First Published: June 26, 2021 | Last Updated: June 26, 2021

The gist: Almost any habit building book you can think of cites the work of BJ Fogg, and Tiny Habits goes into his own habit building theories in full.

The first piece of content we published when Work Brighter first started talking about mental illness, was all about the power of baby steps.

And I don't just prefer them because my feet are a size 2. πŸ’πŸ»β€β™€οΈ

One thing I learned about myself early in adulthood was that I had a tendency to get too excited and overcommit myself.

Both to other people ("sure, I can get that to you by the end of the day!), and to myself ("you TOTALLY have time to launch a new course right now!").

The best ways I've found to combat that tendency of mine are to:

  • Rely on habits and routines as much as possible, instead of one-off batches and sprints
  • Break things down into tiny, manageable steps

And both of those tactics come together in the book Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg.

Fogg is a researcher at Stanford who published the Fogg Behavior Model over a decade ago. That model has been used by lots of other habit experts and cited in lots of other habit building books (like Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit).

But until he published Tiny Habits in 2020, his full perspective on habit building and change wasn't readily available to anyone.

Let's look at what it has to say.

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

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About Tiny Habits

Tiny Habits says that popular thinking about habit formation, all that "go big or go home" stuff, encourages to set unrealistic expectations.

But lasting change is easier when you start small, and you want to start as small as 30 seconds.

That makes it so small that it hides emotional risk and removes the problem of finding time for the habit.

So instead of going big, and then going home (because you've burned yourself out too quickly), take a behavior you want to start doing and make it tiny. Find where it naturally fits in your life, and nurture its growth.

This is the Tiny Habits model of behavior change.

And Tiny Habits are made up of an anchor moment, a new tiny behavior, and an instant celebration.

The Elements of Behavior

The Tiny Habits Behavior Model states that behavior happens when the elements of MAP (motivation, ability, and prompts) line up at the same moment.

Imagine a graph plotting ability against motivation, with the prompt as a plot on the graph, like so:

tiny habits behavior model

The more ability you have (the easier it is), the less you need to rely on motivation.

And the action line is the dividing line. So if a prompt lies on the right side of it, you'll complete the action. If it doesn't, you won't.

Building a habit involves playing with the graph, with different prompts and levels of motivation and ability.

A few things to note when you do:

  • Repeating the habit makes it easier, moving it along the ability axis.
  • When you can't change one factor, you can play with the others.
  • Motivation is the last one to play with because it's the least predictable or reliable.

Motivation

The first element of behavior is motivation.

Motivation isn't reliable or predictable. It comes in large spikes that quickly pass, like a wave.

This makes it better as a tool for doing hard things once (like acquiring the right resources or setting up your environment) than it is for repeated habits.

Motivation can come from yourself, from a benefit or outcome of the action, or from external contexts. Your own aspirations are better motivators than, say, advice you find on the internet about the best morning routine.

But everyone's motivated by different things, and "motivation matching" is how you find them. It's a series of exercises Fogg takes you through in the book:

  • Step 1 is getting clear on your aspirations and desired outcomes.
  • Step 2 is to explore behavior options with the Swarm of Behaviors exercise. This is where you select one aspiration, and brainstorm as many ideas as possible for behaviors that could help you achieve it.
  • Step 3 is to use Magic Wanding on the list, going through to make the items more specific and note which ones would be one-time actions versus ongoing habits.
  • Step 4 is to match yourself with behaviors. Look for "Golden Behaviors," where you have both the ability and desire to do it, and it will be effective towards your aspiration. If it's difficult, you can plot it visually with mapping impact vs feasibility/practicality, called "focus mapping."
  • Finally, step 5 is to pick the most ideal looking behaviors to move forward with. Try to find things you already want to do and can do on your worst days.

Ability

The second element is ability.

Ability is the most reliable factor in the B=MAP equation. And the easiest way to manipulate it is by size.

Making habits tinier helps with almost any behavior, because even when your motivation is low, the behavior falls above the action line.

Making something easier also makes it easier to keep going with when things are tough.

To actually start making something easier, first ask yourself, "What is making this behavior hard to do?" Some factors might be time, money, physical capability, creative / mental energy, or your current routine.

Then you want to ask, "how can I make this behavior easier?"

Possibilities include increasing your skills, obtaining more tools or resources, or making the habit smaller.

And in general, the two ways to make a habit smaller are with either a starter step or by shrinking it. A starter step is a small but momentum-creating move, and shrinking a habit is doing the same move for a shorter amount of time or less intensity.

Prompt

Finally, there's the prompt that makes you think of the behavior or habit.

You want to make prompts easy, too.

Prompts can be things like checklists, reminders, notifications, etc. The three types are person, action, and context prompts.

  • Person prompts are when you rely on yourself to remember or your bodily urges to notice. They're the least reliable kind (especially if you're chronically ill, mentally ill, or neurodivergent and have interoception challenges).
  • Context prompts are the things in your environment that cue you to take action, like sticky notes and notifications. They're most effective when used sparingly, but can be very effective in that case.
  • Action prompts are reminders from other behaviors you already do, aka Habit Anchors.

Designing these sequences of behaviors is called Behavior Sequencing.

You do it through several guided exercises included in the book.

There are a LOT of practical, useful exercises included in the book that I use all the time. I even make my partner do them with me when I need help brainstorming. 😝

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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The Impact of Emotions on Habit Change

The book also goes into the impact of your emotions on trying to start or stop a habit. There's a reason I tell clients and customers that I'm more of a cheerleader than a drill sergeant (the two most common styles of coaching, imo).

Most adults spend more time telling themselves they did a bad job than rewarding themselves for a good one.

So including a celebration as part of the Tiny Habits process teaches you how to create a positive feeling on demand (what Fogg calls "shine"). This is because positive emotion is such an important part of creating habits.

And the best way to celebrate your habit is with creating a feeling of success as a reward.

But what most people think of as rewards, are really incentives:

"Incentives like a sales bonus or a monthly massage can motivate you, but they don’t rewire your brain."

In behavior science, a reward is an experience directly tied to the behavior that makes the behavior more likely to happen again.

Timing matters for both parts, and scientists know that rewards need to happen either during or right after the behavior.

This makes incentives too far off to do more than motivate.

Another important factor in using celebrations is the intensity of the emotion.

Try to cultivate a collection of celebration rewards, including a potent "Power Celebration." Practice them. And to build habits more reliably, celebrate when you remember the habit, as you're doing it, and after.

You also want to make sure to increase celebration when you increase your habit.

A way to practice all this is with an exercise called The Celebration Blitz and exploring different reward ideas (I keep a spread in my bullet journal πŸ˜‰).

Growing Your Habits from Tiny to Transformative

Scaling your habits happens naturally when you apply the Tiny Habits method consistently.

How quickly or easily it scales, though, depends on the person, the habit, and the context. How those elements interact determines how quickly a habit will establish itself.

The different ways habits can scale are either to grow or to multiply. Growing habits expand and get bigger. On the other hand, habits that multiply become a larger ecosystem of behaviors in a bigger routine.

As you build habits, you'll create success momentum through the frequency of your celebrating. Behavior crafting means to select and adjust the habits in your life and honing your mindset, process, and context skills.

A Systematic Solution to Untangling Bad Habits

The tiny habits model can be used to stopping habits in addition to starting them.

(Fogg encourages the language of "stopping" or "untangling" bad habits instead of "breaking" them, as a mindset thing.)

Stopping bad habits starts with knowing what kind they are:

  • Uphill habits are ones that require ongoing maintenance and are easy to stop, like meditating and working out.
  • Downhill habits are ones that are easy to maintain and hard to stop, like hitting snooze.
  • Freefall habits are hard to stop without professional help.

Then you use the BMAP model: decrease your ability by making it hard to do, removing prompts, and reducing your motivation.

Keep in mind that bad habits aren't something you just "break," it's more like a tangled bundle of rope you need to untangle systematically and bit by bit.

As a bonus, this also creates less of a moral attachment to them.

Make Habits Happier

Working brighter means injecting fun in everything you do (as much as possible), using habits to make things happen, and taking baby steps.

Tiny Habits gives you so many tools to do that.

And if you're looking for more, be sure to check out the Happy Habits Toolkit or Work Brighter Clubhouse community.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.