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Tuesday, 13 October 2015

How we do the small things is we do everything

We live in a world of instant gratification. We press buttons on our phones and a web page loads, we order things online and they can arrive the next day, we turn on the tap and water pours out.

We have it so easy.

However, this all comes at a cost when it comes to getting the things we really want. Generally we all aspire to exercise, eat healthy, get the right amount of sleep and so on but the bigger the project seems, the less likely we are to complete it because it just feels like too much effort.

So if we can't get instant abs at the push of a button or power nap our necessary sleep quota what can we do?

Build tiny habits. Because how we do the small things is how we do everything. According to this study, habits form about 45% of our total behaviour.

Through his research, BJ Fogg discovered there are two ways of changing long-term behaviour. You can either change your environment or make the behaviour change tiny enough you remove the obstacle of doing it.

To change your environment can be trickier due to family, social circles and context so today I'm just going to focus on the second method.

Let's takes Fogg's example goal of 50+ pushups a day. He didn't just start out by dropping and pumping our 50 from day one, instead he set the rule that after he pees, he would do 2 pushups. By starting small it's easily achievable. Then he began to do 5, 8 and so on until he did about 12. And because he would use the bathroom several times a day, those small numbers began to add up.

Alternatively, as referenced by this article and by Fogg, to build up the habit of flossing, you start by flossing one tooth. It can be tempting to jump straight in and start with a bigger number or all of them but as Margaret Lukens points out, that would defeat the underlying behaviour change.

"Don’t try to cajole yourself into action by saying that you’re going to do one tooth then do them all. Just floss one. Do it every day. And watch what happens. I can tell you what happened to me – one day, about three weeks in, I had an itch for completion. I wanted, needed to floss them all. I wasn’t even particularly aware of the change, which seemed natural and unconscious. And now I can’t not floss. Mission accomplished." - Floss one tooth



This type of behaviour change works so well, as Fogg points out, because it is a very reliable way, in a way that doesn't regress and in a way that doesn't make you give up.

There are three things that have to happen at the same moment to cause behaviour change.


  • Motivation - you have to want to get fitter, have cleaner teeth.

  • Ability - whether it is hard or easy to do.

  • Trigger - something that tells you to do pushups now, floss teeth now.



Motivation is transitory. When you have a lot of it, it can be easier to do 50 pushups in one go, but when you don't it's near impossible. That's why you lower the threshold for motivation by lowering the ability needed to do the habit, so whether your motivation is high or low - you'll do it.

The key here though is the trigger. "If you use an existing behaviour in your life and you put the new tiny behaviour after it, you can use the existing behaviour to be the trigger." And the formula he recommends is:

After I [existing habit], I will [new tiny behaviour].



Think about your current life. We all, already do this in terms of our morning routine. After we wake up we might jump in the shower, get changed, make coffee, have breakfast, clean our teeth etc. From the moment we wake up have that may set off a chain reaction. The beauty of routine is that over time you can build up many tiny habits after each other.

I would argue that it is easier to build a new habit than break an existing one and try to only build one at a time until you feel secure that you have it. Fogg offers a (free!) weekly introduction course to his ideas over at his website here. I highly recommend it.

When you think hard about all of this, you still have to put in the hours and put in the work. But because you've lowered the barrier for entry you're far more likely to start. And that's amazing because in the words of Karen Lamb, a year from now you will wish you had started today, and now you can.

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