The Science of Sustainability

Think Tiny: The Science of New Year's Resolutions

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This story originally aired on January 6, 2012.

It's that time of year when we let go of the old and bring in the new. And that often means setting New Year's resolutions. Some are able to keep to their new goals but most of us eventually just give up. Changing behavior is no easy task, but one Stanford professor has developed a new technique. He says not to worry about New Year’s goals. Instead, we should focus on “tiny habits.”

What’s a tiny habit? Fogg demonstrates by picking up his ukulele and playing for 30 seconds. "I used to play ukulele a lot. But I stopped practicing for a while so to get back into it I thought I’m going to create a tiny habit of just practicing this cord sequence," he says.

“I set it right by the piano so right after I finish breakfast I go pick the ukulele up. That’s what a tiny habit is. It’s a very little thing that you sequence into your life in a place that makes sense and you work to make it automatic.”

Thirty seconds doesn’t seem like much when you compare it to goals like getting in shape or eating better. But these broad ideas are where Fogg says most people get into trouble.

Resolutions vs. Habits

“What a mistake – the whole idea around New Year’s resolutions. People aren’t picking specific behaviors, they’re picking abstractions,” he says.

Abstract goals don’t work, says Fogg, when they aren’t tied to specific behaviors. And to retain new behavior, he says it needs to be instinctual. The more you have to remember to do something, the better the chances are that you’ll talk yourself out of it.

“The strength of a habit is defined, at least the way I see it, is how much of a decision was that behavior. So if you’re deciding ‘yeah, I’m going to go to the gym today’ it’s a pretty good indication it’s not a habit. Habits are things you do without deciding,” says Fogg.

Classic behavior models focus on decision-making as a key component of behavior. Fogg is trying to get away from that by working on a new model of habit formation that’s built on baby steps.

Forming a Habit

Take something like flossing your teeth. Instead of trying to floss all your teeth every day, Fogg says start with flossing just one tooth.

Next, find a habit you already have and do your new habit immediately after. “For me and for most people, brushing your teeth is a solid habit. So that can serve as a trigger for the new behavior you want.”

Then, reward yourself. “You declare victory. Like I am so awesome, I just flossed one tooth. And I know it sounds ridiculous. But I believe that when you reinforce yourself like that, your brain will say yeah, awesome, let’s do that.”

And once the habit is formed, Fogg says you’ll find yourself flossing all your teeth. That’s a theory he’s testing out, at least, with several hundred volunteers. Fogg put out a call on twitter, asking participants to do three tiny habits for a week.

Testing the Model

One of those people is Charles Wang, a psychiatrist in Palo Alto, who picked flossing as one of his habits. “So right now I’m probably doing on average six or seven teeth, I think,” he says.

He’s also trying to do ten pushups as soon as he wakes up and to answer emails as soon as he opens them. “When I look at the email, then I just say, you know, I’m going to immediately hit reply and then send a response. There are still times where it’s just challenging to do that one so I don’t always do it.”

If the ideas of behavioral triggers and rewards sound familiar to pet owners, Fogg says there’s a reason. “If you really took the techniques for training dogs and applied it to yourself, you would have much better success. Now, I’m sure people are upset with me for saying that because people want to think we’re different from other animals. When it comes to behavior, we’re a lot more alike than people want to believe.”

Fogg is eager to see if a person’s habit-making ability improves with every new one they make. And he believes understanding habit formation better is vital to industries like medicine and healthcare.

“The mistakes that are being made are pretty predictable. Don’t create a system that assumes that people are going to make these big huge changes in their lives. The good news is there are a lot of things in the works to help people stay healthy.”

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.
  • Aboddy

    I disagree – my abstract resolutions have often had successful results with me. Maybe its my personality or maybe my determination? Or maybe even my methods. I feel very unaccomplished when completing tiny habits – I really doubt that system would work for me. After brushing one tooth I believe I would feel rather pathetic.

    • Emir

      Not brushing, but flossing. One is infinitely better than zero :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=763184834 Stacy Braslau-Schneck

    Dog trainers like myself know this well (although sometimes it's hard to step back and consciously apply the techniques to ourselves, or the human children we're raising, too). We say, "Be a splitter, not a lumper" in terms of splitting a significant behavior change goal into a series of near-insignificant, achievable goals. This allows for a high rate of reinforcement.

    One quibble, though – habits are not instincts; no matter how well conditioned the term "instinctual" should not apply. "Habitual" certainly does! You could also use "without thinking", "unconsciously", or "as a conditioned response".

    Stacy Braslau-Schneck, MA
    Stacy's Wag'N'Train
    San Jose, CA

  • MK

    This story reminds of the quotes "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" and "baby steps."

  • http://www.smallbusinessgrants.net/small-business-grants/ Small Business Grant

    Tis the season for the ultimate test: sticking to your New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all made them at one point or another — whether it is sticking to a diet or pledging to end procrastination. According to The Wall Street Journal, the most popular of them all is losing weight. As students frequent the Aquatic and Fitness Center, researchers have discovered scientific benefits to exercise which may provide reluctant gym goers with that bit of motivation they may be lacking.

    Published earlier this month in the journal Nature, a study from researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School examines the effect of exercise on a more cellular level. The researchers discovered a new hormone produced in response to exercise which turns white fat into brown fat, also known as the “good fat.” Brown fat cells burn calories by using energy, while white fat cells are inert storage rooms for fat.

  • http://twitter.com/GabrielRoybal Gabriel Roybal

    never lasted more than a few weeks.

  • RN2b

    Way to be myopic, Aboddy

  • Pingback: Big changes begin with baby steps - Karmic Lemonade