A Stanford University behavior scientist’s elegant three-step method for creating new habits

Same job, new commute.
Same job, new commute.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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If you hate the monotony of running on the treadmill, but drag yourself to the cardio room daily, believing self-torture will eventually become a habit—that’s not heroic; it’s bad design.

According to B.J. Fogg, a behavior scientist and researcher at Stanford University who has studied behavior change for more than 20 years, doing something you don’t enjoy and subsequently failing to make it habitual is actually more detrimental to a mission for change than doing nothing at all. To create a real lifelong habit, the focus should be on training your brain to succeed at a small adjustments, then gaining confidence from that success, he argues. To do that, one needs to design behavior changes that are both easy to do and can be seamlessly slipped into your existing routine. Aim for automaticity.

As proof of this concept, Fogg points to the massive experiments for which we’ve all been the lab rats: the success of tech giants like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, companies that have made fortunes testing—and figuring out—how to make millions of people use their products as automatic habits. This is Fogg’s area of expertise at Stanford, where he researches the ways computers (including mobile phones) can persuade humans, a field known as captology (from CAPT, “computers as persuasive technology,” a term Fogg coined). He also directs the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab and runs “persuasion boot camps” for industry professionals.

To help people figure out how to make new behaviors they actually want as routine as turning to Google to search the web, he developed the Fogg Method, which references several psychological theories and is comprised of three key steps. The first is about identifying your specific desired outcome: Do you want to feel less stressed at work? Lose 10% of your bodyweight?

Next, identify the easy-win behaviors—he calls them “tiny habits”—that will put you on the path to that goal. (This requires introspection, because the going method for reducing stress may not be the behavior that will work for you, Fogg emphasized in an interview with NPR last year. Maybe you’d find short walks more meditative than meditating, for instance, or perhaps jogging with your retriever sounds more inviting than lacing up for a spin class.)

Finally, find a trigger—something that you already do as a habit—and graft the new habit onto it. That might mean putting out an apple on the counter every time you start the coffeemaker in the morning, Fogg explained to NPR. “Notice I didn’t say eat the apple,” he added. Let’s not get crazy.

In an online Tiny Habits program that Fogg provides for free, he sends followers sample recipes for commonly held goals related to lifestyle topics like productivity, relationship building, or health. One such recipe: “After I finish brushing my teeth, I will floss one tooth.”

You can see where this is going. Tiny Habits works by designing out the need to feel highly motivated to get a task done. Motivational levels come and go with the wind, but flossing a single tooth is achievable no matter the emotional weather. Besides, most days you’ll find yourself flossing a few other teeth because—well, why not? One day your goal might be to simply put on your sneakers the minute you start the dishwasher in the evening. Slowly, naturally, you’ll start walking, too, and adding other, more ambitious goals to your routine.

That said, there’s one other flourish necessary to making this hack work, says Linda Fogg-Phillips, B.J.’s sister, a former health coach who now runs the online program. After carrying through with a tiny step, participants in the online seminar are instructed to give themselves a celebratory pat on the back. That might be by saying, “Yay,” or “Victory,” for example.

The organizers admit it sounds goofy to celebrate because you managed to floss a single tooth, or do a push-up after using the bathroom (another popular recipe), but, Fogg-Phillips tells Quartz, “You’re rewriting your identity as someone who succeeds.”

More than 28,000 people have completed the five-day free program. In exit interviews, 80 to 90% of graduates say they feel confident about their ability to change their habits, according to Fogg-Phillips. More than two-thirds of their participants report they’ve also noticed other, unexpected improvements. One woman set a goal to pick up one piece of garbage or misplaced item from her car every time she parked in her garage, for example; she soon found she was straightening out her house, too.

According to Fogg-Phillips, the ripple effect is common, and psychologists aren’t sure exactly why it happens. One theory: Thanks to the small victories, says Fogg-Phillips, people might consciously or subconsciously break down other barriers in their lives.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that B.J. Fogg teaches at Stanford’s computer science department. In fact, Fogg’s current appointment is in the Graduate School of Education. He is the director of the Persuasive Tech Lab, as was stated, and he previously taught in the computer science department.