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How to Set Good Habits and Actually Keep Them This Year

Changing your life is as easy as thinking you can.

A new exercise regime. A hardcore diet. A vow to never, ever smoke another cigarette. A draconian organizational system for one’s home. These are common New Year’s resolutions made and, inevitably, given up on within a few weeks, if not months, into the New Year. At least that’s what Dr. BJ Fogg, a social science research associate at Stanford and author found in his own work studying how people can create real, sustainable, and healthy, and good habits, and shed bad habits in the past.

When Dr. Fogg received his doctorate in experimental psychology, he was largely focused on how people can use tech to better their lives. But at some point he felt he had contributed all he could to tech and that human behavior — good, bad, healthy, or unhealthy — would be his next mountain to tackle. During his research, he came across a surprising discovery: the smallest, tiniest habits are the ones that can radically change a person’s life. It was only when people set extremely lofty goals — like running a marathon at the end of the year or completely changing how they parent their children — that they failed and dug themselves deeper into a de-motivation hole that made it even harder to enact positive changes in their own lives. 

So, to help Dr. Fogg started a program called Tiny Habits and has coached some 60,000 people through changing their habits through smart, small change. His new book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything distills his finding and methodology into genuinely useful guide for those who want to change. 

Fatherly spoke to Dr. Fogg about how to really, actually set a new habit that will stick beyond the fading resolve of the New Year’s Resolution — as well as the most common habits he sees parents wanting — and needing — to change. 

Fatherly IQ
  1. What’s your go-to method for entertaining kids on days when they’re stuck indoors?
    Movies and television.
    Board games and puzzles.
    Arts and crafts.
    iPads.
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So what does it take to really hone a new habit?

There are three components that comprise every behavior: motivation, ability, and prompt. When those things come together, something amazing happens, and if you’re missing one, it doesn’t. And it’s really that simple. 

With that model, then, at least the graphical version in the book with the curved lines, you can see there’s a relationship between motivation and ability. So if something is really hard to do, you have to have high motivation for it to happen, and when motivation drops, you won’t. On the flip side, if it’s really easy to do, your motivation will be low. That intrigued me. I looked at the drawing of my own model and realized that means that if I want to create a new habit and I make it really, really simple, then my swings in motivation won’t derail [my habit formation.]

Okay.

I started doing it in my own life. I decided I’d floss one tooth, not all my teeth. I said I’d pour a glass of water, not drink a glass of water. By going radically tiny, it was like, great. I can be busy or stressed out or not wanting to do it very much and I can still floss one tooth. I can still pour one glass of water. I can still do two push ups. 

So just say I want to read more books in 2020. What do I do?

Take whatever habit you want and make it radically tiny. Scale it back: set the intention to read a paragraph, not a chapter. If it’s not flossing all my teeth, it’s one tooth. It’s not pay all my bills, it’s get my bills out and put them on the table. And so, in tiny habits, you just scale it back to make it so easy. So then it’s not at all a willpower or motivation issue. 

Then you ask, what’s going to remind me to do this? What routine do you already do that you can anchor the new habit to? For reading, it can come after I sit down on the bus. That’s when I open my book and read a paragraph. Neither one of those things is about motivation.

And then the feeling of success. It’s really those three things together — the anchor; making the behavior tiny; and the celebration. All of those are hacks, unconventionally. When I figured out over time was that if you bring those three hacks together, you can create habits really fast. It just feels different than if you have the right pieces put together.

Is the idea that by telling myself I’m just going to read one paragraph, or floss one tooth, that it will be really easy for me to go above and beyond that set goal?

It can go either way. You can do more if you want. Extra-credit would be flossing all my teeth. But, even years later, you don’t raise the bar on yourself. The habit is still just one tooth. I actually floss all my teeth twice a day. I used to not floss, I’d go to the dentist, I’d get chewed out. But even now, if I’m in a massive hurry, I will still grab the floss, floss one tooth and say, “Yeah. I got it done.” And run out to the car.

So what you don’t do is continue to raise the bar, like, “I did two push ups. Now I have to do 5.” You can do more, but it’s not a requirement. The habit is always tiny. You keep it at a level where you can always succeed. And when you do more, and you will do more, naturally, you think of that as extra credit. You’re the kind of person who goes above and beyond. That has really good effects on you. 

And then if you don’t, you did what you said you were going to do.

Really. Let me build on that. When you say, “Man, I did what I said I was going to do and I overachieved,” then you start seeing yourself as the person who does what they said they were going to do. That ripples out to other aspects of your life. There’s an identity shift that happens from succeeding on tiny things and that identity shift has a massive impact. 

So what do you think about the word ‘goals’? I haven’t heard you say it yet in this interview. Like, “My goal is to be neater.”

Goal setting scares people and it makes them feel unsuccessful. So instead of using the word ‘goal’, I talk about aspirations and outcomes. 

The word goal, I think, is tainted, but you could have people set a goal without using that word. Sitting down with your spouse and agreeing on an outcome that you want is essentially setting a goal. But it’s not bringing it all the baggage that people have around it. 

I’m a bigger fan of just aspirations: “I want to eat better.” What are the behaviors I can do that will help me eat better? So it’s not really a specific goal — it’s just a general dream, wish, or hope, and then you come up with behaviors like, I’ll pack a lunch every day. I’ll eat blueberries for breakfast. 

So, getting clear on what you want is really important. But I don’t think that you have to call it a goal, or fall into the trap of setting this really high goal for yourself and then failing. That’s what I want people to avoid.

Right. And I feel like this approach to new habits is actually workable for parents who can’t really meaningfully overhaul their whole life, or set a hard goal that would get totally derailed by the complications of life.

It’s complicated. 

Right. Clean-eating for 30 days is unworkable. But having one more serving of vegetables a day seems pretty doable. 

I did a bunch of interviews with nurses and stressed out hospital workers and the big takeaway for me was that they were so stressed, and so tapped out, that tiny habits was the only way they could change. They could not do big things. The crazier your life, the more tapped out you are, the more tiny habits are appropriate for you. So, for parents, this tracks really closely. They can’t do the big overhauls like you see on TV. They watch it, but they can’t do it. And that’s bad because it just sets them up to feel terrible. The other stuff, you may see good commercials and tv shows and emails about the other stuff but it’s not going to happen for you, realistically.

You have done a lot of work, including long-term workshops, with people who would love to commit to new habits and potentially change their lives. What are a few things that you commonly see parents dealing with, that they want to change?

I assumed it was all going to be about weight loss, but what did emerge for parents is that the number one concern in one of the studies was about financial security. In another one, parents responded “I want to prepare my child for the real world.” 

I don’t even know how we came up with that phrase! but we tested it against other things like, “I want to reduce stress,” or “advance my career.” For parents, that aspiration of preparing their kid for the real world — that was number one.

Were there other things that concerned parents? 

Tidiness around the home is a big issue. There are these tiny habits for tininess they can do, like, after I start the coffee maker I will put away one thing in the kitchen. Just one thing. And if you want to do more, great. But you don’t have to. And guess what? Often, they do more. 

There are habits around putting away technology and really engaging with your child. So, after I arrive home from work, I will charge my phone out of sight in the mud room or the entryway and I’ll leave it there. So, you just leave it and don’t charge it.

There are also mantras. “After my child frustrates me, I will say to myself, ‘My son is doing the best he can. Nobody tries to screw up.’” So just the internal mantra, to have some empathy. There’s a host of those. In the appendix of tiny habits, I pulled together, with input from some experts, some tiny habits for dads who work from home. 

Okay. So there’s a big difference between maintaining a neat home or leaving a phone by the front door and, you know, financial stability. How, in your view, can financial stability be achieved through tiny habits? 

First and foremost, families need an emergency fund — between 300 and 500 dollars. You need a rainy day fund for emergencies that you do not touch unless it’s truly an emergency. 

There are a bunch of different ways to get there. 

It could be that: every day when we come home from work, we’ll put our change in this jar. Every time a friend wants to go get a coffee, for three months, we’ll say, “I’m not doing Starbucks right now, but thanks for the invitation.” And then we take that money and we put it in an emergency fund.

Right. You can’t latte your way to being able to afford a house. But you can have a better cushion if an emergency happens. 

Right. But you can do that to achieve a near-term outcome; of 300 to 500 dollars, for sure.