Creating positive change is what effective business leaders do. By changing your own behaviors, and helping team members to change theirs, you drive improvements and grow business. In fact, the ability to direct your behavior and get yourself to do what you actually want and need to do is a make-or-break professional competency. Even in your personal life, following through on goals to exercise more, manage stress, eat more healthfully or balance work and home life is critical.
But, if you’ve ever made a New Year’s Resolution, you know there can be a big gulf between identifying something you want to improve and actually making it happen. The secret rests in creating habits that make it easier to do what you want to do and harder to do the things you want to avoid. Using evidence-based approaches that rely on small steps that lead to big changes is what Stanford University researcher and author, BJ Fogg, calls Tiny Habits
in his best-selling book by the same name.
Small and mighty
As a behavior scientist who struggled to get himself to do the things he wanted to achieve, 20 years of research has shown Fogg that small changes are far more likely to lead to successful habit creation than attempting a massive overhaul. Going big, he finds, might launch with an impressive level of motivation and action but soon fizzles out and leaves people feeling deflated and like they’ve failed.
Starting really small, on the other hand, builds on little wins that increase momentum. Some advantages of tiny habits are:
- It only takes 30 seconds to adopt a new habit and then let it grow.
- You can start a tiny habit without overhauling your whole life.
- Tiny habits are safe — literally (if you are starting something like a new exercise program) — and psychologically (if your goal is to speak up more in meetings).
- Incremental changes fuel momentum rather than frustration.
- Even when initial excitement and motivation for change abandon you (as they will) tiny habits can carry the day with small changes and low expectations that make them easy to do.
- By celebrating small wins, tiny habits take advantage of our neurochemistry that uses feelings of success to wire in new habits.
“Habits may be the smallest units of transformation, but they’re also the most fundamental,” Fogg says. “They are the first concentric circles of change that will spiral out.”
Fogg advocates a Behavior Model he has developed over decades working with and researching people attempting to drive change. His basic model is B=MAP or Behavior happens when Motivation (your desire to do the behavior), Ability (your capacity to do it) and a Prompt (something that cues you to do it) come together at the same time. You can tinker with each element to find a combination that works for you for a specific habit.
He plots motivation and ability on a graph to show how they play off one another. For example, if your motivation to exercise is really low, you need to make the behavior extremely easy to do at the start. That could literally mean putting on your sneakers. Period. When motivation is high (such as protecting your child), you will perform even the most difficult behaviors.
Fogg is emphatic that successful habits happen through trial and error. He stresses the importance of embracing “mistakes” or “failures” as discoveries you can use to experiment with until you find a formula that works for you.
Fogg also has a hard and fast rule about behavior prompts: no behavior happens without one. “Motivation and ability are continuous variables,” he writes. “You always have some level of motivation and ability for any given behavior. But a prompt is like lightning. It comes and goes.” That’s why one of the best ways to launch a new behavior is to link it to an existing prompt and to stop doing an unwanted behavior is to remove the prompt.
Figure out yourself, figure out others
Fogg’s behavior model is helpful for understanding your own actions, and to understand other people’s behavior and help to influence it. As an example, he shares these steps for interacting with an employee who is consistently late to staff meetings.
- First, look for the prompt. If the employee doesn’t have a solid reminder to come to the meeting on time, a solid prompt might solve the problem. If not, move on to step two.
- Explore if the person has the ability to do the behavior. Perhaps she has a commitment immediately before that ends late. If so, you know where to focus your fix. If ability is not the issue, move to step three.
Where we typically start
with addressing motivation, Fogg sees it as a last resort. Motivation is unreliable and often impacted by competing desires (I want to be on time to the meeting but I also need uninterrupted time to complete tasks). To deal with motivation issues, he suggests being very clear about the outcomes you want and then matching behavior options to them until you find those you are actually willing to do. Perhaps implementing a “no meeting window” for two hours following the staff meeting would free people to participate without stress.
Personal shortcomings and flaws are not what make behavior change difficult, but rather flaws in your change approach, Fogg says. “Once you remove any hint of judgment, changing your habits becomes an uplifting journey of self-discovery,” he says. Time to explore!