Tiny is mighty. At least when it comes to change.
Over the last 20 years of my behavior research, I’ve found that most everyone wants to make some kind of change: eat healthier, lose weight, exercise more, reduce stress, get better sleep. But the alarming levels of obesity, sleeplessness, and stress reported by the media — and seen in my Stanford University lab’s research — tell me there is a painful gap between what people want and what they actually do.
The disconnect has been blamed on a lot of things — but for the most part, people blame it on themselves. They internalize the cultural message of “It’s your fault! You should exercise more, but you aren’t doing it. Shame on you!”
I am here to say it isn’t your fault.
For too many years, myths, misconceptions, and well-meaning but unscientific advice have set you up to fail. If you’ve attempted change in the past and haven’t seen results, you may have concluded that change is hard or that you can’t succeed because you lack motivation. Neither is accurate.
Popular thinking about habit formation and change feeds into our impulse to set unrealistic expectations. In fact, creating positive habits is the place to start, and creating tiny positive habits is the path to developing much bigger ones. You can disrupt unwanted habits. You can work up to bucket-list behaviors like running a marathon.
The essence of what I call my “tiny habits” method is this: Take a behavior you want, make it tiny, find where it fits naturally in your life, and nurture its growth. If you want to create long-term change, it’s best to start small.
Here’s why: Time. There’s never enough of it, and we always want more of it. We eat drippy hamburgers in our cars and take conference calls while we’re at the beach with our kids because we feel so pressed for time. This pressure leads to a scarcity mind-set — we say no to changes because we feel like we don’t have the hours to cultivate new positive habits. Thirty minutes of exercise a day? Cooking a healthy dinner every night? Forget it. Who. Has. The. Time.
But starting tiny means you can begin creating a big change without worrying about the time involved. I advise people to start with three very small behaviors, or even just one. Tiny allows you to get real with yourself and your life. Tiny allows you to start right now. It meets you where you are.
For example, I once worked with a major bank on a savings initiative. The objective was to encourage customers to have a $500 emergency fund.
“So what behavior are you asking your customer to do?” I asked.
“Save five hundred dollars for emergencies,” the project leader said.
To this group of highly educated, intelligent, and wonderful people, that seemed pretty specific. But notice that they were talking about an outcome, not a behavior.
I wanted to make this point, so I challenged the team in a playful way: “Each of you, save five hundred dollars right now.”
They laughed. And they got my point.
Then we went to work. I focused our session on finding specific behaviors their customers could do to create an emergency fund. These are a few of the ones we came up with — and they could work for you, too.
> Call your cable company and scale back service to the lowest level.
> Empty your pocket change into an emergency-fund jar every evening.
> Announce a garage sale, then put all the revenue in the emergency fund.
In the end, we came up with more than 30 different specific behaviors. Some were better than others, but all of those behaviors had a shot at helping the bank’s customers take concrete steps toward reaching the savings outcome.
The bank leaders realized that motivation wasn’t the missing piece in their puzzle. Instead, they needed to match their customers with specific behaviors that were easy and effective. They learned that their Web pages should focus less on the “why” and focus more on the “how to.”
When it comes to habit formation, simplicity wins. I’m urging you to apply this pattern of success to your own life: If you want a habit to grow big, you need to start small and simple. Once the habit wires in, you can grow it naturally.
READ MORE ADVICE ON STICKING WITH YOUR RESOLUTIONS:
BJ Fogg founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and teaches industry innovators about human behavior. He is the author of the new book “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything,” and has created the Tiny Habits Academy to help people around the world. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.