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Tiny Habits: The Secret to Making Habits Stick

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You wake up one morning and feel like a complete slob. You decide that today is the day to start getting fit again. You get a wave of motivation and decide it’s time to get your beach bod back.

You dust off those Nikes you bought a year ago (but worn once), put them on and embark on the 10km run that is going to mark the start of the brand new you!

Make it to 1km, lungs about to collapse, and you decide “this is just too bloody hard”. You quit.

 Man walking down a road in Monument Valley

Photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash

The Traps That Prevent Sustainable Change

If that sounds about right, you and so many others are not alone!

The first problem with the above scenario is the all-or-nothing trap where you think you have to do it all (in this case, go from zero to 10km) or do nothing at all. There is no grey area, no incremental change. This type of thinking keeps us from achieving sustainable change as we bounce between trying to achieve perfection immediately and “falling off the wagon”.

Secondly is the problem of relying on motivation to drive this new activity. Unfortunately, motivation waxes and wanes, so any initial burst of enthusiasm is unlikely to last long, and after it fizzles out, there wouldn’t be any other systems in place to keep the habit going.

How Do We Make Habits Stick?

B.J. Fogg, a psychologist and researcher at Standard University who has studied behaviour change for over 20 years, has come up with a fool proof method for making habits stick – a method and a program known as Tiny Habits.  

Fogg believes that habit formation is just a matter of building automaticity. Tiny habits rely less on motivation and willpower and more on training your brain to succeed at tiny, easy-to-do tasks that are almost impossible to fail at. Basically, the tinier the habit, the higher the chance of success.

With that ongoing success, you start to feel good about yourself, and it is these small shifts that create more dramatic and lasting results in habit formation.

So how exactly does this magical method work? Fogg breaks down the method into three steps:

1. Start tiny

The first step and most crucial part of Fogg’s Tiny Habits method is keeping the habits teeny-tiny – so tiny that it borders on ridiculous. He also has three rules for these habits:

  1. They should be done at least once a day,
  2. They should take less than 30 seconds to complete
  3. They should require little effort.

The example he gives is flossing your teeth. Instead of taking five minutes to meticulously floss every tooth in your mouth, start by flossing one tooth.

Yup. Just one tooth.   

Sounds a bit like a joke, but think about it – because flossing a single tooth is so ridiculously easy, you need almost no willpower or motivation to get it done. Plus, any excuse you could potentially come up with – too time consuming, too difficult, etc. – you’ll have to admit is rubbish.

So if you’ve been meaning to start meditation, sit for one minute. Want to read before bedtime? Read one page. Been meaning to get back into kettlebell training? Start with one kettlebell swing.

2. Find the right anchor for your new habit

Tiny habits are designed to be done right after an existing habit – something you do every day without fail. Think taking a shower, eating, waking up or getting dressed.

In this way, you are using the existing habit to trigger that new tiny habit that you wish to establish. For example, in the case of flossing, the natural anchor for flossing that single tooth can be the act of brushing your teeth.

Though teeth brushing is a natural anchor for something like flossing, the anchor and tiny habit don’t always have to be so closely connected. To build upper body strength, Fogg anchored doing push ups to doing a piss.

When he first started this tiny habit, he did just two push ups, and only increased the number when the two became too easy. He was able to do that because he worked mostly from home, but if you’re someone who spends most of the day working in an office, might be a bit awkward…

3. Celebrate

Reward yourself each time, immediately after you successfully engage in your tiny habit. It can be as small as giving yourself a pat on the shoulder.

It might seem silly to make a big deal out of a habit so small – especially if you’re flossing one tooth, but that’s the point. When you exaggerate a little in your head, you trick your brain into thinking that your success is bigger than it really is, which then builds up a positive attitude towards the habit.

Just keep in mind that you aren’t celebrating the results, but the fact that you showed up and took another step forward in improving your life.

Woman during crunches on a yoga mat

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash


Staying On Track

Of course, if the tiny habit stays tiny forever, you’ll always have tiny results. The idea is once that tiny habit – whether it’s doing one kettlebell swing, flossing one tooth or reading one page – becomes easy and part of your daily routine, you can start to increase the habit.

The key is to make sure the habit is easy and achievable. Keep your increments small. Once a single kettlebell swing becomes easy, move to two – not five – until two becomes a breeze. Don’t be in a rush to bang out 50 (even if that may be your ultimate goal), because remember: building habits takes time.