I recently watched a TEDx video about behavioural change (Forget big change, start with a tiny habit). The presenter, BJ Fogg, PhD, caught my attention when he said relying primarily on motivation and willpower to change your long-term behaviour will not work. They work for short-term change but not for long-term change. How cool is that – beneficial change without willpower – or as I like to think of it – gain without pain!
So if it’s not motivation or willpower, how do we effect lasting behavioural change? Dr. Fogg said that in order to be sustainable a new behaviour has to be easy and it has to follow a trigger. People will do hard things for short periods of time if they are really motivated – like training for a marathon or following an extreme diet to lose weight for a special occasion. However, that motivation will eventually wane and they will stop doing the hard thing. If the behaviour is easy we don’t need much motivation, but we do need a trigger to remind us to do the new behaviour. The best triggers are things we already do on a regular basis like go to bed, brush our teeth, use the toilet.
About a year ago I started to mentally recite a gratitude list after I lay down in bed at night. After I close my eyes I list at least three things I am grateful for that day – small and big – a great parking space, a walk in the sunshine, my daughter home safely, whatever I can think of. Even on bad days I can come up with a list of three small things to be grateful for. I have tried to keep a written gratitude journal in the past, but it never lasted very long. So why has this gratitude habit stuck for the long-term when the journal didn’t?
According to Dr. Fogg, these three elements must happen at the same moment for behaviour to happen:
- There has to be some level of motivation – you want something
- You have the ability to do it
- There has to be a trigger or a call to action
My nightly gratitude habit has all three elements. I want to remind myself of the good things in my life, rather than focussing on what is missing or is not going well. I am able to do it. Perhaps most importantly though, is that there is a trigger to remind me to do it – closing my eyes in bed at night.
Dr. Fogg explains that there are many behaviours that can contribute to our desired outcomes and most of the behaviours that we need to do are habits. If better health is our desired outcome we can design tiny habits that lead to that outcome. I realized I had created a new tiny habit with my mental gratitude list and I wanted to try it with other things.
I liked Fogg’s personal example of doing two push-ups. I had been planning to add some strengthening exercises to my day and this was perfect. I’ve been doing at least two push-ups after I use the bathroom for a month now and it is becoming a habit. It’s a little tricky in public washrooms but if I can’t find a clean counter upon which to do two leaning push-ups, I just wait until next time. Sometimes I do more than two, but I only have to do two. Keeping it small and easy is what makes it work. Even with a bad cold I have managed two push-ups.
I may not be doing a full-on strength training regime, but I am consistently doing about 20 push-ups a day and that must have a better health outcome than the zero push-ups I was doing before.
If there are things you want to add to your life, you may want to try Fogg’s formula for establishing a tiny habit:
After I ______________ , (existing habit you do every day with the same frequency that you want the new behaviour to happen)
I will ________________ , (new tiny behaviour)