The dead poet who nominated April as the cruelest month got it wrong. It’s February, the time of year when new year’s resolutions are consigned to the mental rubbish heap and self-improvement campaigns go south. If you tried to go vegan and failed, if your vow to run five miles a day before work remains unfulfilled, if you aren’t the perfect human being you resolved to become on December 31st, 2019, just before the clock on your smartphone blared midnight, B.J. Fogg, Ph.D., wants you to know it isn’t your fault.
Your failure to make good on your best intentions is “a design problem, not a character issue,” says Fogg, who is director of the Human Behavior Lab at Stanford University (formerly known as the Persuasive Tech Lab) and exceedingly well-qualified to pronounce on such matters. Fogg is also the author of Tiny Habits (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a fresh take on how to hold the brain to account.
“Forming new habits is easier than you think,” says Fogg. That assertion cuts both ways, for when it comes to repetitive behavior, the brain doesn’t distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ “It doesn’t know, for example, that eating cake every day at three in the morning is a bad idea,” Fogg explains. His approach exploits this blind spot to “wire in” healthy habits by starting small. Outlandishly small. As small as writing just one line of a business report or performing a single sun salutation.
Doing less rather than more requires an initial leap of faith, but Fogg says that taking “starter steps” — in tandem with motivation and what he calls “celebration” or reward — is the most effective way to hook the brain on a particular behavior, thereby encouraging a habit to form. He’s aware that his formula is, as he puts it, “controversial,” but having tested it on over 40,000 people in the last decade, he knows it works. In fact, he knew it worked long before he knew why it worked.
“We change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad,” says Fogg, who sets little store by willpower, a limited resource. By way of alternative, he recommends analyzing how to make a habit you’d like to adopt simpler —his own breakthrough came when he decided to floss a single tooth — and identify a spot where the new behavior might fit naturally into your day.
While flossing just one tooth and awarding yourself an “A” for effort might seem nuts, Fogg says it’s “the frequency of success, not the size of success, that creates momentum,” hence the stress he lays on positive reinforcement. He elaborates, “When people hear the word ‘reward’ they think, ‘I’ll walk ten thousand steps for a month and then I’ll give myself a reward.’ In reality, a reward happens almost instantaneously. Whenever you have an emotional reaction to something, your brain says, ‘Whoa! I’m gonna remember that and do it again.’ We change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad. Lowering your expectations and feeling successful opens the door to even more success. Change leads to change, even if you didn’t plan it.
Conversely, Fogg says, bad habits tend to have a knock-on effect in other parts of our lives. The lesson? Don’t wait until the end of the year to make your resolutions. Make them now, writ small, and celebrate your success like it’s 2021.