The Weekend University aims to make the best psychology lectures available to the general public. To do this, we organise ‘lecture days’ where the UK’s leading psychology academics, researchers and practitioners share condensed versions of their best lectures at the weekend. 
 This article was written in the lead up to our upcoming ‘Day on Behaviour Change‘ at the University of London on Sunday 28th January.

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When making new year’s resolutions, we think it will require huge amounts of willpower, motivation and self-discipline.

Usually, we make it into a ‘big thing.’

But a 2016 study found that 80% of New Years Resolutions fail by the second week in February. With a failure rate that high, could our common assumptions about behaviour change be wrong?

BJ Fogg – Stanford researcher, behavioural psychologist, and one of the world’s leading experts on behaviour change argues that long term change is not as complicated as we commonly believe, and it doesn’t require motivation or willpower.

Rather, it’s systematic and there are ways to go about it that are both scientifically proven and simple.

In this post, we’ll cover three simple things, based on empirical research, you can do to give yourself the best possible chance of sticking to your New Year’s resolutions in 2018.


#1 – Remove Motivation – Make it Easy, Make it Tiny

Usually we think behaviour change requires high levels of motivation.

Images of Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs at 5am, and ascending those stairs in Philadelphia come to mind.

However, Fogg’s research indicates that motivation is only effective for short term change, and is not a sustainable strategy in the long term.

Fogg Behaviour Grid

The highlighted area in Fogg’s Behaviour Grid shows the types of behaviour change that can occur using motivation – behaviours that are either one-time or those that have a duration such as 40 days.

For any behaviour to occur, the following three conditions need to be met:

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Trigger

Doing anything at all requires a certain level of all three.

Fogg Behaviour Model 1

As can be seen from Fogg’s behaviour model, the first two; motivation and ability, are trade-offs, meaning that the more difficult something is, the more motivated we need to be to do it.

Research from the University College London has found that for new habits to become automatic, they need to be repeated daily for approximately 66 days.

If the new habit requires high levels of motivation, then on days when your motivation level drops below the activation threshold (See Fogg’s Behaviour Model), you are unlikely to repeat the new behaviour, meaning you won’t reach the 66 days required to make it automatic.

Because motivation fluctuates, relying on it for long term behaviour change is not a sustainable strategy. 

Fogg’s key insight is that to establish new behaviours as long-term habits, we need to make them as easy as possible at the start. When designing resolutions, we need to target the bottom area of the graph.

Fogg Behaviour Model 2

To do this, Fogg recommends breaking behaviours down into ‘tiny habits.’

For example, if you want to start flossing, Fogg recommends starting by flossing one tooth.

When you break a behaviour down into ‘tiny habits’ that are easy to do, you remove the motivation barrier, and give yourself the best possible chance of reaching the 66-day threshold required to make it automatic.

So when setting your resolutions, ask yourself; what’s the tiniest possible habit that will:

  1. Be easy to do every day
  2. Eventually lead to the outcome I’m after
  3. Require almost no motivation to do

#2 – Use Triggers – Insert Your Tiny Habit after an Existing Behaviour

For any behaviour to occur, we need a trigger in our environment – a call to action.

A trigger is simply something that prompts us and reminds us to do the behaviour.

For example, if your new year’s resolution is to improve your posture, you can try Jordan Harbinger’s ‘Doorway Drill.’ This involves straightening your posture every time you walk through a door.

Doorway Drill

Instead of having to remember to sit up straight all day every day, each time you walk through a door, you are triggered to fix your posture.

Over time, your new posture becomes automatic.

If you want to start performing a new habit regularly, you need to insert it after a pre-existing behaviour; one that you do with the same frequency you want to have for the new habit.

When Fogg wanted to develop the habit of doing push-ups regularly, he inserted the ‘tiny habit’ of two push ups after his routine of peeing. He knew he was going to pee several times a day, so each time he did, he was triggered into doing his new habit of push ups. Over time, and as he increased to 5 push ups, then 8, he soon found he was doing up to 80 push ups per day.

Or if you want to start flossing, Fogg recommends inserting the tiny habit of flossing one tooth every time after you finish brushing. If you brush every day, then each time you do, your existing habit of brushing triggers the new tiny habit of flossing.

To implement this for your own resolutions, simply ask:

What behaviours am I already doing every day that I can insert a tiny habit after?

For example, after my morning coffee, I will plan my day. After I get on the bus to work, I will journal for five minutes, etc.


#3 – Celebrate (Right Away) After You Perform Your Tiny Habit

YES!

Behaviours are essentially neural pathways in the brain, made up of networks of neurons.

Behaviours that led to success and helped us survive as hunter gatherers – whether it was finding food or finding a mate, were stored in the brain so they were easy to repeat in the future.

According to evolutionary psychologists, our brains today are very much the same as our primitive ancestors.

When the brain perceives to have succeeded at something, it has a built-in reward mechanism which helps reinforce the new behaviour in a neural network, and store it in long term memory, so we can succeed again in the future.

When a success is perceived to have occurred, the brain releases dopamine into the reward pathway  (the area responsible for learning, motivation and pleasure), which strengthens the neural network, giving a sensation of pleasure and motivating us to perform the behaviour again in the future.

Therefore, when creating a new habit, it’s critical to celebrate afterwards.

By doing so, you re-engineer the process.

Celebrating signals to your brain you have succeeded, which triggers a release of dopamine, strengthens the neural pathway, and motivates you to do the activity again in the future.

So every time you perform a tiny habit that you want to repeat, Fogg recommends celebrating right away by pumping your first, and saying things like: ‘YES!’, or ‘I’m Awesome!’, or even doing a silly dance.

It might sound ridiculous, but Fogg’s results speak for themselves.

So when designing your resolutions, ask yourself the question:

‘What can I do to celebrate immediately after I finish my tiny habit?’


A Simple Equation to Design Your Resolutions for 2018

To design your new year’s resolutions for 2018, Fogg recommends using this simple equation:

After I [existing behaviour],

I will [new tiny habit.]

For example, after I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.

Rita Mae Brown defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.’

A growing body of research indicates that if we want to make changes that last, our traditional approaches of using willpower and motivation are not sustainable.

Rather, there are evidence based approaches from behavioural psychology that are being used every day to help people develop new empowering habits.

So for your New Year’s resolutions this year, will you be in the 80% that fails by the second week in February?

Or will you try a different approach? One that is evidence based and scientifically proven to make changes that last?

It’s as simple as 1,2,3:

  1. Break your resolution down into tiny habits
  2. Insert your tiny habits after existing behaviours
  3. Celebrate (right away) after you perform your tiny habit

What will your tiny habits equation look like for 2018? Leave a comment and let us know.

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