New Year’s Resolutions: How Creating “Tiny Habits” Can Lead to Big Changes

Various resolutions written out on bright yellow post-it notes

There is nothing new about New Year’s resolutions. Every year we make them, every year (usually around the middle of January) we break them. No sooner is the hi-vis running gear bought than it is stuffed away in the closet, its reemergence perpetually postponed by a million and one crafty excuses. One wonders: is there any way this year might be different? Is there any way we might actually alter our behaviour, successfully ditching bad habits and replacing them with better ones?

Well, in short, there is a way. According to B. J. Fogg, a behavioural psychologist and founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, the way to make long-lasting changes to ingrained patterns of behaviour is by integrating what he refers to as positive “tiny habits” into our daily routines.

Over the years he has devoted to examining behaviour, Fogg has tested and found wanting many of the traditional approaches individuals take in order to bring about behavioural change. These include: hoping that information alone changes attitudes and behaviour; making persuasion techniques, such as scarcity or reciprocity, the starting point; and believing that behaviours are all the result of choices, which leads to a reliance on will-power alone. Anyone who has ever tried to hide their stash of chocolate in a supposedly “out-of-reach” kitchen cabinet knows that methods such as these, however hard we try, are often doomed to failure.

Perhaps the biggest misperception regarding behavioural change, Fogg argues, is the assumption that setting a big lofty goal will galvanize us, stirring the motivation necessary to modify behaviour. Not so, he says. Fogg’s research shows that three elements have to combine in order for a particular behaviour to occur: 1) you need the motivation to do it; 2) you need the ability to execute it, and 3) you need a trigger to spur you into action. If we set goals that are too ambitious, such as completing a marathon despite having no long-distance running experience and little motivation to actually enter a race, we are unlikely to ever get anywhere in terms of behavioural change. Instead, we should break large goals (such as running a marathon) down into smaller goals (such as running around the park once a week)—that is, turning them into manageable chunks that we can realistically do and are motivated to achieve.

This is why behavioural change is best set in motion by introducing what Fogg calls “tiny habits”—activities that might be as simple as doing five push-ups or sit-ups—into our daily routines. Over time, if you do these tiny habits regularly, steadily increasing the rate at which you do them and gradually increasing the intensity of each activity, you will make long-term progress.

While this might seem fairly obvious, we still haven’t accounted for the third component of behaviour: the trigger. How do we ensure that we actually do these new “tiny habits”?

Fogg has created an ingenious solution for this: if you use an existing behaviour in your life and put the new tiny habit after it, you can use the existing behaviour as a trigger. Rather than setting maddening alarms and plastering the house in post-it notes, you just need to create your tiny habits by inserting them into the following formula: “After I…., I will…” For instance, you could say, “after I walk in the door from work, I will complete five push-ups”; or “after I eat dinner, I will study for half an hour”; or “after I shower, I will meditate for ten minutes.”

Whatever your long-term goal is, the best way to go about achieving it is to break it down into smaller goals and form a series of “tiny habits” that you can easily integrate into your everyday life. Because of neuroplastic processes in the brain, over time these behaviours will become more and more automatic and easy to complete, leading to lasting behavioural change.

So, don’t get caught up on that marathon idea. Start off with a twenty-minute jog instead, and see where you can go from there.

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