Sure, we all want to change. We want to read more poetry, do more sit-ups and eat less fried calamari dipped in so-called dipping sauce, which is really just straight mayo with squirt of lemon. We want to take up the cello and accomplish one kind act per day. And yet, when we make these decisions—enthusiastically in the middle of night, scribbled down as an absolute-to-do list in the margins of an old magazine (where are the Post-its when you need one?)—we tend to wake up the next morning and not follow through...or follow through for one day or two, then quit.
Enter B.J. Fogg, PhD, a social scientist and behavior researcher at Stanford University who has helped such innovators as the founder of Instagram understand why and how people respond to invitations to participate on the Internet—such as why and how people want to share pictures. These days, Fogg has taken his skills to the virtual streets in a lesser-known personal project called Tiny Habits. People following his online program execute three teeny-tiny tasks each day for five days. The idea? They learn the process of habit creation; and once they know to create habits, they can leverage those habits into bigger positive changes in behavior.
Just over 3,000 people—known collectively by Fogg as the Habiteers—have tried the program since its kickoff in December 2011, including myself. Here's what we learned about how to actualize some pretty respectable self-transformation with the least possible amount of effort.
Abandon Your Faith in the 21 Days
There's a lot of habit mythology out there, says Fogg. The ideas he hears most frequently are that a person can only commit to one habit at a time and that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. "Neither is accurate," he says. "You do not need to perfect one habit before you go onto another. And you can create a new habit relatively quickly."
The first crucial step is rethinking what a habit is. In the old world order, you might say perefecting the tango or following a low-fat diet is a habit. But these habits take an awful lot of motivation. For example, the habit I would like cultivate is running. But running has remained a fantasy for quite a while, because it requires finding the time and surviving the pain. Not to mention buying a jog bra, because mine dates back to 1995; and a new one will require a trip to Target, which in turn requires parking in the lot and fighting over carts.
Obstacles like these are why "people tell themselves things like 'You just gotta have the willpower!' or 'You've gotta motivate yourself!'" says Fogg. "And then soon, that motivation slips," regardless of how many days you've spent trying to acquire the habit or how many other habits you're trying to.
Next: Think smaller than small