The Equation for How to Build Tiny Habits that Last (New Habits Pt. 1)

Welcome to your first step in making change easy in 2021! Learn how to build tiny habits effectively by starting with a simple equation that we’ll share with you below.

  • By Jess Dang
  • January 11, 2021

Every single one of us has had unsuccessful attempts at good habit building and bad habit breaking. We are human and, unfortunately, not always wired to behave in ways that are best for us. But, I am here to walk you through a framework that can redesign our behaviors so we can be successful this time around.

If you’re just joining our New Habits in 2021 series, start with our quick introduction here first.

In our introduction yesterday, I had you fill out this statement: I want 2021 to be the year I ___________. 

So let’s pick up there (and remember — since we’re starting out tiny, you were only allowed to pick ONE thing to start with). It’s likely this is not the first time you’ve had this particular aspiration. If it isn’t, it’s a great idea to take a moment to think about what prevented you from achieving this change in the past.

[Waiting …. It’s okay, take your time before proceeding below.]

Based on reading Fogg’s book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything and also on my own habit-building attempts, I have some guesses, but first, I want you to ditch this negative thought — it is not because you were lazy or didn’t have the willpower. Instead the more likely issues were:

  1. You focused on the aspiration and not the specific behaviors that would lead you to the change you wanted. For example, “I want to eat healthier,” but didn’t specify the new behaviors you would adopt to do so.
  2. You chose something that wasn’t a good fit for your personality. For example, “I want to exercise more,” but then didn’t pick an activity that you actually enjoyed.
  3. You were missing the underlying ability or necessary tools to achieve your aspiration. For example, “I want to cook more,” but you didn’t own a sharp knife or didn’t know how to meal plan efficiently.
  4. You didn’t build in a plan for when you would make this change in your day. For example, “I want to spend less time on my phone,” but didn’t come up with what you would do when you got an itch to look at your phone.

The main belief that Fogg drives home in his book is that all behavior can be explained by an equation that guides you in how to build tiny habits:

Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt

That means that our behaviors are driven by our motivation to do them, our ability to achieve them, and a prompt to remind us to do them. (BTW, if you’re following along in the book, today’s post covers the content through page 58, steps #1 and #2 in Behavior Design.)

So let’s unpack the ideas behind the Fogg’s equation a bit so you can be on your way to implementing tiny habits that change everything in 2021!

In the chart above, Fogg shows us that prompts work when our motivation to do a behavior is mid to high, and when the behavior is relatively easy to do, or we possess the ability to do them fairly easily. 

For example, it’s 5PM and you’re hungry (prompt). Your motivation to satisfy your hunger is high. Something that is easy to do to satisfy your hunger is open up your meal delivery app and put in an order for dinner. However, if you’re someone who meal plans and maybe even meal preps, your ability to open up your fridge and start dinner is probably just as easy and might even result in ending your hunger sooner.

That’s why ability to do the desired behavior is so incredibly important for making change easy — it’s the difference between an expensive and possibly unhealthy takeout meal versus a home-cooked meal. 

On the flipside, our behaviors fail when motivation is low and the behavior is hard to do. For example, if you’re tired and not motivated to cook. Or, you don’t have the right ingredients stocked so cooking would require a trip to the grocery store.

However, you can also make ordering takeout harder by deleting meal delivery apps from your phone. Then, even if your motivation to eat soon is still high, you’ve made the ability to put in an order a little bit harder to do. 

Therefore, we can fairly simply learn how to build tiny habits into our daily lives by finding behaviors that we’re motivated to do, that are easy to do, and that we have a prompt to remind us to do. 

So for this week’s exercise to help you start building tiny habits that change everything, I want you to create what Fogg calls a “Swarm of Behaviors” to support your “I want 2021 to be the year I __________” aspiration. The behaviors can be one-time actions or recurring actions. You get extra credit if you write each behavior on an individual index card, which will make them easier to organize for next week’s exercise. The more behaviors, the better. Don’t edit yourself for doability while doing this particular exercise!

To help you get started, I’ll share a recent aspiration I had: working out in the mornings. I have never been an early riser — I usually am the last one to get up in our house — but the morning was the only way I could reliably fit exercise into my schedule because once the kids woke up, it was game over.

It’s not that I am a night owl, but I am someone who loves sleep. I would love to sleep 8 hours every night, but I am also really bad at sleeping. After 5 years of getting up for nursing, night terrors, teething babies, my body only knows how to sleep 2 hours at a time. So even if I went to bed at 10 and woke up at 6, I would find that I still didn’t feel rested. 

For me to adopt this habit, I actually didn’t need to focus on the working out part. I love exercise, so what I really needed to do was fix my sleep schedule by 1) going to bed earlier so that waking up wouldn’t be so painful; and 2) making it easier to get out of bed on cold mornings. So these were some of the behaviors I came up with in my swarm that would all support my intended morning workout:

  • Start getting ready for bed after tucking kids in
  • Turn laptop off after 9:00PM
  • Put phone away after dinner
  • Don’t open laptop after dinner
  • Don’t look at any screens after dinner
  • Place robe in an easy-to-get-to place
  • Set a timer for heater to turn on in the morning
  • Take a sleep aid
  • Drink a nighttime tea at dinner
  • Do a meditation before bed
  • Read for at least 15 minutes before bed
  • Fill water kettle to easily start the morning with a warm beverage
  • Pack lunches the night before
  • Sleep train Charlie (my youngest child)
  • Set a light alarm for 5:30AM
  • Set an annoying audio alarm outside of the bedroom
  • Find video exercise classes I was excited about
  • Schedule my workout classes
  • Put workout clothes in the garage
  • Sleep in workout clothes

Once you get going, I’m sure you’ll find that you really can come up with a good swarm that will help you in making change easy. Now, go and make your list of all the possible behaviors that will support the goal you’ve picked to start 2021 off with — if you want, you can even share them with me and our Cook Smarts community. Just leave a comment with your aspiration and some of your swarm below.

Make sure to come back to our blog tomorrow to get the next step in how to build tiny habits with some organizing and “tiny-fying” of your behavior swarm.

And don’t forget — if eating better, cooking more, being more organized, or improving overall health and wellness is involved in your aspiration or swarm, take advantage of our New Years Sale from 1/5/21 to 2/2/21.

Use code NEWHABITS to get 20% off of our meal plans that really support tiny habits that change everything!

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