Can You Make Big Changes by Starting With "Tiny Habits?"
A new book helps you design healthy changes by celebrating small successes.
Posted Jan 13, 2020
Tiny Habits: From Acorns to Oaks?
Could you write a novel by working on it for one minute a day? Could you create a flossing habit by starting with just one tooth? Could you develop an exercise habit that lasts a lifetime by beginning with one push-up per day?
Habits expert B.J. Fogg thinks you can. In his new book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, the Stanford researcher describes a simple and fun way to change without relying extensively on willpower. While you may start with an absurdly small change, tiny habits can blossom into healthful new behaviors that could transform your life.
I had the opportunity to interview Fogg via email. Below, lightly edited, are my questions and his answers.
Meg: I was so impressed with the design of Tiny Habits—the use of color, the fun graphics, and the variety of typefaces. Is the medium the message in some way?
B.J.: I’m delighted with how the book design represents my work—simple, fun, approachable. The graphics, colors, headings, and typefaces all make it easy for readers to understand Tiny Habits and apply this method in their lives.
Meg: How would you summarize the Tiny Habits Method?
B.J.: The Tiny Habits method helps you create any habit you want. You do this by making the habit super easy, finding where it fits naturally into your routine, and celebrating your tiny victories. Based on the research I’ve done, Tiny Habits shows you exactly how to design new habits into your life quickly and easily.
Through this process, you can transform your life. In all of this, you don’t need to rely on willpower. Instead, you change by feeling good.
Meg: How did you become interested in tiny habits? Did you have an existential moment or a personal experience that inspired you? (For example, my cigarette-smoking aunt died of lung cancer, and I decided to quit smoking.)
B.J.: I grew up in a home that put top priority on serving other people. Service. That's just a big part of who I am. And helping people change their habits for good is what I am here to do.
It's exciting to share the breakthroughs from over 20 years of research. Tiny Habits has already helped so many people. And now this book will give many more people the tools to reach their dreams, to become the person they want to be.
Meg: It's the New Year, and people are making resolutions. Any quick tips on success?
B.J.: In order to design successful habits and change your life for good, I urge people to do these things:
- Stop judging yourself.
- Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors.
- Embrace mistakes as discoveries, and use them to move forward.
Tiny Habits allow you to change best by feeling good—not by feeling bad. This process doesn’t require you to rely on willpower, or set up accountability measures, or promise yourself rewards. There is no magic number of days you have to do something. Those approaches aren’t reliable methods for change. And they often make us feel bad.
Meg: One memorable feature of the Tiny Habits Method is your use of the technique of "celebration." Could you describe this technique and tell us why celebration is so important?
B.J.: By using celebrations at the right time, you can form a habit in a handful of days. This happens because your brain connects a strong positive emotion to the new habit.
The essence is this: Immediately as you do a new habit, celebrate it! Say, “Good for me,” or “I’m awesome,” or whatever makes you feel great.
When you celebrate effectively, you tap into the reward circuitry of your brain. By feeling good at the right moment, you cause your brain to recognize and encode the sequence of behaviors you just performed. In this way, you use the celebration to hack your brain and speed the habit formation process.
Meg: You say that people can change their habits without willpower. How is this possible? Is there a role for willpower in successful habit change?
B.J.: Motivation and willpower get a lot of airtime. People think that if they could only find the right motivator, they would do the thing that they should do. This unfortunate way of thinking puts the blame squarely on you and your ability or inability to motivate yourself. I want to change all that.
Meg: What change(s) in our society would make it easier for people to have good health habits? (For example, should health insurance should cover a gym membership?)
B.J.: We need to make it easier to connect with nature, to dance often, to eat healthy food, and to play musical instruments. Health insurance should cover pets as part of our family. Employers need to let employees work from home more often. We also need new programs and products that strengthen our closest relationships.
Meg: What else?
B.J.: I hope people will check out the appendices in Tiny Habits. I worked hard on this to give readers extra guidance. In one section, I share 300 recipes for Tiny Habits. In another section, I map out—in flowcharts—the three phases of the Behavior Change Master Plan. I also list 100 different celebrations.
Major Takeaway: “People Change Best By…”
Fogg summarizes his work with the following statement: “If there’s one concept from my book I hope you embrace, it’s this: People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.” That’s why the technique of “celebration” is the most important skill for creating habits, in Fogg’s view, and a major contribution to the literature on changing habits, in my view.
More specifics on the celebration: Every time you practice a new behavior—say, doing a push-up—figure out a way to celebrate yourself. You can quietly think to yourself: “Good job!” You can pump your fist. You can say out loud, “Yes!”
However you celebrate—and the celebration should feel natural to you—your brain will thank you with a nice little spritz of feel-good chemicals, just enough to make you want to repeat the new behavior. And so, a new habit will begin to sprout.
"Celebration" is different from the oft-cited recommendation to "reward yourself." Rewards are usually material things that you give yourself or get only after achieving a milestone of some sort. "Celebration," by contrast, is encouraging self-talk that provides inner validation during or after every small victory.
“Celebration” is such an upbeat and effective technique that you may find yourself adopting it in all sorts of situations. I used this technique to help myself and others create a very difficult habit-building self-confidence—without realizing the brain chemistry that was involved. You can bet that I will now use this technique much more deliberately. Yes!
Everyone changes habits differently. I, for one, need a big-picture goal to motivate me, something that tells me why I am changing. But breaking down a larger goal into tiny habits does help build momentum for change. And the Tiny Habits Method helps remind you that to initiate a change, make it easy and fun.
© Meg Selig, 2020
"One concept." Fogg, B.J. (2020). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. NY: Houghton Mifflin, p. 17.
Selig, M. "How to Be More Self-Confident in Just 3 Minutes a Day." psychologytoday.com, 2018.
Selig, M. "Nine Ways to Harness Your Willpower," psychologytoday.com, 2014.