I used to think that motivation was the key to change.
Year after year, I would get really motivated in January and then set these ridiculously ambitious resolutions for myself.
I’d always start strong, but as the weeks went on, the motivation would wear off, I’d fail at my attempts, and before long, I’d be right back to where I started.
Worse still, now I felt terrible that I’d failed and let myself down – which made me less confident about taking on new challenges in the future.
The problem with relying on motivation to change is that it’s kind of like the weather on a summer’s day in Ireland – it’s subject to wild fluctuations.
Some days it’s powerful like a storm. On other days, it’s mild like a breeze.
Therefore, it’s probably not a good idea to depend on it.
I was intrigued then, to learn about a scientific approach to behaviour change that removes motivation from the equation; which emerged from one of the world’s leading behavioural change research institutes at Stanford University.
In this post, I’ll explore how this approach can be used to create New Years’ Resolutions that last in 2020.
#1 – Tiny Habits
Research from Stanford behavioural scientist BJ Fogg has revealed that one of the most effective ways to create long term change in our lives is to start with a tiny habit.
If you want to start flossing, Fogg recommends starting with one tooth. If you want to start writing, set the goal of writing one hundred words per day. If you want to get fit, commit to ten minutes of physical activity in the morning.
The key when starting out, Fogg argues, it to make the behaviour so small and insignificant that it requires almost no motivation to complete.
Research from University College London has found that it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit or behaviour to become ‘automatic’. Critically, if a new habit requires high levels of motivation, then on days when motivation is low, you are unlikely to repeat the new behaviour, meaning you won’t reach the 66 days required to make it automatic.
The beauty of Fogg’s ‘tiny habit’ method is that it vastly increases our chances of reaching the 66 day threshold and making it an automatic part of our routine.
So, if you’re thinking about taking on a new habit in 2020, your best chances of ‘making it stick’ are to break it down into the smallest possible version of it, and to design it in a way that requires almost no motivation to carry out.
So how do you do that?
#2 – Triggers
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.
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 going to the bathroom. He knew he was going to need to do go to the bathroom 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 my new 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.
This equation can help:
After I [existing behaviour],
I will [new tiny habit.]
#3 – Rewards
A behaviour is essentially a neural pathway 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 stores it in long term memory, so we can succeed again in the future.
When ‘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 even doing a silly dance.
It might sound ridiculous, but Fogg’s results speak for themselves.
So when designing your resolutions, it can help to ask:
‘What can I do to reward myself immediately after I finish my tiny habit?’
‘Every action we take is a vote for the kind of person we want to become.’James Clear
Not only do our actions give other people clues about who we are, they also influence how we see ourselves.
If we do something enough, it becomes part of our identity. When we write, our unconscious mind is slowly getting the message: ‘I’m a writer.’ When we run, we’re telling ourselves: ‘I’m a runner’.
And when something becomes part of our identity, it’s harder not to do it, than it is to do it.
The power of Fogg’s method is that it gives us our best chance of repeating a behaviour enough, so that it becomes automatic and part of who we are.
The trick is to design our resolutions in a way that they don’t rely on motivation or willpower.
Breaking them down into ‘tiny habits’, using triggers and rewarding ourselves are three scientifically proven and highly effective ways for doing that.