Reverse your bad habits with just a handful of tiny changes
A Stanford scientist puts a new spin on the self-help movement.
The following is an excerpt adapted from Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg.
On a work trip to Ghana, Juni (whose sweet tooth was legendary) went looking for a place to buy ice cream at seven a.m. After reminding her that she was in West Africa, her colleagues asked why on earth she wanted ice cream for breakfast.
“Because I’m a grown woman, and I can eat whatever I want,” she replied.
When Juni tells that story now, she shakes her head in disbelief. How could it have taken so long to recognize what was really going on? It wasn’t just ice cream for breakfast, it was a double caramel macchiato for lunch, an onion-flavored corn snack (Funyuns!) for commercial breaks, and more ice cream for dinner — separate behaviors that were an intricate part of her day that amounted to a big problem for her health and happiness.
Juni’s denial about the extent of her sugar habit is surprising to her in retrospect, but at the time, she was focused on other things and was incredibly disciplined in almost every other part of her life. In addition to being a successful radio host, she was an avid runner. In fact, she first signed up for Tiny Habits because her goal was to run the Chicago Marathon. During her initial sessions, Juni created a handful of new habits to help strengthen her core to improve her running times. Those new Tiny Habits went so well that she started creating other habits related to productivity at work, and she even adopted some healthy eat- ing measures that kept some of her sugar pangs at bay.
But then her mom died in 2015.
A focused, get-’er-done kind of woman like her daughter, June died of complications directly related to diabetes. Juni flew to Alabama to help her oldest sister make all the final arrangements. Her six siblings — the youngest was just nineteen — were devastated and leaned heavily on Juni. Despite the stress and her own profound sadness, Juni tried to be strong for them, but that took its toll. So when her husband asked what she needed when she got home, Juni didn’t hesitate. “I need bubblegum ice cream from Baskin-Robbins.”
Two years later and fifteen pounds heavier, Juni realized her unresolved grief, was surging. After her mother’s funeral, Juni jumped right back into her busy life. Two kids, a job, a marriage. The needs of her eleven-year-old autistic son seemed to grow in tandem with her rising stress levels. Looking back on it, Juni realizes that the loss of her mother was always in the background as she charged forward and made it through each day at any cost. Instead of confronting her sadness, Juni fed her grief cookie-dough ice cream and cake, which only made the inevitable sugar crash twice as painful.
Sugar eventually started to impede on her life in ways that even Juni could no longer deny. Carrying the extra weight made running harder, and she felt jittery and foggy at work. As a radio talk show personality, she had to be able to riff on responses to questions and field surprise callers who had something wacky to say. In the midst of a sugar high, she was energized, but she also felt scattered and unable to focus.
Juni joined my Behavior Design Boot Camp hoping for professional insights she could share with her team, but she came away realizing that she could apply all of the techniques to her own well-being. Reinvigorated, Juni covered the walls of her office at home with paper and got out the markers. She identified an aspiration for every area of her life, then did a Swarm of Behaviors, then Focus Mapped the heck out of it all. In the last blank space, Juni wrote stop eating sugar and circled it. She stepped back and drew in a deep breath.
This was it.
This was the most important transformative behavior she could do. But it was something she would have to design out of her life. She got a little tingle on the back of her neck and knew that this was the hardest race she’d ever signed up for.
The only snag in her plan was that the boot camp and Tiny Habits hadn’t focused on breaking a bad habit; she’d learned only how to create new ones. But because Juni was nothing if not disciplined, smart, and bold, she figured she could use the Behavior Model to reverse engineer these behaviors out of her life.
So that’s what she did.
She put specific sugar-eating habits — “I eat ice cream every night for dinner” — on the Behavior Model and figured out the mechanics of motivation, ability, and prompt that were causing her to surge over the Action Line. She realized that fatigue and grief were prompting her to eat sugar. Juni was also using sugar to help keep herself on her toes. And then she would miss her mom, which always seemed to prompt a binge.
To tackle the sugar monster, Juni tried ridding her house of sugary snacks. She tried ignoring her fatigue or replacing ice cream with pretzels, and she stocked her car with an emergency stash of sugar-free snack bars. When she got sad about her mom, Juni would play Pokémon Go instead of eating.
What ultimately worked for Juni was addressing her grief prompt at its root. She first created a handful of positive habits — journaling and reaching out to friends through social media — which helped her mourn her mother in a way that processed the grief instead of suppressing it. The more she dealt with her grief in a healthy way, the better she felt, and her motivation to do her positive habits became stronger. As Juni started to increase the time between sugary snacks, she saw opportunities for celebrating those small successes. Juni could go one meal without eating sugar at first. Then she could go a couple of hours. This might not seem like much, but Juni knew that she had to lower her expectations. And those moments felt like victories to her.
Knowing the importance of harnessing the feeling of success, Juni celebrated when she went one day without sugar. A huge milestone. Even though she wasn’t always perfect, she continued on this path until she completed an entire week without eating any sugary snacks.
Juni knew the importance of being flexible and iterative, and she experimented with dozens of new habits. She was challenged by special occasions where sugar was everywhere, and if she occasionally succumbed to the siren call of cookie-dough ice cream, she wasn’t too hard on herself — she looked at it as a challenge to study and hack. She came up with work-arounds for moments of vulnerability, and through trial and error, she discovered what worked and what didn’t while she remained compassionate with herself and celebrated her wins.
These wins compounded quickly, and Juni’s multipronged approach started to pay off and made her feel as if she could choose to eat sugar or not. Her addiction had held her hostage, and now she knew she could change that. Juni had completed Behavior Design Boot Camp in March. At the end of May, she sent me an e-mail telling me that she had done it.
Juni had beaten sugar.
When Juni told me that she had stopped her sugar habit using the skills learned through Behavior Design and Tiny Habits, I was proud of her, and it inspired me to share my methods on stopping bad habits more widely. I had found success stopping my own bad habits throughout the years, but I had kept my focus on helping people create new positive habits. I was also hesitant to wade into the territory of bad habits too deeply because I am not an addiction specialist, and conversations about bad habits often quickly turn to substance abuse and compulsive behaviors. I didn’t want to take on the role of a therapist or a medical doctor. I knew that Tiny Habits is not the answer to serious addictions. But for people with bad habits that are not serious addictions, I have good news: Tiny Habits can be game changing.
A helpful way to think about habits is to put them into three categories. I’m talking about all habits here — good and bad. Uphill Habits are those that require ongoing attention to maintain but are easy to stop — getting out of bed when your alarm goes off, going to the gym, or meditating daily.
Downhill Habits are easy to maintain but difficult to stop — hitting snooze, swearing, watching YouTube.
Freefall Habits are those habits like substance abuse that can be extremely difficult to stop unless you have a safety net of professional help.
To help you get rid of your Downhill Habits, I’ve created a new system called the Behavior Change Masterplan. This system provides a comprehensive approach to follow step by step so you don’t need to guess at solutions.
My plan is built — of course — on the Behavior Model.
B=MAP is the foundation for designing new habits and saying good- bye to habits that are holding you back. In previous chapters, we focused on how to make things easier. Now we’ll talk about how to make them harder (decreasing ability). Instead of building in effective prompts, you’ll look for ways to remove them. Instead of trying to ramp up your motivation, you’ll consider ways to reduce it for an unwanted habit.
Before we jump into the Behavior Change Masterplan, let’s step back and deconstruct how we’ve been taught to view bad habits. This is a major part of the problem, after all.
Like positive habits, bad habits exist on a continuum of easy to change and hard to change. When you get toward the “hard” end of the spectrum, note the language you hear — breaking bad habits and battling addiction. It’s as if an unwanted behavior is a nefarious villain to be aggressively defeated. But this kind of language (and the approaches it spawns) frames these challenges in a way that isn’t helpful or effective. I specifically hope we will stop using this phrase: “break a bad habit.” This language misguides people. The word “break” sets the wrong expectation for how you get rid of a bad habit. This word implies that if you input a lot of force in one moment, the habit will be gone. However, that rarely works, because you usually cannot get rid of an unwanted habit by applying force one time.
Instead of “break,” I suggest a different word and a different analogy. Picture a tangled rope that’s full of knots. That’s how you should think about unwanted habits like stressing out, too much screen time, and procrastinating. You cannot untangle those knots all at once. Yanking on the rope will probably make things worse in the long run. You have to untangle the rope step by step instead. And you don’t focus on the hardest part first. Why? Because the toughest tangle is deep inside the knot.
You have to approach it systematically and find the easiest knot to untangle.
Juni first listed all the tangles in her sugar-habit knot. Then she addressed the most accessible one — going without dessert after dinner on only one day, then two days. Next, she got rid of her break-room ice cream stash. Eventually, she worked up to removing the ice cream from her home freezer. The process of untangling soon gained momentum. What felt so scary before — dealing with grief without sugar — started to feel less panic inducing. Successfully making it through one evening without dessert showed her something important — that she was stronger than she thought. Just as important, she began to see how all the tangles were connected. And that’s when things began to transform rapidly. If she had followed conventional wisdom on breaking bad habits — swapping out a donut for a celery stick — she probably would have given up before long because doing something by willpower alone is hard, and hard is often impossible to sustain. Plus, if you don’t want to do a behavior in the first place (if she didn’t really want celery), then the good habit won’t wire in. And then she would have felt terrible about falling short, and this would have reinforced a cycle of failure.
The inability to stop a bad habit can provoke deep feelings of shame and guilt. Why? In many cultures there is a lot of weight put on personal responsibility — the idea that if you can’t do the right thing you must be suffering from some weakness of character. This is reductive and unhelpful in the realm of behavior change, but it’s also deeply embedded in our psyches.
The first thing to remember is this: If you’ve followed some misguided advice on breaking habits and failed, I’m here to say it’s not your fault. You have inherited a flawed way of thinking and approaching the problem that has led to a cycle of frustration and dysfunction.
The second thing to remember is that you can design for the change you want in a smarter, better way.
And that’s why I’m writing this chapter for you.
It’s time to set the record straight and acknowledge that bad habits are not fundamentally different from good habits when it comes to basic components. Behavior is behavior; it’s always a result of motivation, ability, and a prompt coming together at the same moment.
The Behavior Change Masterplan
My masterplan has three phases for disrupting unwanted habits.
You create new positive habits first. Then you focus on stopping specific behaviors related to the old habit. If stopping doesn’t work, move on to phase three, which is all about swapping in a new habit to replace the old one.
There are more steps within each of these phases, which I’ve mapped out in flowcharts in the appendixes. (They were too detailed to include here.)
Traditional change methods (the ones that work, anyway) also fit in my overall masterplan. Consider motivational interviewing, a counseling method that helps clients get clear on their motivations. This is one of the few traditional approaches I find worthwhile. People who experience motivational interviewing can better understand their reasons for doing or not doing a behavior.
The use of accountability partners can serve various roles. On the surface, being accountable to someone seems to be all about motivation. Yes, motivation plays a big role, but when done well, the use of accountability partners can also affect your ability. A partner can give you ideas on how to make your unwanted behavior harder to do or even impossible. If you’re trying to cut down screen time, an accountability partner might suggest you install a timer that turns off your Wi-Fi at eight p.m. That makes surfing the web late harder to do. (Thank you, accountability partner.)
The masterplan shows where a proven change method might fit in with a more comprehensive system for untangling your unwanted habits, and it specifies the order of things. It’s not merely a list of techniques or a set of guidelines; it’s something more powerful: an algorithm for creating change in your life by untangling habits that are causing you pain.
Are you ready?
PHASE #1 — FOCUS ON CREATING NEW HABITS
First some good news.
By reading this book and practicing Tiny Habits, you are already on your way to disrupting unwanted habits. Creating new positive habits is phase one of the Behavior Change Masterplan, and by focusing on this first, you learn the Skills of Change and see evidence that you can change, and this gives you more power to untangle habits you don’t want in your life.
Skills of Change
Remember how many of Juni’s new habits focused directly on her sugar addiction?
None of them.
Juni “skilled up” by practicing habits that did not carry emotional baggage. The new habits were safe and nonthreatening. This allowed her to learn the Skills of Change without emotional distraction.
Let’s suppose you have struggled with your body weight for years. Maybe you were ridiculed for being overweight. Perhaps even your medical doctor makes you feel awful at each visit. So you might think weight loss should be your number one focus.
I champion a different approach in Phase #1. Don’t focus first on weight loss or whatever is causing you pain. Create habits that relate to some other domain instead — tidiness, relationships, creativity, or anything that doesn’t relate to your body weight.
It’s much better to first build your skills and gain mastery over the change process itself. In Phase #1 you should create habits that build on your strengths. That’s how you succeed quickly, and that’s how you best learn the Skills of Change — by adding key skills and insights for the road ahead. But there’s more.
When you create a host of positive changes, you move closer to the person you want to become. If you feel successful in these changes, you will naturally view yourself differently and begin to embrace a new identity. In the last chapter, we talked about how this leads to more positive habits. But it also has the side effect of crowding out the behaviors you don’t want, the ones no longer in line with the identity you are embracing and the person you are becoming. As Sukumar added more and more exercise behaviors, certain bad habits got phased out. He took the stairs instead of the elevator now because he thought of himself as the kind of person who did that. Watching TV in the evenings morphed from a habit to an occasional indulgence because his evenings were spent playing racquetball with a friend or going for a walk with his wife and their dog. Sukumar didn’t exactly plan on disrupting these bad habits. But by picking up a bunch of positive habits that helped him embrace a new identity, he changed the landscape of his life so drastically that many bad habits no longer fit.
If adding good habits to your life resolved all your unwanted behaviors, we could stop here. But weeds crop up in even the best-tended garden, so let’s continue.
It’s helpful to view phase one as a time of preparation. I know the word “preparation” sounds boring and tedious. But this phase can be fun if you pick new habits you enjoy and celebrate your successes. Your new habits, new skills, and new identity will be important as you move to phase two. That’s when you stare that tangled knot in the face and design your strategy.
PHASE #2 — DESIGN FOR STOPPING A HABIT
The previous chapters have explained how to design your way into a habit, but you can also design your way out of a habit, and the Behavior Model will again be your foundation.
You can stop a behavior by altering any of the three components of the Behavior Model. You can decrease motivation or ability, or you can remove the prompt.
Making any one of those changes for the long term will stop the habit. Sound easy?
Well, yes and no.
Most people could easily stop their Uphill Habits of daily exercise or getting out of bed at five a.m. But you’re not reading this because you want to stop those kinds of habits. You want to stop the Downhill Habits that are making you less healthy and happy.
Get specific to stop a habit
When it comes to stopping a bad habit, a common mistake is trying to motivate yourself toward an abstraction, such as “stop stressing out at work” or “stop eating junk food.” Those both sound specific, but they are not. They are abstract labels for a tangle of habits, what I call the General Habit. If you focus only on the General Habit, you probably won’t make much progress, just like if you focus on the entire knot at once, you can’t untangle it. You need to focus on specific tangles in order to make progress. That means finding specific habits to focus on. And the Swarm of Behaviors model will help you do that.
Write the General Habit that you want to stop in the cloud.
Then list specific habits that contribute to the general one in the boxes surrounding the cloud. To show you what this looks like, I’ve filled out the next illustration for the General Habit of eating too much junk food.
Why these steps matter
If you focus only on your General Habit, you will probably feel frustrated or intimidated, and this can cause avoidance: I don’t have time right now or I’ll do it later.
However, after you list specific habits that relate to your general habit, untangling this big bad habit will feel more manageable.
When I first used this process to stop an unwanted habit, I was surprised that I could list more than fifteen specific things that contributed to my general habit of leaving things out of place around the house. Let me warn you here: After listing so many specific habits of being untidy at home, I felt kinda bad about myself. I was a bit surprised by the enormity of my clutter habit. Really? Was I that sloppy? Yes, I apparently was.
When you apply this method, I don’t want this temporary dark feeling to surprise you. It seems to happen with most people who follow this process because they are facing the reality of their bad habit. However, the dark feeling can soon turn around. As I looked over my specific habits of not being tidy, I found some I could untangle quickly and easily: Yes, I could stop leaving sweaters on the dresser, and I could stop stacking books on the kitchen counter. And that made my dark feeling go away.
With this plan, I felt in control. In fact, I started feeling quite optimistic. And that’s what you can expect as well. And with your early successes (no more sweaters on the dresser), you’ll be able to tackle some harder tangles.
So I’m saying this: When you see a bunch of specific habits to untangle, don’t stop there. And don’t get overwhelmed. Keep going. Pick one tangle and design it out of your life. But which specific habits should you tackle first?
The answer is so important, I’ll say it three times in different ways: Pick the easiest one. Pick the one you are most sure you can do. Pick the one that feels like no big deal.
People are often tempted to pick the hardest, stickiest habit to unwind, but that is a mistake. That’s like trying to untangle the tightest snarl deep inside a big knot. Start with the specific habit that will be the easiest for you to stop instead.
And it’s fine to pick more than one specific habit to unwind. The choice is yours, but whatever you decide, don’t overwhelm yourself. Remember that you are practicing the Skills of Change and learning along the way. Save the tough stuff for when you have more skills and momentum. You’ll find that subsequent snarls get easier to untangle as you gain know-how and confidence. And you might not need to address all of your specific habits because some of them will fall away on their own.
The steps here reflect the Behavior Design process I explained earlier in the book. Except now, for stopping a behavior, we are flipping things around. We are reverse engineering the habit. That means we map out what already exists in order to untangle it. In both situations — whether starting or stopping habits — designing for specific behaviors (instead of abstractions) is essential. When you have selected the specific habit you want to stop (the B in B=MAP), move on to the next step. Remember that if you remove motivation, ability, or prompt you can stop the specific habit, and my research shows there is an optimal order in this process. You start with the prompt. And that’s our next step in the Behavior Change Masterplan.
Focus on the Prompt to Stop a Habit
Sometimes all you need to do is tackle the prompt and you’re done, and there are three ways to do this: remove the prompt, avoid the prompt, or ignore the prompt.
Remove the prompt
Removing the prompt is the simplest option for stopping an unwanted habit. And the best way to remove a prompt is to redesign your environment.
Let’s say that you want to stop checking social media while you are at work. You can turn off your phone, put it on airplane mode, or turn off notifications for the social media app. Any of these will remove contextual prompts. And that might resolve the habit right there.
A Tiny Habit Recipe for this would be After I sit down at work, I will turn off notifications for my social media app.
You could also remove the social media app from your phone. This is a one-time behavior, which is usually more effective than a daily action because it’s done only once and there’s no need to wire in a habit.
When you’re designing to undo prompt, you can either use the Tiny Habits method to remove the prompt on a regular basis, or you can do a one-time behavior that removes the prompt forever. When it comes to using social media, the Tiny Habits approach might be better because using social media on your train ride home from work can sometimes be relaxing, so deleting the app entirely might not be the best path.
Avoid the prompt
If you can’t remove the prompt for your bad habit, then try avoiding the prompt. If you want to end your habit of grabbing a sugary pastry with your morning coffee, stop going to the coffee shop and make coffee at home, where there’s no built-in temptation.
Ways to avoid prompts include:
+ Don’t go places where you will be prompted
+ Don’t be with people who will prompt you
+ Don’t let people put prompts in your surroundings
+ Avoid media that prompts you
You’ll remember how one of my Tiny Habit Recipes helps me avoid eating too much bread at a restaurant. When the server approaches, I say, “No bread, please.” In that way, I take control of my context, and I can avoid the prompt of a bread basket on my table.
However, you might not be able to avoid all situations where you are prompted. What if you work at a coffee shop that sells pastries or the person prompting you is your boss and you can’t avoid her?
Ignore the prompt
Your final option is ignoring the prompt, but this relies on willpower, which can be problematic because you have to exert extra effort to ignore a prompt for a habit above the Action Line (i.e., when you have sufficient motivation and ability).
But you’ve done this before. Despite being prompted to indulge, you have resisted and pushed back. But you can say no to the prompt only so many times before your willpower weakens. You can say no to a drink at a party one or two times. But if people constantly offer you a drink (and you want one), you might eventually cave in. This is because with each “ask” that you resist, you’re relying on willpower.
This is especially true when you are anxious. You forgot your healthy breakfast at home one morning, and you’re not going to make it through your meetings without something to eat so you grab that blueberry muffin at the coffee shop. Or you have a moment of anxiety and your urge to escape on social media soars.
Ignoring a prompt is probably not the best solution in the long term. However, if you find yourself particularly strong-willed and up to the task, make sure you celebrate your achievement when you successfully ignore the prompt and forgo the unwanted habit.
There you have it. You can deal with prompts in three ways: removing them, avoiding them, or ignoring them.
If any one of these works for you, that’s great. You’ve found the simplest solution to redesign a specific habit out of your life.
After you successfully resolve a specific habit, return to your Swarm of Behaviors and select another specific habit to unwind. If you’ve stopped your habit of buying breakfast at the gas station, you can tackle eating free candy in the office’s reception area.
But what if you can’t remove, avoid, or ignore the prompt? Well, that happens.
When you can’t design a prompt out of your life, move on to the next component in the Behavior Model.
Redesign Ability in Order to Stop a Habit
The next step in the Behavior Change Masterplan is to focus on making the habit harder to do.
In chapter 3, I explained the five factors in my Ability Chain model: time, money, physical effort, mental effort, and routine. We used this chain to help us make a new habit easier to do, but now we’re going to weaken or break the chain to make your habit harder to do. Let’s con- sider each of these five links and how you can redesign them.
1. INCREASE THE TIME REQUIRED
You can make a habit less likely if you change the environment so the bad habit requires more time. Let’s say the general habit you want to stop is eating sugary snacks. You created a Swarm of Behaviors, and you found a specific habit to stop “eating ice cream while watching TV in the evening.”
You can’t remove the prompt because it’s internal. Something inside you was saying, “Hey, ice cream would taste great right now.” And you can’t ignore that kind of prompt because your sweet tooth always wins out over willpower. So what’s next?
One option is to redesign your environment so you don’t have any ice cream in your home. About fifteen years ago, Denny and I created a policy of no ice cream in our freezer — ever. Perhaps you can make this a policy in your home as well. That means the next time you start binge-watching a new Netflix series and that inner voice pipes up, you can’t get out the entire container and grab a spoon. You’d need to put on your shoes, get in the car, drive to the store, find the ice cream, buy it, and come home. All that takes a lot of time. In the ideal scenario, the extra time might be enough to make you say, “Hey, that’s too much trouble. I just wanna watch Modern Family reruns.” This redesign can reduce — or eliminate — your evening habit of eating ice cream.
2. INCREASE THE MONEY REQUIRED
The next factor in the Ability Chain is money, and the question then becomes: How can I make this habit more expensive?
This is a bit tricky if you are designing habits out of your own life. You are probably not going to charge yourself ten dollars to eat a bowl of ice cream. Even so, you should consider making a habit more costly, then move on to other links in the Ability Chain if this doesn’t work.
If you are designing habit change for other people, then money may be a viable option. Suppose you don’t want your kids to play video games so much, so you charge them five dollars an hour to play. If you don’t want your employees to drink so much soda, you raise the price in the vending machines. If you don’t want your university staff to drive to work, you increase the price of parking on campus.
This approach should be familiar to you as there are taxes imposed on cigarettes and soda. When the price goes up on these kinds of products, people buy less and overall consumption declines. This works because charging more money decreases some people’s ability to do their bad habits.
3. INCREASE THE PHYSICAL EFFORT REQUIRED
To make a habit harder to do, you can change how much physical effort it requires. The ice cream example required more time but also some physical effort. This double whammy is one reason that the “no ice cream in the freezer” policy works so well in our home.
I don’t have a desk chair in my home office in California. I removed it by design in order to make sitting all day harder to do. Yes, I can sit in my office — it’s not forbidden. But I’d have to go to another room and drag a chair into my office. Too much work. For the most part, I just keep standing.
In our Maui home, we don’t have a TV that’s easy to watch. We have one, but it’s stored away. And that’s by design. In order to watch TV, I have to get it out of storage, physically carry it to a spot in the living room, and plug in the cables. Making this hard to do means that we never turn on the TV randomly. We watch only when we decide it’s worth the trouble.
If you want to take this concept to the limit, you could do what I did in my twenties. When I was studying for my master’s degree, my younger sister moved in with me. I didn’t own a TV, but Kim brought one along. I didn’t want either of us to watch lots of TV, and I couldn’t imagine try- ing to study with the TV blaring so I came up with a plan. I bought an old exercise bike and hired an engineering student to rewire the TV so it would turn on only if the bike pedals were moving. After spending sixty-five dollars, we had our solution: the Bike-TV. If we wanted to watch, someone had to get on the bike. If the pedaling stopped, the TV would turn off. This Bike-TV worked much better than I expected. Not only did we watch less TV, we also got in better shape.
Of all the factors in the Ability Chain, physical effort is my favorite one to leverage in stopping a bad habit. You can redesign at a time when your motivation is high and you’re not tempted to do the habit. Then, when your mood changes and you want ice cream or TV or wine, you realize that your habit is harder to do and maybe not worth doing at all.
4. INCREASE THE MENTAL EFFORT REQUIRED
For some habits, the best solution is to require more mental effort. This factor exploits our human tendency to be lazy, which is a crass way of saying we’ve evolved to conserve our energies when we can.
Consider how this might work with social media. If you reset your password to something complicated like 1Lik3be1ng0uT51de (translation: I like being outside) and don’t allow your system to save it, you’d need to enter this crazy string of characters each time you want to access your feed or post something. Since true habits are behaviors we do without thinking, requiring yourself to concentrate can be a good way to stop a habit or reduce its frequency.
When people count calories or track points, as they do in Weight Watchers, they eat less in part because they have added an extra step that requires thinking.
Does this always work? No. But does logging calories require more mental effort than mindlessly eating? Yes. And that’s one reason it can work.
5. MAKE THE HABIT CONFLICT WITH IMPORTANT ROUTINES
The final factor in the Ability Chain is routine. This is the subtlest of the bunch, and it is one of the hardest to apply. But it’s worth considering. Look for ways to make your unwanted habit conflict with an important habit, a routine you value more than the habit you want to stop.
Surfing at daybreak became an important habit for me, and it’s part of my identity now. My new surfing routine made some of my old habits harder to do in the evening because I had to be alert and ready to face the waves early in the morning. I started eating dinner earlier. I avoided blue light from screens, and I went to bed early. These were all good changes that came from creating a morning routine that conflicted with my unhealthy evening habits.
So far, we’ve focused on changing prompt and ability to disrupt specific unwanted habits. But if you’re stuck on a habit where redesigning prompt and ability isn’t enough, there’s more you can do.
Next up in the masterplan: adjusting motivation.
Adjust Motivation in Order to Stop a Habit
Many people start with trying to influence motivation when they want to stop a habit. In most cases, this is a mistake. Why? Because adjusting motivation levels for Downhill Habits can be difficult (and almost impossible for Freefall Habits).
That’s why you don’t want to mess around with motivation if you can solve the problem by focusing on prompt or ability. You try to adjust motivation only if these previous steps didn’t resolve your bad habit.
Consider this example: If you can reduce your craving to smoke, then you might be able to quit smoking entirely. Let’s say you get a nicotine patch, or convince all your friends to quit at the same time, or maybe even find success with hypnosis. Doing these things is worth the old college try and sometimes they work.
OPTION A: REDUCE MOTIVATION TO STOP A HABIT
Another example: Let’s say you drink too much in the evening because you are stressed from work. In this case, you might be able to change what happens during the day so you don’t have such a strong motivation to drink in the evening. Perhaps you can meditate before leaving work to regain emotional balance. Or perhaps you can listen to calm music on the way home from work to reduce your stress so you aren’t motivated to drink all that wine later.
Here are a range of examples that show how a behavior can reduce the motivation for a habit.
+ Going to bed earlier can reduce your motivation to hit the snooze button
+ Putting on a nicotine patch can reduce your motivation for smoking
+ Eating healthy food before going to a party can reduce your drive to eat bad food at the party
+ Getting acupuncture once a week can reduce your motivation to use painkillers
An intriguing example of reducing motivation comes from my former student Tristan Harris, who has urged people to stop using technology mindlessly. One way to do this, he says, is to change our phone screens to show only grayscale. When you don’t see vivid colors on your screen, his hypothesis goes, those Internet memes and social media posts become much less exciting and less motivating to your brain.
OPTION B: ADD A DEMOTIVATOR TO STOP A HABIT
The second approach is to add a demotivator, but I do not advocate taking this path. It might work in some cases, but I think that it often does more harm than good.
Here are some examples of behaviors that could decrease your over- all level of motivation by adding a demotivator.
+ Promise on Facebook that you will never drink again
+ Pledge to give $1,000 to a corrupt politician if you ever smoke again
+ Visualize how miserable your life would be if you continued playing video games all night
Note how these actions don’t address the root cause of your behavior. You are only adding a conflicting motivation that might get you to stop doing your habit.
Motivation versus demotivation is a battle, and this tension creates stress and leads to frequent failures, making you look bad on Facebook, leaving you $1,000 short, or vividly burning into your brain how miserable your future is likely to be.
And demotivators can push us into self-criticism. If you want to cut down on calories, putting a note on your fridge that says, stop! you’re overweight would certainly be demotivating, but it’s also demoralizing. We change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad, so make sure your attempts at demotivating behavior don’t morph into guilt trips.
Creating demotivators is easy. That’s probably why it’s such a popular technique. But if this was a winning plan, then very few people would have bad habits. In most situations, punishing or threatening yourself is a bad way to stop a habit because the shrapnel you’ll take is not worth the risk, especially when you have other options.
Excerpted from Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything by BJ Fogg. Copyright © 2019 by BJ Fogg. Reprinted by permission of HMH Books and Media. All rights reserved.