Change That Lasts — Helping Readers Adopt New Habits

fitnessjogIn an earlier post, I outlined the problems we face as writers who create books and other materials to promote behavior change. This post is about a solution.

Three Paths to Behavior Change

The most exciting discovery I’ve made in the last five years is the work of B.J. Fogg — psychologist, researcher, and founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. He pioneered the Tiny Habits program, which is based on the idea that three things lead to long-term change in human behavior:

  1. Experiencing an epiphany, or life-altering insight that resonates on a deep emotional level
  2. Changing your environment
  3. Taking” baby steps”—making small changes in behavior (almost absurdly small, in fact) that cascade over time into larger, enduring change

As authors, too many of us rely on #1. That’s unrealistic, says Fogg. Not only are epiphanies rare — they’re almost impossible to predict, create, or control. Our books might be good, but they’re not that good.

Though Fogg has a lot to say about #2 above, I’ll focus on #3. It has wide applications and is fun to boot.

The Nature of a Tiny Habit

Tiny Habits meet three criteria. They are behaviors that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Take less than 30 seconds
  • Require little effort

These criteria are based on two unflattering observations about human beings. First, we resist change. Two, we’re lazy. We like to avoid discomfort and effort — especially when they relate to large-scale changes in our behavior.

BJ’s solution is to plan behavior changes that require almost no time, no effort, no ability, no motivation, and no friction. For example:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my spouse.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
  • After I pee, I will do one push up.

The joy of this process is that Tiny Habits naturally expand into bigger changes. When you successfully floss one tooth, for example, you’re more likely to floss other teeth. Over time, your new behavior can make your dentist very happy.

Easy? Not!

When designing Tiny Habits, people often start with behaviors that are vaguely defined and too ambitious. It takes serious editing to specify habits that are truly tiny.

Notice also the structure of the three examples listed above. Tiny Habits work when they’re triggered by a habit that’s already part of your daily routine (“After I….”) Pairing the new behavior with an old one takes practice.

Rewards are also key to forming Tiny Habits. These can be as simple as saying YES to yourself after doing your new behavior. Getting this part of the program to work takes practice as well.

Fortunately, Fogg offers a free e-mail course that will guide you through the intricacies of Tiny Habits. It’s all based on three words: Simplicity changes behavior.

Deconstructing Our Ideas Into Tiny Habits

Let’s take the big ideas that we champion and translate them into Tiny Habits.

When we recommend a goal, outcome, policy, procedure, or “best practice,” let’s help our audiences deconstruct it into a series of small behavior changes.

Let’s give examples of those changes. And let’s suggest ways to experiment with triggers, behaviors, and rewards until people emerge with change that lasts.

If we can’t do this, then it’s time to take another look at our our content. And if we can help our audiences design for behavior change, then we have a potent sign that our stuff actually works.

Let’s Face It—Readers Resist Behavior Change

stemarie_nativeyouthAlmost all of the books I’ve worked on shared a singular purpose—to help people change their behavior. Though I was usually excited about these projects, I seldom escaped the nagging fear that the published product would have zero impact on readers’ lives.

Behavior change is the core rationale for business, self-help, popular psychology, and “how-to” books of every stripe. These are often written by idea entrepreneurs with a mission to change the world (or at least a corner of it), to create a legacy, and to make a pile of money in the process.

Alas, those hopes are easily dashed on the shores of sheer inertia. We’re pitted against readers who seldom have a clue about bridging the gap between theory and practice, between intention and action.

At War With Ourselves

People stubbornly resist behavior change. Even after exposure to grand and sweeping ideas, we find ourselves sinking back into the same old safe and familiar patterns. This is often true no matter how mediocre or painful the results. Books come and go, but problems persist.

To understand this, remember that the part of us which processes ideas and information from a book is the conscious mind. And this is a pitiful player against the mighty unconscious mind — including the force of habit — that actually runs our lives.

We like to think that we are free agents, making conscious choices that take us in sure, incremental steps toward greater happiness. In reality, we act like automatons. Most of the time, we simply repeat stimulus-response chains that were forged decades ago. We’re robots just running our programming, and the whole drama plays out below the threshold of conscious awareness.

Helping Readers Design for Behavior Change

This problem will persist until we explicitly address it. And that requires some ego-deflation. Let’s begin by admitting that our precious, sparkling ideas — even those that seem so obviously powerful and right to us — are seldom enough to make most readers lift a little finger.

We’re called upon to add a crucial missing ingredient to our content, which is an explicit design for behavior change. I use that word design on purpose. For one thing, it’s a term that’s emerged in connection with some exciting recent research on behavior change. In addition, it reminds us that behavior change calls for planning as well as implementation and feedback. Most of us will experiment, falter, fail, adjust, and tweak our efforts until we experience a change that lasts.

In my next post, I’ll suggest a way to help your audience to do just that.

Make Time to Write With Tiny Habits

The most common reasons that my clients give for failing to write are 1) lack of time and 2) procrastination. The Tiny Habits method solves both problems.

This method is the brainchild of B. J. Fogg, a psychologist at Stanford University. B. J. offers a free online course about habit change that I highly recommend. I’ll introduce his ideas here and suggest ways for writers to use them.

B. J. Fogg
B. J. Fogg


There’s an old saying: If you want to learn something new, then take it in “baby steps.” This is the crux of B. J.’s method. There are three key elements:

1. Trigger. This is a stimulus that cues a behavior. For example, you set an alarm (trigger) to cue a specific behavior—getting out of bed in the morning. The best triggers are things that happen every day for you.

2. Behavior. This is the new habit that you want to adopt. For B. J., the key is to make this behavior “stupid small”—something that’s easy to do and takes 30 seconds or less.

Let’s say that you want to develop a daily habit of flossing your teeth. For many people, the trigger for this behavior is the act of brushing their teeth.

If we set an intention to floss all our teeth after brushing, however, that’s not likely to happen. The behavior is too big. Instead, says B. J., make it your intention to floss only one tooth.

Sound silly? It did to me at first. But here’s the thing: Success with a tiny behavior change naturally expands. If you consistently floss one tooth every time that you brush, then you’ll find yourself flossing more teeth over time.

3. Celebration. Every time you successfully perform your tiny habit, congratulate yourself. Your reward doesn’t have to be dramatic. It just needs to be consistent and authentic. One option is to say something to yourself such as:

  • I am awesome.
  • I did it.
  • This is working.
  • Victory!
  • Success!

You might ask about the role of motivation and willpower in this method. The answer is: Little, if any. What matters most is good behavior design: trigger, tiny habit, and celebration.


To choose your tiny habit, describe it with a specific syntax:

After I… I will….

“After I” describes your trigger. “I will” describes your tiny habit. (What’s unstated—and still important—is remembering to celebrate.)

In the introduction to his Tiny Habits course, B. J. gives these examples:

  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
  • After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my workout clothes.
  • After I hear any phone ring, I will exhale and relax for two seconds.
  • After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day.


Consider the following possibilities for developing a daily writing habit, no matter how busy or lazy you claim to be:

  • After I get to my desk in the morning, I will write one sentence.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will dictate one sentence.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will open Microsoft Word.
  • After I sit down on the train, I will open my notebook.
  • After I close a book, I will write one comment on what I’ve just read.

Experiment and find out what works for you.

Changing Your Behavior in Baby Steps

B. J. Fogg is founder and director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. He researches ways to help people change habits with support from online services and mobile devices.

Fogg’s 3 Tiny Habits program is based on a single strategy: Spend a week adopting 3 new habits. And make sure that each habit is a “baby step”—a single, concrete behavior that you can do within 30 seconds. Examples are:

  • Floss one tooth
  • Practice one short chord sequence on your guitar
  • After your morning coffee, go for a 30-second walk

The idea is that baby steps can cascade into larger changes in behavior. After flossing one tooth, for example, you might find it easier to floss all your teeth.

Shortly after New Year’s Day 2012, Fogg spoke to a reporter from KQED about this. I found it fascinating. Some highlights from his speaking during the interview:

What a mistake—the whole idea around New Year’s resolutions. People aren’t picking specific behaviors, they’re picking abstractions.

The strength of a habit is defined, at least the way I see it, is how much of a decision was that behavior. So if you’re deciding ‘yeah, I’m going to go to the gym today’ it’s a pretty good indication it’s not a habit. Habits are things you do without deciding.

You declare victory. Like I am so awesome, I just flossed one tooth. And I know it sounds ridiculous. But I believe that when you reinforce yourself like that, your brain will say yeah, awesome, let’s do that.

If you really took the techniques for training dogs and applied it to yourself, you would have much better success. Now, I’m sure people are upset with me for saying that because people want to think we’re different from other animals. When it comes to behavior, we’re a lot more alike than people want to believe.

For more info and to sign up for the 3 Tiny Habits program, go here.

Charles Duhigg on How to Change a Habit

Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, has written a real book about habit change. As Timothy D. Wilson noted in his review of The Power of Habit:

Duhigg has read hundreds of scientific papers and interviewed many of the scientists who wrote them, and relays interesting findings on habit formation and change from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience. This is not a self-help book conveying one author’s homespun remedies, but a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.

So, how do you change a habit, anyway?

Ah, if only there were a simple formula. But there isn’t.

To be more precise, formulas do exist. The problem is that there are thousands of them.

The reason, Duhigg notes, is that “the specifics of diagnosing and changing the patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior. Giving up cigarettes is different than curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work.”

That said, Duhigg offers something even more useful than a formula. This is a framework for understanding how habits form—and how to run self-experiments in changing them.

That framework has four main steps. I’ll flesh it out with an example from Duhigg’s own experiments.

1. Identify the routine

The routine is the behavior that you unconsciously repeat—for example:

• Drinking a second or third glass of wine with dinner

• Grabbing the TV remote as soon as you get home from work

• Eating a cookie every afternoon at work

The latter was Duhigg’s  downfall. At about 3:30, he routinely took the elevator up to the Times employee cafeteria and consumed a cookie while chatting with colleagues.

When his wife made some pointed remarks about the eight pounds he’d gained, Duhigg decided it was time for a change.

2. Experiment with rewards

Habits get cemented in place because they deliver a reward. More specifically, they satisfy a craving.

The trick is to pinpoint the exact reward that’s involved. This isn’t always obvious, so prepare to run some self-tests.

Eating a cookie in the afternoon offers several possible rewards, such as:

A) Satisfying hunger

B) Getting a sugar-induced burst of energy

C) Taking a break from work to socialize with friends

If the reward is A, then eating an apple could suffice.

If B is the true craving, then a cup of straight coffee—with no fat and a fraction of a cookie’s calories—could satisfy the craving.

And if C is actually what’s driving the routine, then you could skip the cafeteria and cookie altogether. Just walk over to a colleague’s desk for a quick chat.

Step 2, then, involves changing the routine and keeping written notes about how you feel afterward.

3. Isolate the cue

Researchers discovered that routines are usually triggered by a cue—a specific event in your external or internal environment.

To isolate the cue, observe yourself over several days. Answer these questions about what happens right before you perform the routine:

• Where are you?

• What time is it?

• What’s your emotional state?

• Who else is around?

• What action preceded the urge?

4. Have a plan

Once you’ve pieced together your particular habit loop—routine, reward, and cue—you can actually change the habit. Plan for the cue and choose a different routine that delivers the reward you crave.

Duhigg discovered that his cue for eating a cookie was a specific time—roughly 3:30 p.m.

“I knew that my routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and chat with friends,” he notes. “And, through experimentation, I had learned that it wasn’t really the cookie I craved—rather, it was a moment of distraction and the opportunity to socialize.”

Armed with this data, Duhigg devised a simple plan and put it in writing: “At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.”

This was not an immediate fix. There were days when Duhigg relapsed into the familiar cookie habit.

Over a few weeks of repeated practice, however, the plan worked. Today Duhigg’s afternoon snack routine is only memory.

For more details, see this video for Duhigg’s first-hand account of his experiment with habit change.

Two Speech Habits That Kill Possibilities

As a writer, I worry about word choice. The ways that we speak can do more than  clarify or confuse. They can also open up possibilities—or put us on a path to needless suffering. Following are two examples and how to avoid them.

The language of resignation

Notice how many times you start a sentence with phrases such as:

  • I have to….
  • I’ve got to….
  • I really should….

These are all variations on the phrase I must. When speaking this way, we hypnotize ourselves into believing that we are victims—that we have no options in a given situation. Psychotherapist Albert Ellis called it “musterbation.” I call it resignation.

In a wonderful post, Michael Hyatt offers a simple and powerful alternative. In place of I must or any of its variations, substitute I get to. For instance:

  • “I have to exercise this morning” becomes “I get to exercise this morning.”
  • “I’ve got to go to work” becomes “I get to go to work.”
  • “I really should see my dentist” becomes “I get to go see my dentist.”

If you think this sounds a tad corny, just try it. The resulting shift in attitude is subtle but significant.

The fact that you get to exercise means that you’re still alive, still able-bodied, and still capable of aerobic movement. Can any of these things truly be taken for granted?

The fact that you get to go to work means that you’re still employed. Even if you hate your job, the fact that you’re working any job will make it easier to get your next job. (See Richard Bolle’s excellent book, The Job-Hunter’s Survival Guide: How to Find a Rewarding Job Even When “There Are No Jobs.”)

The fact that you get to see your dentist means that you have access to health care—and dental care that’s more gentle, overall, than at any time in human history.

I get to opens the door to expressing gratitude—a strategy for increasing happiness.

The language of identification

A second experiment: Notice what you say in response to the question How are you? Depending on the day, you might say:

  • I am exhausted.
  • I am angry.
  • I am sad.

The problem with such sentences is that they identify you with an unpleasant emotion. You become the exhaustion. You are the anger. You are fused with the sadness.

If you ever choose to practice mindfulness meditation, you’ll learn another subtle but significant shift. As a meditator, you simply witness what arises in your mind or body.  You also discover that thoughts and bodily sensations are constantly changing. And, as Steve Hagen explains in Buddhism Plain and Simple, anything that changes is not “you.”

Think about it: The notion of self implies something that is stable and unchanging—something that persists in the midst of change. From this perspective, the thoughts and sensations that make up emotions such as exhaustion, anger, and sadness are not your self.

So, let’s speak in a way that acknowledges this. Take a cue from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which recommends language for defusing from thoughts and sensations:

  • “I am exhausted” becomes “I’m noticing exhaustion.”
  • “I am angry” becomes “I’m having angry thoughts.”
  • “I am sad” becomes “There’s sadness again.”

Do you see how tweaking those sentences puts a little space between you and the emotions?

Defusing reminds you that a sensation is present but not forever—that a thought is present but that you are more than that thought (or any thought, for that matter).

But if we are not our thoughts or our sensations, then what are we? Damned if I know. That’s another post.

Creative Habit: Capture Ideas in a Big Text File

Creative people are not necessarily smarter than the rest of us. All of us get great ideas. However, creative people excel at capturing those ideas so they’re not forgotten.

In her wonderful book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, choreographer Twyla Tharp states that creativity is fueled by rituals—intentional, repeated behaviors. Habits, in other words.

One of her habits is to start a creative project by filling a box with background materials—books, handwritten notes, relevant clippings from magazines, CDs, and anything else that looks useful. She fills at least one box for each project.

The more geeky types among us use software such as Evernote—rather than boxes—to gather capture ideas.

My philosophy is to keep it simple. I just use a Big Text File (BTF).

Ideas for articles, blog posts, and books go in the BTF.

Lists of books I want to read go in the BTF.

Names, addresses, phone numbers, project lists, to-do items, menus, quotations, websites to check, and anything else that occurs to me on the run—all get dumped in the same place.

The BTF.

Note that BTF is singular, not plural. I only have one. When I want to find something that I noted earlier, I always go to the same place—the BTF.

Tracking your ideas in one BTF means:

  • Eliminating the need for new software. You’re already using software to write, right? Use it for your BTF.
  • Eliminating the extra expense for new software (flows from benefit #1).
  • Eliminating the leaning curve for new software (also flows from benefit #1).
  • Using the most platform-independent digital format (text).
  • Using the easiest-to-search digital format (text).
  • Using the least memory-intensive digital format (text).

Plus, you never have to edit this file. If you want to find a specific piece of information, just use the “find” command in your word processor or text editor. Search your BTF with keywords, just like you search the Internet.

In short, you never have to “get organized.” With a BTF and the “find” command, you are organized.

If you want slightly more structure, you can begin each note with a category tag (like the category tags in right-hand column on this page). Then you can alphabetize your BTF by tags.

In any case, plain text is sexy.

Image by Robbert van der Steeg, Flickr Creative Commons