Insights              High -+--- Low

Practical            High -+--- Low

 *Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.

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