This is the time of year that we begin to let our New Year’s resolutions slide. Maybe we resolved to be on time for meetings, or to cut down on coffee, or lose weight. Whatever the change, it’s something you think will improve your life, or your career.
But it can take time. New habits can take weeks or months to form, according to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. The bigger the change, the longer the new habit takes to form. The study found that the plateau, when a new habit became automatic, was about 66 days.
That’s why, even with the best of intentions, New Year’s resolutions tend to fade away within a couple of weeks. People just won’t persevere for that long; they expect quicker results.
But what if you could form new habits in a matter of days, and make them stick?
Stanford University professor BJ Fogg, who studies and teaches about forming and changing behaviour, thought there was a way. For years he has been teaching people about behaviour. Students took the concepts back to their teams and attempted to make complicated changes, what he calls “big brain stuff.” It didn’t work too well.
Dr. Fogg had an idea: he’d create a simple, free one-week online program that shows people how habits form. He calls it “3 Tiny Habits” (http://tinyhabits.com/).
Why three? He explains that it helps people generalize about the concept of creating habits, where picking one habit would simply allow them to succeed or fail. “If you just speak one language, you just speak it,” he says, “but if you speak several languages, you learn how language works.”
Only three things can change habits in the long term, he adds: have an epiphany; change your context (what surrounds you); take baby steps.
Since epiphanies tend to be in short supply for the average person, Dr. Fogg decided to use context and baby steps to help people learn about creating change.
The method starts by teaching people three things: how to pick something suitably tiny, how to find an anchor for it, and how to celebrate success. In the program introduction, Dr. Fogg emphasizes that he doesn’t care what habits you decide to work on, but he adds, “I do care you learn the skills of creating new habits.”
Here’s how it works: People who sign up for the program agree to choose three behaviours they can do in 30 seconds or less, with no real effort, and then move on. Tiny things, specific things. They can’t, for example, say they intend to floss their teeth daily. That takes too long. They can say they will floss one tooth.
They also have to pick a trigger for each habit-to-be. For example, they may say “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” Or “After I take off my coat, I will hang my keys on the hook by the door.” Or “after I get out of the shower, I will apply one drop of lotion.” The trigger is a specific, habitual action that the new habit can be tied to (and, in fact, once those shiny new habits are established, they can in turn become triggers for new tiny habits).
The third component in forming a habit is celebration. Even if only that one tooth gets flossed, or that one drop of lotion gets applied, it’s worth an atta-boy and a pat on the back. If you floss more, or slather your entire person, that’s nice, but the goal is to make taking floss in hand or grabbing the lotion bottle a habit. Dr. Fogg says that the stronger the positive emotion after performing a behaviour, the faster that behaviour will become automatic.
It is important, he adds, to avoid discomfort: 50 push-ups may be healthy, but they hurt, and most peoples’ brains tell them not to repeat painful experiences, so it’s tough to make push-ups a habit.
Dr. Fogg’s initial week of 3 Tiny Habits had about 60 students. More recently, about 400 people signed up. Each commits to spending 10 minutes or so on the weekend learning about the program and deciding on the tiny habits they’ll work on, then about three minutes each day from Monday to Friday, performing the habits and responding to a message from Dr. Fogg. After five days, chances are they have three new habits. Tiny ones.
“People are getting rid of little annoyances in their lives,” he says. “Happiness correlates to eliminating little tiny nitpicky things that make you unhappy. Tiny habits can help people solve those little annoyances.”