Why Making Positive Changes To Your Life Isn’t As Hard Or Scary As You Think

Whatever we want to achieve, or improve on, in life has change at its core. But we live in an age of anxiety, which is often characterised by the failure to make positive change.

It’s easy to blame ourselves for this failure, but what if the workout plan you abandon, the new business that flounders, or the relationship that fails wasn’t down to your own qualities, but to the methods you used to try to make change?

That’s the argument of author, Stanford researcher and silicon valley UX guru, BJ Fogg, who has written a brand new manual for making change easy…

We all want to make changes in our lives. Exercise more, succeed in new projects, improve our relationships, get better sleep; the list is endless. But when it comes to translating this want into doing most of us fall painfully short.

As a result, we come to view change as hard and even scary, which is odd for a species so renowned for our ability to learn and adapt. Rather than being an inspiring, self-fulfilling prophecy, change – or our lack of it – becomes something that makes us beat ourselves up about and feel anxious.

BJ Fogg is the Stanford researcher – and founder of its Persuasive Technology Lab – who’s responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in user experience (UX) in smartphone tech and health.

The conclusions of his scientifically sound research have led him to write Tiny Habits, to make change easy, and even fun. Here’s what RSNG learnt from reading the book…

1. Realise It’s Not Your Fault
When it comes to making change, BJ Fogg is an expert in helping tech companies shift the behaviour of people using smartphone and device apps. Many of us use apps to help us achieve changes, such as monitoring our sleep to improve it. His formula of B=mat says that a behaviour is the result of three things: motivation, ability and trigger.

For Fogg, you fail at and fear change because the ‘action line’ of his B=mat graph rises as the difficulty of the change increases, and so requires higher levels of motivation to achieve. The triggers (such as a workout scheduled in your calendar or an app reminding you to do more steps) only work if this line is in the right place.

But as Fogg points out, it’s very hard to increase levels of motivation. It’s similar to attempting to use ‘more’ willpower when your mental energy is a finite resource, which is often tapped out just negotiating the business of a normal, unchanged, day. So, it’s far more effective to reduce the difficulty of a goal than to increase your motivation to achieve it.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to do this, because Fogg’s research tells him that you’ve been making change hard for yourself. It turns out you’ve been doing the equivalent of trying to put flat pack furniture together with faulty instructions and parts missing, which would clearly be the manufacturer’s bad, not yours.

‘I am here to say: It isn’t your fault… it’s a design flaw, not a personal flaw,’ writes BJ Fogg in his brand new book Tiny Habits.

‘Stop judging Yourself, take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviours – embrace mistakes as discoveries’

2. Three Easy Things
BJ Fogg’s has experience with converting his behaviour design knowledge, gained from the commercial realm of tech to his own personal mission to change his life for the better.

His trial and error approach to adopting tiny easy-to-do habits has led him to some interesting discoveries. ‘I tinkered with the behaviours I wanted to incorporate in my own life. I did silly things that turned out to be wildly successful, like doing two press-ups every time I went to pee. I did seemingly rational things, like trying to eat an orange everyday at lunch, that failed,’ he says.

In his mission to change his life, he had to learn to create everyday habits, which wasn’t natural for him, even as a behaviour scientist. ‘But with practice I turned a weakness into a strength and six months later, I… lost twenty pounds and felt healthier and stronger. I was working more productively and better than ever before.’

As he transformed his life through a series of, mostly tiny, new habits, he realised that the key to success was in doing three key things:

‘Stop Judging Yourself; Take Your Aspirations And Break Them Down Into Tiny Behaviours; Embrace Mistakes As Discoveries And Use Them To Move Forward.’

3. Why Tiny Is Fast And Safe
As Fogg increased his own ability to change, his research, dating back to 2011, revealed that there are only three things that can be relied upon to create lasting change: ‘Have an epiphany, change our environment, or change habits in tiny ways,’ he says. The first thing is almost impossible to consciously generate in yourself or other people, but the second two can be harnessed easily.

‘The essence of Tiny Habits is this: Take a behaviour you want, make it tiny, find where it fits naturally in your life, and nurture its growth.’ The first reason for this is that ‘tiny is fast’.

It’s so common to feel that you don’t have time in your day to fit anything else in that it’s become a cliche. ‘We eat drippy hamburgers in our cars and take conference calls at the beach with our kids because we feel so pressed for time. This pressure leads to a scarcity mindset - we believe that there will never be enough time, so it becomes an automatic reflex to say no to changes,’ argues Fogg.

Enter the Tiny Habit. If you want to adopt a new healthy habit, or learn a new skill, then starting big – by going vegan overnight, or playing guitar for three hours a day – is almost doomed to fail. You’ll end up with falling off the wagon and gorging on bacon, or getting tendonitis, even if your motivation is sky high.

As Fogg points out: ‘No matter how much you want to cultivate a healthy habit, you won’t be able to do it reliably if you start big… Tiny allows you to get real with yourself and your life. Tiny allows you to start right now. It meets you where you are… Keeping changes small and expectations low is how you design around fair-weather friends like motivation and willpower.’

It’s also safe – making tiny changes has less potential for risk. You wouldn’t pack in your job to go live in Hawaii and assume you’ll become an extreme sports pro by learning to surf, but that outcome could be possible if you took up surfing in your spare time, first. And tiny can grow big:

‘One tiny action, one small bite, might feel insignificant at first, but it allows you to gain the momentum you need to ramp up to bigger challenges and faster progress.’

4. How To Add A Tiny Habit
How many times have you read something that made you think: ‘That’s a great idea, I’ll do that starting tomorrow!’ only for tomorrow to come and for you to have either forgotten all about it, or tried once and then abandoned it?

The chances are that you didn’t structure your impulse, your motivation into a new habit. For Fogg, the procedure to adopt a new tiny habit, is simple but effective: ‘Anchor, Behaviour, Celebration.’

He gives the example of starting to floss your teeth. It starts with the anchor moment – in this case brushing your teeth. Immediately after the anchor moment you add the new tiny habit, such as flossing a single tooth, and even if it feels this insignificant you must make sure you celebrate doing it.

This creates a positive emotion around the new habit, increasing the chances of you continuing with it. ‘Smile at yourself and feel good about creating a new habit,’ says Fogg. ‘In the days ahead, you can floss more than one tooth if you want, but view anything more than one tooth as extra credit. You are going above and beyond. You are an overachiever, and that’s good.’

Feeling positive about a new habit (rather than beating yourself up about not doing it well enough, or for long enough) is vital, according to Fogg’s research: ‘Emotions create habits. Not repetition. Not frequency. Not fairy dust. Emotions.’

He gives the example of Instagram filters. Using them is essentially adding work for yourself to the process of posting a photo. Sounds like the kind of thing most of us wouldn’t have extra time for, even if it is easy to use – right? So, why are they so popular?

‘You see your photo transform in front of your eyes like magic, and your photo isn’t merely a photo any more. You feel like you are sharing a unique artistic creation. You might even be surprised or impressed by your skills. When that happens, your brain releases dopamine, and you seek opportunities to use Instagram again because it feels good.’

‘When we hack into the ancient behavioural pathways in our brains, we gain unlimited access to the human potential for learning and change’

5. Why Habits Trump Decisions
‘When it comes to behaviour, decision and habit are opposites. Decisions require thinking, habits do not. ‘You probably decide what to wear to work every morning. But most people don’t decide how to drive to work everyday, they just slip into habit mode and drive to work on autopilot.’

Fogg’s research has revealed that it is positive emotions that drive a new behaviour along a sliding scale away from being a conscious, considered decision and into being an ingrained habit. This is also why it’s scarily easy to develop unhealthy and unproductive feel-good habits, such as binge-watching Netflix, or drinking soda everyday.

‘Your brain’s reward system is less influenced directly by our emotions and less directly by what society labels “good” and “bad”.’ But, the good news is we can use this to our advantage – how?

‘By intentionally creating feelings to wire in the habits that we actually want in our lives. When we hack into the ancient behavioural pathways in our brains, we gain unlimited access to the human potential for learning and change.’

6. Disrupting Bad Habits
Talking of bad habits, the tactic you should use for taking them down specifically is the same for building good habits – use tiny ones, but make them specific and relevant to your bigger aspirations.

For instance, if you want to consume less sugar, then going on a sugar-free diet overnight might work but will be fraught and full of things that can derail you, such as sugar hidden in foods, a family occasion where you can’t in all conscience refuse the cake, or willpower-sapping cravings.

Instead, Fogg recommends making the action specific and narrow – resolve to stop drinking that habitual can of soda at lunchtime, or buying chocolate from the supermarket every week. You may still bump into soda and chocolate, but forming a tiny habit will help you to be more aware of the sugar in other areas of your diet, and inspire you to find ways to cut it back.

‘You need to learn the skill of knowing which habits will have meaning to you’

7. Taking Habits From Tiny To Transformative
Once you’ve tried on a few tiny habits for size, you should start to get a sense for which might stick. To find a tiny habit that will grow into a transformative one, Fogg recommends learning: ‘The skill of knowing which habits will have meaning to you.’

He says that there are three things you can look for to help you do this: ‘The new habit affirms a piece of the identity that you want to cultivate; The new habit helps you reach an important aspiration; The new habit has a big impact despite being tiny.’

Dialling this process will help you to zero in on the habits that will count, and avoid wasting your time. It will also make you better at sticking to habits that are tricky to keep at: ‘The ones that teeter precariously between “I want to do it” and I should do it”,’ says Fogg.

As you become better at adopting habits you will learn the skill of ‘knowing when to push yourself beyond tiny and ramp up the difficulty of the habit.’ As the difficulty increases, so the gains will accelerate, feeding your motivation in a virtuous circle.

So, whatever your goals and aspirations, know that the first step can be tiny and you’ll still win…

WHAT NEXT? Want to know more about achieving your dreams, and how Japanese philosophy could help you get there? Then read RSNG’s guide to taking action…

’Tiny Habits, The Small changes That Change Everything’ by BJ Fogg PHD is available now at Amazon
Follow this article’s author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella