Making Good Habits Stick

I used to kick myself for lack of willpower when I fell back on bad habits or failed to keep good ones. But, according to behavioral scientist BJ Fogg, “I change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”

Celebrate Good Habits
An Old Dog Learns New Tricks

On Monday I read about a new way to convert dog years into human years. According to the old calculation I’m an 8-year-old dog. According to the new formula, I am 6 years and 7 months.

Either way, I am an old dog.

Yet, aside from learning the new dog age conversion trick, which I can’t remember how to do without referring to the instructions. I’ve successfully learned two new tricks, and turned them into habits.

Trick #1: After I get out of bed, I say the phrase, “It’s gonna be a great day.” (Don’t stop reading yet. I haven’t turned into a motivational speaker!)

Trick #2: After I comb my hair, I drink a 16 oz. glass of water.

Not Rocket Science

The ideas behind BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything aren’t rocket science. If you’re reading these words, you know that the journey from depression to well-being begins with a single small change.

What’s so damned frustrating is that we can’t seem to convince ourselves to make even the smallest change consistently!

There’s a simple reason for this.

Fear of Failure

It’s really not our fault that it feels much better to succeed than to fail. For thousands of years, the difference between success and failure was a matter of life or death, and since we’re descended from an unbroken lineage of people who survived long enough to have children, our brains naturally reward success.

Almost none of our failures are a matter of life or death. But, when we fail, we believe that others will think less of us. Or, if we fail in private, we’ll think less of ourselves. 

My friend Samantha Hess had a sentiment on one of the walls of her old studio: “What would you do if it was impossible to fail?”

BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits doesn’t make it impossible to fail. But, it makes it extremely easy to succeed, and it takes all the the sting out of failure.    

Take Your Aspirations and Break them Down into Tiny Behaviors

I’ve known since I was in grammar or high school that I was supposed to drink 8 glasses of water a day. And I did it for a while when a health-conscious co-worker got me to join her in draining 32 oz. bottles that we filled once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

But that was decades ago, and I stopped paying attention to water altogether until I heard a neuroscientist/nutritionist explain that the 8 glasses a day prevented brain dehydration, which can lead to fatigue or migraine headaches. I don’t get migraines, but it would be nice to experience less fatigue.

I already have a habit of keeping a 16 oz. glass by my desk while I work. Filling it with water and drinking it seems a tiny enough behavior to accomplish on the way to my 64 oz. aspiration. And it’s also a tiny enough that I won’t beat myself up if I forget.   

Find Where a Behavior Fits Naturally into Your Life

Everyone I’ve told about the habit of putting my feet on the floor, saying “It’s gonna be a great day,” and celebrating, thinks it’s silly. But, silly or not, each time I execute it, it reminds me both that I am capable of forming a new habit (even one that I don’t fully believe in) and carrying out the steps required to remember it.

After I put my feet on the floor is a natural time to say “It’s gonna be a great day.”

A natural opportunity for drinking 16 oz. of water occurs after I’ve dressed, peed, and combed my hair. There’s a sink beneath the mirror and the glass is in my office next door. 

So, after I…comb my hair.

I will…fill my 16 oz. glass with water and drink it. 

Nurture its Growth Through Celebration

I celebrate drinking the water by raising my hands in the air like a victorious Olympic athlete and saying “Woo-hoo!”

How we choose to celebrate is up to individual preference. I chose the same form of celebration that Olympic athletes use (plus the “Woo-hoo!”) because I remember hearing that it’s a form of celebration that exists in all cultures.

The reason for celebrating even tiny successes is that the good feeling cues the hippocampus to store the preceding event as a keeper.

To keep the water metaphor going, if we were wandering a desert dying of thirst, it would feel mighty good to find a water hole. And remembering where that water hole was located might be crucial to the survival of our tribe!  

Embrace Mistakes as Discoveries and Use Them to Move Forward

I have some pills that I’m supposed to take with a full glass of water later in the morning. So, that’s a second natural prompt in my day. But, I’ve had to experiment with prompts for the remaining 32 ounces.

Some complicating factors include schedule variability, the availability of bathroom facilities after the consumption of water, etc.

I don’t take any of my failed attempts personally. 

The aspiration to replenish needed water to ease mental fatigue seems worthwhile to me. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be an aspiration, and I could choose another habit. 

If I had trouble with drinking 16 oz. of water, I could make the task tinier by trying an 8 oz. or even a 4 oz. glass.

If I couldn’t even manage to stick the “It’s gonna be a great day!” habit, I could experiment with different forms of celebration. 

The idea is to look at the process as a scientist would. Every failure suggests a new experiment.   

Ten Minute Exercise

Another concept BJ Fogg introduces is called a Swarm of Bs. Here’s a ten minute version based on the aspiration for this website. 

1. Set a timer for 10 minutes. 

2. Take out a sheet of paper and something to write with. 

3. In the center of the piece of paper, draw a cloud and write down an aspiration. 

Example: Move from depression to well-being. 

4. Outside of the circle, make a list of behaviors that will work toward that aspiration. 

Examples: 

Soak up some sun

Move your body

Improve sleep habits

Breathe

Spend time with others 

Practice gratitude

5. Put a star by behaviors that you think you might actually do.

6. Of the star behaviors, which ones can you make tiny enough to do in thirty seconds or less?

Example: 

I will stand in the sunshine for ten seconds…

7. Match that habit to an existing habit in your day. For the sunshine habit, you’ll want to choose a time when you’re already outside. 

Examples: 

After I leave for work…

After I have lunch…

8. Test the habit.

Example:

After I leave for work.

I will stand in the sunshine for ten seconds.

Then I will celebrate by (doing a fist pump, saying YES!!!, raising my arms in a V like an Olympic athlete.)

Extra Credit

The book Tiny Habits goes into greater depth about why we behave the way we do, how to grow good habits, how to untangle bad habits, and how to use the process within organizations.

Here’s a brief explanation by BJ Fogg of why Baby Steps work. (2 minutes, 11 seconds.)

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.