4 Make or Break Components of a Habit

I recently read BJ Fogg’s book, Tiny Habits.  It was eye opening to understand why some of my habit changes have failed and why some of them have succeeded.  He really tears apart a habit into its components and all the forces at work to make it fail or not.  He shines the light on how to succeed.  I was of the mindset that it was all up to my willpower to make a habit succeed.  This is probably why my best and most enduring habits are in the morning when I have the most willpower.  Before, I’m hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT) and I’m at my highest energy level. I have made several attempts at creating an afternoon habit like practicing my guitar or writing a blog post, without success.  I try once or twice and next thing I know; I’ve got the remote in my hand and I’m bingeing some show. 

Fogg does a great job of dissecting a habit and he does it without judgement.  As Fogg wrote, “In order to design successful habits and change your behaviors, you should do three things.  Stop judging yourself. Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors.  Embrace mistakes as discoveries and use them to move forward.” Understanding that it’s not a failure or opportunity to be self-critical when an attempt fails but to be able to hold it up to the light and see what’s available is empowering.

4 make or break components of a habit:

Make it small.  I mean really small.  Fogg’s example is to floss one tooth instead of the whole mouth.  Instead of “reading a book”, try “put the book on my nightstand” or “Read one chapter, or one page, or one paragraph, or one sentence.”  This makes it so much more accessible.  I actually started flossing my teeth after reading the book.  I have yet to floss just one tooth but I have, on a daily basis, been able to keep the habit because all I’m focused on is flossing one tooth.  I read part a book each night.  Sometimes it’s one page, sometimes it’s a chapter, it depends on how tired I am (and how interesting the book is).  I water my plants each Saturday.  My tiny habit that facilitates this is putting the watering can on the kitchen table.  I know it’s not done until the can is put away.  Keeping it small makes it all less daunting.

Make it easy. Fogg writes that B = MAP, or Behavior happens when three things come together at the same moment: Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt.  As Fogg points out, motivation cannot be depended upon.  Sure, there are times when I’m really motivated to go for a run or do a strength workout, but there are many times when I either had a poor night’s sleep or it’s raining outside or I’m just not feeling it. This was an insight for me.  So, I can’t just depend on willpower (motivation) alone.  In fact, I try to make whatever the habit is, as easy as possible.  So, I leave my dental floss out on my bathroom counter, I keep my shoes by the front door to go for a walk, I leave the book on my nightstand with the expectation that I will only read at least one page, I start my walk with only aiming for the corner of the street, and I leave a glass of water on the counter so that I drink it first thing in the morning. It’s like the engineers who look at how many clicks a customer has to make to purchase an item.  Eliminate the amount of clicks of the mouse, reduce the friction and noise for you to have the ability to actually do the habit. I have found that the easier a habit is to do, the more likely I am to form a habit.

Find a prompt. Fogg delineates three types of prompts.  

A Facilitator prompt is when you have high motivation but low ability.  So, it is a prompt like clicking a green button when you are tired (your ability is low) but you are motivated to be entertained (think of the next video loading up on Netflix).  

The Signal prompt is when you have high motivation and high ability to do the target behavior, so a simple reminder is enough like a calendar notification, sometimes, in my case, I don’t need the reminder because of my high motivation. 

The Spark prompt is when you lack motivation but have the ability. One of the best spark prompts for me is a Fresh Start Prompt.  So, it’s a Monday and I’m going to walk first thing in the morning for 10 minutes every day or it’s the first of the month or it’s the new year or it’s my birthday or it’s the vernal equinox.  

One of Fogg’s quintessential habits is what he calls “The Maui Habit” which is basically saying out loud, “It’s going to be an amazing day,” when your feet hit the floor in the morning.  I have to say I would get wrapped up in the fact that I forgot to say it until I got to the bathroom or when I was meditating later in the morning.  Then I realized, just because I missed the prompt of my feet hitting the floor, doesn’t mean I didn’t do the habit.  Whatever the prompt, if you remember to do the behavior for whatever reason, that’s terrific!

Celebrate. I have to say the Fogg had to prove this one to me.  I initially was skeptical of celebrating a new behavior. And by celebrating, it’s not throwing a party or getting a manicure.  It has to be immediate.  So, think of giving yourself a high-five or a fist pump or “Oh yeah.”  What would you say if your team just scored to win in the final seconds of a game? That?  That’s your celebration. It makes sense because of our brains.  When your brain realizes that you have a positive reaction (celebrating) to completing a new behavior, it wires it into your brain. It’s a positive neuropathway that your brain will seek to recreate again, and again, and again.  So, when I started flossing my teeth in the morning, I gave myself a fist pump.  I did that for about a week.  I do it periodically now, but now I see flossing as a positive experience.   As Fogg says, this is a critical piece that most folks dismiss.  Don’t forget to celebrate.

Since I finished this book several weeks ago, I’ve been successful in flossing my teeth every morning, drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning and I’ve taken an early morning 10-minute walk outside as recommended by Dr. Huberman to help with my circadian rhythm and general wellbeing for the rest of the day.  Now that I have a much better understanding of habit forming, I am much more adept at creating and keeping habits.  How do you create a habit?

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