How can you make yourself happy with tiny habits? I’ve been reading BJ Fogg’s excellent book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. He is emphatic that it is our emotions that create habits, not our actions, not repetition or anything else. The key to changing human behavior is to make it feel good. This is what my yoga teacher said this morning in class. The point of yoga is to make your body feel good and enable you to then relax enough to meditate. It isn’t about holding a certain pose for a certain time. The sooner you can connect a strong positive emotion to a behavior, the sooner you’ll acquire that new habit.
This unlocks the secret to making new habits stick. Make the new behavior so tiny it is very easy to do. Then celebrate as soon as you’ve performed your new tiny action. And the celebration part of it is the most important part!
Fogg is very precise in his wording. He says this isn’t the same as a reward. The concept of giving yourself a reward for your new behavior can actually mess things up a bit. And I’d agree. A bit of splitting hairs perhaps, but I tend to think of a reward as a gold star, small prize, gift or treat. Fogg says forget about rewards and have a mini celebration instead.
Okay, he isn’t talking about throwing a party. It is about feeling successful. And as Fogg so aptly says, “When people feel successful, even with small things, their overall level of motivation goes up dramatically, and with higher levels of motivation, people can do harder behaviors.” This is exactly why life coaching is so effective as well. We start people off with small victories such as getting rid of their petty annoyances and tolerations. That gives them a burst of energy that enables them to tackle much bigger goals. A celebration is also tiny and can be as simple as saying, “Well done!” Or “Woo! Hoo!” Or you might dance a little jig, snap your fingers, clap your hands or jump for joy.
How do you figure out what your personal celebration is? Just imagine you’ve just opened a letter or email saying you’ve been offered your dream job. What would you do in that moment? Or imagine your sports team is playing neck and neck and in the last moment scores and wins the championship title. What would you do?
Use a couple of these mini celebrations to claim victory over every new, tiny positive action and you’ll get a little dopamine hit to the brain. That will then wire in that new habit. And before you know it, you’ll have wired in that new behavior. It will become automatic and you’ll no longer need to celebrate that one. Then, you can pick a new habit to work on. Of course, you can still celebrate, if you want to, as there is no harm in that.
If you’re really struggling, break the action down and make it even smaller until it really is easy to do.
Fogg recommends that everyone can begin by doing the simple Hawaiian ritual of saying, “Today is going to be a great day!” as soon as your feet touch the ground when you get out of bed in the morning. I started this lovely habit and have already added a big stretch to that routine, followed by drinking a glass of water before brushing my teeth and going downstairs to start breakfast. But don’t try all three at once. Start with one and you’ll discover ways to add on to your new habits naturally as they evolve and expand. My next habit goal is to turn that big stretch into a sun salutation. The amazing thing is that tiny habits have a way of being so easy that you naturally feel like adding a bit more to them. This is how you can change someone’s entire life without it ever feeling a struggle or relying on that illusive motivation.
Fogg agrees that motivation is one of the three elements that drive behavior but warns that it is a fickle friend. “Motivation is like a party-animal friend. Great for a night out, but not someone you would rely on to pick you up from the airport.” What’s worse, you can also have conflicting motivations that effectively cancel out your desire to create a new healthy habit. Yes, I want to lose weight, but I also want that donut.
We also know that willpower is in short supply. Once you’ve used up your daily quota or feel stressed or tired, any willpower you had tends to dissolve into a puddle. Rather than trying to muster up the willpower or find the motivation, simply focus on making the easiest and tiniest change possible and celebrate it. Then, quite soon you’ll feel the natural inclination to do more. Happy days!