by BJ Fogg, PhD
I’ve been focusing a lot on the power of “starter steps.”
“What’s that?” you ask.
Well, a starter step is the first step in a longer sequence of behaviors. For example, opening your sketchbook is a starter step in drawing a picture. Putting on your gym clothes is a starter step for working out. Setting an apple on the kitchen counter is a starter step for eating it.
When you think of the bigger behavior, the ultimately behavior you want — drawing a picture or working out — you might find yourself resisting. It’s odd, but I’ve heard from lots of people about this resistance. Even though they sorta wanted to do the behavior (workout), something inside them resisted it at the moment of truth. Their brain finds excuses. Starter steps don’t seem to invoke this kind of resistance. You just put on your gym clothes. No big deal.
Some people report that they trick themselves with starter steps (I’ve done this too): For example, people tell themselves, “okay, I’ll put on my gym clothes, but I’m not really going to workout.”
And guess what happens?
Surprisingly often people go all the way. And that’s the magic –> With starter steps you overcome your initial resistance, and once you’re started on the path, you just keep going.
I’m a fan of designing for starter steps. Some of my own Tiny Habits are starter steps.
But there’s one more thing you should know: I don’t feel bad if my starter step doesn’t cascade all the way to the bigger behavior. Just celebrate the fact that you’re making the starter step a habit. I know this may sound strange, but it’s part of the secret to creating habits quickly and easily: Be happy with your tiny successes. Never feel guilty about not doing more.
BJ Fogg, PhD
I’ve been coaching people in Tiny Habits for about four years now.
Each week people sign up for the 5-day program I offer, and then I guide them in learning and practicing the Tiny Habits method, from Monday to Friday.
Day by day — for over four years — I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. And this has helped me make the Tiny Habits method even better.
(This daily experience has also shown me how we can improve our teaching Tiny Habits, but I’ll save that for another time.)
I decided to pull together some of the messages people sent me this week. These are habiteers who are in Day 4 of my 5-day session. As you read the notes below, you can probably imagine why it’s fun and rewarding to teach Tiny Habits. Imagine people tell you these things. It downright makes you happier.
(I’m not coaching next week; I’m taking a rare break because my family is celebrating my dad’s 80th birthday. I’ll miss the daily boost I get from sharing Tiny Habits.)
A sample of what people have told me this week:
“I’m also pleasantly surprised at how easy it’s been to nail all three habits.”
“Adopting just three tiny habits is spilling over into other areas of my life. I feel more in control of my circumstances, which in turn makes me so much more relaxed”
“The feedback and process was simple to follow, thank you for your insights!”
“I’m actively looking for excuses to do my habit (putting things away) for that little rush of a “high 5″ that I give myself.”
“I’m most surprised about how much of an impact simple celebrations make. Now I know why some elders in my family are so consistent; they are constantly heard saying, “Praise the Lord!” Thanks BJ!”
“I can see and feel results already from the tiny habits practice”
“Thank you for this course. I’ve realized that I’ve been trying to do way too much and then feeling frustrated and overwhelmed when I don’t succeed right away. This has been very eye opening for me.”
“I feel more accomplished in my tiny habits then I have I’m my whole life!”
“[I’m surprised by] the power of the celebration. The habits that I celebrated more are more automatic.”
“Results this week. More energy and more dancing to the music channel on tv.”
“Your Tiny Habits method works! Even though I have a psychology degree, and know why this works, I’m still surprised that it does.”
About half of the people doing Tiny Habits have a hard time with the celebration step. I wish this were easier for people. Why? Because that’s how you make your new behavior automatic: You fire off positive emotions right after you’re doing the behavior (or while you’re doing it). That’s the role of celebration.
We have many ways in our culture to tell ourselves we’ve done a bad job. But we don’t have many ways to say, “Good for me!” And I think that’s why celebration strikes people as awkward or unnatural.
You DO have a celebration. You may not call it that, and you may not yet recognize what you do to self-reinforce. But if you’re reading this optional stuff in my sandbox http://www.tinyhabits.com/sandbox/, I guarantee you have a celebration. This has helped you achieve. It’s helped go beyond the minimum requirements.
To find your natural celebration, imagine yourself in a big tennis match. To win the final point, you hit an excellent shot. Imagine that scene vividly. What is your natural reaction?
The answer should give you a clue about what celebration is natural for you.
I have many celebration types I use, from physical movement to phrases to sound effects. I see it as a collection I can draw from to fit the occasion.
I predict that in 5 years this idea of self-celebrating won’t seem weird. It will start to become the norm for people who are interested in improving their lives.
I don’t specialize in breaking habits. The process, I’ve long believed, is different from creating new habits. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had some insights about breaking habits.
Let me start with a metaphor: the “Tangle”
Imagine you have a rope that is tangled in a big knot. How would you get out the tangle?
First of all, you would *not* expect to suddenly have the tangle vanish, no matter how much you wanted it so. Instead, you would take a slow and steady approach. And you’d probably start with the most accessible part of the tangle first, then work your way to tangles that are deeper. Eventually, you would be free of the tangle. Your result came from solving one problem, then another, then another. Baby steps.
I’m starting to believe this is a good metaphor for undoing bad habits. When it comes to something like smoking, or procrastinating, or overeating, those are not single behaviors. They are a mesh of interlocking behaviors, like a tangle. And you can’t resolve them all at once. You must work on the myriad behaviors, changing them one by one until the habit “tangle” is resolved. In other words, planning and patience matter. Shame and guilt are useless.
Let me give an example:
(Warning: I’ve never been a smoker, and I’ve never coached anyone to quit smoking, so this example may not be accurate.)
I suspect that the smoking habit starts tiny and it multiplies. Eventually, smoking is really a bunch of tiny habits, not a single habit.
People who are trying to break the “habit” of smoking (I used quotes because I think we need to have a better word for this tangle) usually have to break a bunch of specific habits related to smoking. For example, smoking during a morning work break is different from smoking with friends at the bar. Those are different behaviors.
If I were coaching someone to quit (again, I have no experience here, so indulge me, okay?), I would use the tangle metaphor and I would have them identify the simplest snarl they can iron out first. Perhaps that would be smoking during the work break. Once you’ve replaced that habit with something else, move on to the next smoking snarl, and so on. For the toughest snarl (perhaps smoking at a bar with friends), I’d say save that for later, just as you’d save the deepest tangle for late in the process.
I’m going to keep thinking about this metaphor. I like that it helps people see that a bad “habit” is more than one behavior. And I like that the tangle metaphor helps people see they need to plan and persist — and that each snarl you undo gets you closer. The fact that you can’t untangle everything at once is okay. And therefore, you shouldn’t feel bad. You should just keep going, seeking a series of small successes.
In that way, my work on Tiny Habits may have a lot in common with breaking bad habits. I didn’t think that way a year ago, but now I’m at least going to give it more thought.
As you might expect, I’ve created a lot of Tiny Habits in my life. But one habit has been hard to nail down: daily meditation. Earlier this year, I tried to make this a Tiny Habit three times and just couldn’t get it to work. I’m pretty darn good at creating habits, but this one — meditation — is like Everest. I’ll tell you why it’s so tough, and I’ll explain my solution. Read on . . .
Creating Tiny Habits is like solving a puzzle with two vital pieces. One piece is making the new behavior tiny. That’s easy: For me, the tiny meditation was just sitting for three breaths. Simple.
My problem was finding the other piece of the puzzle: the anchor. In other words, I couldn’t find a spot when meditation would fit in my day.
I tried various anchors, but nothing snapped into place. So after a number of revisions, I moved on to other Tiny Habits and made myself a note to come back to meditation later. (By the way, I think that’s a good plan: If you can’t quite get a Tiny Habit to take hold, change your focus to something else. Just keep on practicing habits.)
Today, I’m happy to report I’ve solved the puzzle, at least for myself. About four weeks weeks ago, I realized that a good time to meditate each day was right after I removed the last email from my inbox.
Some background: Each morning, I don’t answer all my email (ha! that would be really hard), but I do categorize and file everything. Along the way I plan and prioritize.
As you can imagine, the sight of an empty inbox brings a moment of calm. It’s just a beautiful white space on the computer screen. One day, I saw this white space, and then — boom — it clicked. That’s my anchor. So I wrote down this Tiny Habit:
“After I empty my inbox in the morning, I will meditate for three breaths.”
This recipe has worked like a charm.