The Magic of Tiny Habits

Making small changes can have big impact.

Posted Jul 28, 2020

 Tonya Lester
Starting small.
Source: Tonya Lester

A Facebook joke from the first week of "shelter in place" went like this: "I'm either leaving this quarantine with my chakras aligned, my house painted, and speaking three languages, or 15 pounds heavier with a drinking problem." The internet was flooded with stories and memes aimed at productivity, asking, "What are you going to do with all this found time?"

A few weeks in, many had changed their tune. The New York Times ran an article titled "Stop Trying to Be Productive," by Taylor Lorenze, about people who anticipated having lots of free time to jump into projects, woefully underestimating the time it takes to work, homeschool, and maintain a household, even without the commute into an office every day. Not to mention the fatigue so many of us are feeling. It takes a lot of energy to maintain equilibrium in uncertain times. One man, staring at unused lumber from an ill-conceived home improvement project, said, "I realize now it was a silly thought," he said. "It's a lot more stressful than I expected."

I can relate. I can't believe how much sleep I suddenly seem to need, and, international pandemic or not, I loathe the trend of treating productivity like a religion. If productivity and efficiency live in service of connection, creativity, and general well-being, that's great. But too often, it seems they are valued as an end in and of themselves. Still, taking good care of ourselves and each other, physically and mentally, is now more critical than ever. We need to find a balance between rabid optimization and throwing in the towel altogether.

Enter the book Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, the director of the Stanford University Behavioral Design Lab. Dr. Fogg created the Tiny Habits system when he was trying to get into the habit of flossing his teeth. After many failed attempts, he decided to commit to flossing just one tooth every day. It was such a small commitment that it felt silly to skip. Once he had done the one tooth, he would usually finish his entire mouth. Even if he didn't, he still felt good about making a commitment, no matter how minuscule, and following through. In no time, his dental hygienist was complimenting his improved oral hygiene. He started to implement this strategy in almost every aspect of his life and had phenomenal success. Tiny Habits was born.

Fogg spent the next 10 years coaching more than 40,000 people in this simple method, collecting data week by week, and fine-tuning his system. He created the Fogg Behavioral Model: B=MAP. Or, "Behavior change happens when Motivation, Ability, and Prompt converge at the same moment." 

The method to implement this model is simple.

Create a "habit recipe."

  1. Identify your intention (motivation)
  2. Brainstorm actions that lead to your intention. 
  3. Make those actions so tiny, that it's almost easier to do them than to skip (ability).
  4. Create a recipe for each behavior, which includes a prompt, "After I do x (current solid habit, like brushing your teeth), I will do y (desired new habit).
  5. Instantly celebrate accomplishing the tiny action. This may feel silly at first, but it is vital for wiring the new habit, so the goofier, the better. My current favorite is to throw my arms open in a victory stance like soccer star Megan Rapinoe.

For example, say you want to start journaling daily. You envision yourself in the early morning hours, sitting at the kitchen table with a steaming cup of coffee in hand, exploring your thoughts on paper. The habits recipe you might use to kick off this new routine off might be: 

After I've cleared off the dinner table in the evening, I set out my notebook and pen on the kitchen table.

After I brush my teeth at night, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. to have time to write before I go to work.

After I sit down with my coffee, I write the date at the top of a new page.

That's it. Then pat yourself on the back or raise your arms in victory to celebrate your accomplishment. You can do more, but you don't have to. You could go right back to bed if you want and still consider it a success. The thing is, you probably won't go back to bed. These little starter steps create a momentum that blooms into consistent, durable, life-enhancing behaviors.

As a therapist, I love helping clients look inside themselves, heal past hurts, clarify values, and take action to build lives that reflect that deep self-awareness. Part of this work is learning to be curious and compassionate even towards the parts of yourself you don’t always like. Many of us walk around in what psychologist, author, and meditation teacher Tara Brach often refers to as "the trance of unworthiness" or our tendency to look at any imperfections as evidence of weakness and failure. Therapy is one way to awaken from that trance. But, in addition to therapeutic introspection, we start to feel better when there is a plan in place—when we feel that we're moving in the right direction.

That's where Tiny Habits comes in. The model is rooted in curiosity and self-compassion. Unlike the traditional carrot-or-stick model of behavioral change, we don't blame the person if the attempt falls flat. Instead, we blame the habit recipe. If setting out the journal after cleaning up from dinner didn't work, no big deal. Try something else. If you're going through all your new Tiny Habits and still not writing more than one sentence a day, then get curious about that. Perhaps there's enough time to write more in the morning. Or maybe this habit needs to move to a different part of your day so it can grow into the daily practice you're hoping for.

The applications for Tiny Habits during a pandemic are endless. Use it to help your kids remember to wash their hands, to start a gratitude practice, or to start a realistic exercise program in these wildly altered circumstances. I have used Tiny Habits to bring meditation, exercise, and writing into my life at a far higher level than I'd been able to sustain previously. I'm a true believer. In addition to my therapy work, I've coached many clients in these same, simple methods. By all means, pick up Dr. Fogg's excellent book, Tiny Habits: The Small Habits That Change Everything, or even hire a Tiny Habits coach and get started.

Grounding ourselves in habits and routines that are healthy and life-affirming isn't selfish, and it doesn't mean ignoring the severity of what we are collectively facing right now. Humans are designed to self-soothe in positive ways and negative ones. For many of us, the negative ways can be much easier to fall into. Instead, allow yourself to find sanctuary in the small, positive actions you can take right now.