Tiny Steps Towards Change

Tiny Habits.com is my all-time favorite habit building tool, created by B.J. Fogg, PhD of Stanford University.

BJ studies how to change habits. and over the course of his decades of research B.J. has come up with the Tiny Habits system. The idea is quite simple: smaller habits are easier to build and sustain than big habits. Habit building is a skill that can be improved. When people aim to change small habits they are much more likely to continue building the skill of habitual change and thus make bigger changes in their lives.

Tiny Steps

In the last year I have used Tiny Habits half a dozen times to encourage myself to do projects ranging from handstands to monitoring my finances. Tiny Habits is free, lasts for 5 days, and has allowed me to adopts several habits that I will use for the rest of my life. Even more exciting, though, are some of the aspects of building habits that I have gleaned from Tiny Habits and begun to apply elsewhere.

Setting an Anchor

An anchor is anything that we do every day. However well-intentioned, planning to create a habit isn’t enough. To really iron out the wrinkles of habitual change B.J. advocates attaching the change to after something that we already do habitually.

For example:

  • After I get out of bed in the morning, I will…
  • After I eat dinner, I will…
  • After my phone rings, I will…

I’ve found this anchoring very effective, even outside of habit building. By experimenting as a part of (or just after) something that I already do without needing to remember – I always eat breakfast, so that’s been my best anchor to date – I’m able to create new space for learning and practice that otherwise I would simply not remember to make time for.

Don’t Underestimate Personal (Email) Reinforcement

There’s a lot of hype about new ways of contacting and connecting with people. Personal emails are still one of my favorites. For reference, read this post by Seth Godin on mistakes most people and companies make in sending email. (These two, also.) Personal email (even if it is automated) can be very useful to accomplish or reinforce small tasks and B.J. executes this idea perfectly. After signing up for a week of Tiny Habits, he sends out a daily email asking each participant if they did each of their habits and if they plan on doing their habits tomorrow. The full response to a success then is a very simple:

yyy y

If respondents say no then B.J. sends an email giving a couple of pieces of advice and encouragement. When they successful complete their habits he responds with celebration! The key here is daily reminders. Having someone else watching and acknowledging my progress is absolutely motivating for me to continue.


Power of Celebration

I really like B.J.’s discussion of the use of celebration and positive reinforcement to encourage change. In his discussion of the system, BJ explains that celebration, both internal and external, are necessary to reinforce new behaviors. However, what works for one person may not work for another. Some people enjoy loud and enthusiastic celebrations while others prefer internal contentment with a job well done. B.J. demonstrates different version of these ranging for an ecstatic: “Congratulation!” in one email to a milder “Good job. How does it feel?” in another. Simultaneously, he recommends that participants take a moment to appreciate themselves for having done their habits, in whatever words feel best for them.

Celebration (or acknowledgment) the single biggest difference I’ve observed in learners practicing new skills. Those that reinforce the most win! I also think it is very important to draw the distinction of different types of reinforcement for different people. Different types of positive reinforcement work for different people and it is easy to forget to cater to the target audience or sub-culture.

Overall, I’m thrilled with the the Tiny Habits system. I think most people don’t actually complete goals because they set out to accomplish something too large at first. By breaking down the progress into incremental reinforced steps the Tiny Habits system allows participants to rapidly overcome hurdles and learn quickly.

A Parting Question

Especially with the New Year around the corner, what is one new goal or habit that you’d you’d like to accomplish?

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