Habits are to the soul what the veins and arteries are to the blood, the courses in which it moves – Horace Bushnell
Habits reduce the conscious mental deliberation we go through everyday. Habits are our behavioral autopilot, which is why they are so important for you to understand how they are created and how you can deliberately create them yourself. The old saying goes “first we make our habits and then our habits make us.”
The big question is this: How do you create good habits, weed bad ones out? How can you make it much easier to adopt and adhere to the habits that keep us healthy and make it harder to adopt and adhere to the ones that don’t? Luckily there are lots of really smart people working on this very question. One such man is named BJ Fogg, a professor out of the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab who has developed a behavioral model (from now on called FBM) that helps us understand how behaviors are created and how we can start, stop, increase, and decrease both our good & bad habits. Although the model is mostly applied to designing for behavior change in technology, we can still use this model to design low-tech personal solutions to promote healthy behaviors like exercise and eating healthy, because after all, both exercise and eating healthy are behaviors, and to create true sustainable change we need to ingrain them into habits. Let’s take a look at the model.
The Three Principal Factors: Motivation, Ability and Triggers
The Fogg Behavioral Model
The FBM has three principal factors; motivation, ability, and triggers. The model says that for a particular behavior to happen, a person must be sufficiently motivated, able, and effectively triggered. All three factors must be present at the same instant for the behavior to occur. If a behavior doesn’t happen it is because one of the three factors was not present.
To quickly illustrate let me take the example of my own habit of exercising. I’m sufficiently motivated because I know that exercise makes me feel good because I find it fun and pleasurable. I’m also sufficiently able since I’ve done it plenty times before, and have all the information to exercising properly. Since I’m sufficiently motivated and able to exercise all I need is a trigger. I’m a morning person so I’ve trained myself to go right after my morning cup of coffee. So effectively my cup of coffee has become my exercise trigger.
Now granted not everyone will have all three present at all times, in fact there are days when I feel unmotivated to exercise, but often times the habit happens anyways because after drinking my cup of coffee I get thoughts of how great it feels to exercise, and I end up going in spite of the mental resistance. Let’s take a closer look at the three factors: ability, motivation, and triggers.
The Six Ability Factors
The FBM tell us to in order to make it easier or harder to adopt and adhere to a behavior we need to adjust the ability factors accordingly. The 6 ability factors are:
- Time- Does it take a lot of time to do this behavior?
- Money – Does it cost a lot?
- Physical Effort – Do I have to do a lot of work?
- Brain Cycles – Does this require me to think deeply and often?
- Social Deviance – Does it require me to go against societal norms?
- Non-Routine – Is it part of my routine?
By adjusting any of these factors we can help make a good habit easier to do, or a bad habit much more difficult to do. Think about it, the last time you wanted to start exercising, one of the factors or a combination stopped you from exercising, most likely it was number 1 right? So in order to make exercise easier to do you could make it shorter to do, which is something we can do quite easily, or make time for it, like scheduling it in like an appointment you can’t miss.
The Six Motivation Factors
Motivators can be intrinsic or extrinsic, and often they fall into 6 basic categories:
The question is how you can use these 6 motivators to promote the behaviors you want to promote. When starting or increasing a behavior you can increase the hope, social acceptance, or pleasure you derive from the completing the behavior. So for example you could think about exercise as something pleasurable, or maybe connecting it to the improvement of your quality of life. You can also think about behaviors you want to stop. Think about ways you can increase the rejection, fear and pain of performing the act.
Triggers are meant to remind you about the behavior, facilitate the behavior, or motivate you to do them. Triggers are best when they are things you already do without being prompted to do them, like brushing your teeth, or going to the bathroom, but they can also be signals you set up for your yourself to remind you to do the behavior, like text messages. They can even have motivators wrapped in them like a YouTube video of an inspiring Nike commercial sent to your mobile phone at 7am in the morning to get you out of bed and into the gym. They can be as complicated or as simple as you make them, the most important thing is that you don’t underestimate a good trigger.
Let’s Look At An Example
Now that we have a basic understanding behind the FBM framework and how we can use it to design for behavior change lets look at step by step how to change a behavior. According to Professor Fogg habit building requires we follow 3 steps, but we added an extra step based on our research and experience in behavior change.
- Shrink the change – Make the habit tiny, like flossing one tooth, or doing 5 pushups. By shrinking the change we make the ability factors like time, cost, physical effort less of a barrier.
- Find a spot – We need to put our desired behavior after a current habit. For example you probably brush your teeth everyday so why not put your new behavior after that. Other good ones include going to the bathroom, calling a significant other, or checking your favorite site like Facebook.
- Train the cycle everyday – Do the tiny habit everyday until it becomes automatic. Do not skip a day, this is the reason the habit is so tiny, so doing it everyday is not a burden.
- Shape your environment – Shape your external environment to make the habit easy to do, like packing your gym bag the night before, or purchasing a doorway pull up bar if you want to be able to do more pullups.
Let’s take the example of exercising. Imagine you want to exercise daily, how can you do that using the FBM? Here’s just one way you can do it:
- Shrink the Change – The first step is to shrink the change, by reducing the strain it takes to do the act makes it easier to do and makes it harder for us to skip it. So for example we can say to do 10 squats everyday.
- Find A Spot – This is about finding the trigger that will signal you to do the act. Choosing something you already do is the best. For example think about all the things you already do unconsciously like getting up to go to the bathroom, eating breakfast, brushing your teeth, or call your boyfriend at 2pm. Choose one of those things and put the behavior immediately after it and remind yourself to do it possibly through an automated text message or post-it on your computer screen.
- Train the Cycle – This is about doing the small act until you feel sufficiently confident that it’s become part of your routine. Usually it takes 28 days, but it may be less or more, it’s different for each person. Once the cycle has been trained you can escalate your participation in exercise by adding more squats, or if you want adding other types of exercises like push ups, lunges, and the like. The important thing is to make sure that you are consistent with the tiny habit before increasing your intensity, or you’ll increase your chances of quiting by overdoing it. In general once you’ve trained the cycle you will have naturally escalated your involvement.
- Shape your Environment – This is about making hard changes to make sure the habit continues to be promoted through environmental cues. So for example, you can do things like putting a poster on your door of someone doing a squat, or replacing your phone background with a nicely designed background that says “Did you do your 10 squats today?.” You can also shape your social environment by hanging out with people who exercise daily. It’s about designing your external environment so that it cues you to exercise and makes it very easy for you to do so.
By understanding the mechanism behind behavior change you can design your life around behaviors that promote health. It won’t be an easy thing to do, and may take some time, but at least you have some tools to take control of your habits and steer your own course, instead of letting life circumstances & bad habits dictate how your life and health play out.