Creatures of Habit

Changing behavior and habits is often tedious. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, it is said. And that is exactly where the problem lies. Behavioral change is not only a question of will and motivation, but can be strategically better addressed with a differentiated understanding of human behavior. The behavioral model of B.J. Fogg provides the basis for this.

Humans are crea­tures of habit. And that is a good thing. Habits make our lives eas­i­er by automat­ing deci­sions. On the one hand. On the oth­er hand, habits nec­es­sar­i­ly elim­i­nate oth­er options for action. If we per­ceive those habits as good, we glad­ly accept this loss of alter­na­tives. Of course, the sit­u­a­tion is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent for habits that we have rec­og­nized as harm­ful or inap­pro­pri­ate and that we hon­est­ly try to change — most­ly in vain.

That’s why the list of New Year’s res­o­lu­tions is long and seems to get longer with each pass­ing year. More exer­cise, more mind­ful­ness, less meat, less sug­ar, instead of social media more time with the fam­i­ly, get­ting up an hour ear­li­er every day and final­ly writ­ing this damn book … who has more to offer? The half-life of these res­o­lu­tions, how­ev­er, is rarely longer than a few weeks. The ini­tial moti­va­tion of our euphor­ic par­ty mood on New Year’s Eve fiz­zles out almost as quick­ly as the fire­works, which we did­n’t want to buy anyway.

Moti­va­tion is like a par­ty-ani­mal friend. Great for a night out, but not some­one you would rely on to pick you up from the airport.

B.J. Fogg (2019), Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Every­thing.

These fail­ures lead to frus­tra­tion. We are then dis­sat­is­fied and con­sid­er our­selves weak-willed. In con­trast, B.J. Fogg offers us a much more con­cil­ia­to­ry view of this phe­nom­e­non in his book “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Every­thing” (Ama­zon-Affil­i­ate Link). Accord­ing to his mod­el, moti­va­tion is only one of three com­po­nents that trig­ger behav­ior and form habits. And it is the least reli­able one (B.J. Fogg there­fore speaks of the “moti­va­tion mon­key” that leads us to unre­al­is­tic ambi­tions). The oth­er two are abil­i­ty and trig­ger (also called prompt) and all three must come togeth­er in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ty and in a suit­able way to induce behavior.

Fogg Behavior Model

Only if the prod­uct of abil­i­ty and moti­va­tion is suf­fi­cient­ly large and exceeds our acti­va­tion thresh­old, a trig­ger induces a behav­ior; below this thresh­old, impuls­es or appeals sim­ply fiz­zle out. If we find some­thing dif­fi­cult or we are not good at some­thing, we there­fore need high moti­va­tion to com­pen­sate for this lack of abil­i­ty. Con­verse­ly, some­thing that we find easy requires only lit­tle moti­va­tion. So instead of set­ting a big goal with high moti­va­tion in the par­ty mood on New Year’s Eve, it is much more promis­ing to start with a very small change that requires lit­tle moti­va­tion and is there­fore more like­ly to become a habit that can then be devel­oped into a larg­er change in behav­ior with grad­u­al­ly increas­ing skills.

If you start with a big behav­ior that’s hard to do, the design is unsta­ble; it’s like a large plant with shal­low roots. When a storm comes into your life, your big habit is at risk. How­ev­er, a habit that is easy to do can weath­er a storm like flex­i­ble sprouts, and it can then grow deep­er and stronger roots.

B.J. Fogg (2019), Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Every­thing, S. 81.

B.J. Fogg knows what he is writ­ing and talk­ing about, because in the end he is indi­rect­ly respon­si­ble for the fact that we spend more time with our smart­phone than is good for us and that we are dragged fur­ther and fur­ther down the rab­bit hole of the atten­tion indus­try every day. At his Stan­ford Per­sua­sive Tech­nol­o­gy Lab, which is now called the Behav­ior Design Lab, many of the UX design­ers from Face­book and Co. have learned their craft and per­fect­ed it in their apps. Even though he him­self warned ear­ly on about these excess­es, addressed the eth­i­cal dimen­sion of his work and is active­ly involved in ini­tia­tives to con­tain the assaults on our atten­tion, the “suc­cess” of all these apps on our smart­phones under­scores that his behav­ioral mod­el works fright­en­ing­ly well.

Of course, the mod­el works not only against us, but also in our favor. This is exact­ly what B.J. Fogg deals with in his book “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Every­thing”. Instead of start­ing with too big and dif­fi­cult changes (e.g. med­i­tat­ing for 30 min­utes dai­ly) and rely­ing on moti­va­tion and willpow­er, he pleads for con­scious­ly start­ing with very small changes (e.g. three mind­ful breaths after get­ting up). Our moti­va­tion is unre­li­able and thus an exces­sive­ly large first step inevitably ends in frus­tra­tion and feel­ings of guilt when the ini­tial moti­va­tion fades. Suc­cess with very small steps can devel­op a much more help­ful momen­tum and the small habit can grad­u­al­ly become the desired big change in behavior. 

Exact­ly this advice can be found, how­ev­er, already in a much old­er work, name­ly in the Tao Te Ching, which accord­ing to leg­end goes back to the sage Laozi (approx. 6th cen­tu­ry BC):

Act with­out doing;
work with­out effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Con­front the dif­fi­cult
while it is still easy;
accom­plish the great task
by a series of small acts.

Tao Te Ching

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