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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