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Creating Tiny Habits Can Lead to Big Changes: An Expert Q&A

Feet walking
January 13, 2020

By Debbie Koenig

How many times have you decided to lose a few pounds, exercise regularly, or keep yourself more organized? And how many times have you succeeded? If you’re like most people, you do great initially, but eventually your old habits return. BJ Fogg, PhD, thinks he knows why your resolve always seems to fade away. He’s the world’s leading expert on forming new habits, and the founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. In his first book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, he shows how to use his Tiny Habits method to make changes to your life that really stick.

WebMD spoke with Fogg about why tiny changes are the way to go, why celebration is key, and why willpower just isn’t necessary. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WebMD: What are we getting wrong about forming new habits—why is it so hard?

Fogg: People find it hard because they’ve been misled by traditional ideas in our culture. One is that it takes a certain number of days to create a habit. If people buy into the idea that it’s about repetition, they’re thinking, How long do I have to suffer, how long do I endure before this magically becomes a habit? If they think they have to suffer, they’re going to procrastinate. But there’s no number of days. I’ve looked at the research people cite, and the research shows correlation, not causation. For instance, we can do a study that shows the more time you spend in the farmers market the healthier you’ll be, but that’s not showing cause.

People are given these traditional notions: You have to set a goal, be ready, track, be perfect, but none of those things are essential. The fact of the matter is, we’re changing habits all the time. It’s what we do. The research in Tiny Habits, which I’ve been doing for years, looks at how does human behavior really work when you create habits? I found a way to hack it.

These are the steps: Pick habits you want, not ones you feel you should have. Shoulds go with suffering, the idea that you have to exercise or eat kale. Second, make the habits really, really small. And then find where they fit in your day. What does it come after naturally?

The most important thing of all, which a lot of people skip over, is the last step. You have to feel successful. In Tiny Habits I have a method I call celebration. You deliberately cause yourself to feel successful by doing a fist pump or a little dance. Figure out what makes you have this emotional burst. You use that to wire the habit into your brain. You’re hacking into the system to create habits through emotion.

It’s straightforward, you’re not guessing, you can form habits readily. If you need to be more productive or reduce stress, you can address those issues right away. You don’t have to wait for motivation.

WebMD: Are you saying that willpower doesn’t matter?

Fogg: Not for habit formation. If you feel you have to exert willpower, it’s a sign you haven’t picked the right habit, or you haven’t designed it the right way. Willpower is useful for some things—when you have a deadline, you use willpower. But that’s not a habit, that’s getting across the finish line. To create a habit, no. Willpower goes with the suffer, endure mindset.

WebMD: What’s the reasoning behind tiny habits? What are the benefits of starting so small?

Fogg: The main one is, if it’s really tiny and easy to do, you don’t have to have lots of motivation to do it. The easier the behavior, the less motivation required. On the flip side, harder habits need more motivation. Motivation shifts over time, it goes up and down. If you pick something hard and your motivation drops, you won’t do it. If you pick something super-tiny—floss one tooth, do two pushups—even when motivation is low you can still do it. It doesn’t get derailed. Motivation is slippery, we don’t have control of it, so let’s not pretend we do.

WebMD: Tell me about the Maui habit, your first-thing-in-the-morning ritual. What does that accomplish?

Fogg: The Maui habit is, as soon as you get out of bed and put your feet on the floor, you say, “It’s going to be a great day.” Say it loud or quietly, and I advise people to take a moment and try to believe it, even if you don’t. Other days you will feel it. It’s a simple, seven-word habit that sets your morning in the right direction, which leads to other good things. You’ll be better at facing the challenges that come your way—more optimistic, success-framed. You’ll be more open to the opportunities that come your way, too. You’ll respond better, with just seven words.

WebMD: You say, “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.” What do you mean by that?

Fogg: This is the most important part of the book. Tiny Habits, the method, works. But in my view it’s a means to an end, helping people learn how to feel good. Habit formation, rewiring of the brain, can happen with positive emotion. But more broadly, learning to celebrate, to fire off a positive emotion, it has a ripple effect. It uplifts your mood and helps you feel good rather than bad. That’s what transforms you. Flossing your teeth is a great habit, but what transforms you is your ability to recognize the good and feel successful. In the book I call it shine, the emotion of feeling successful. The shine rubs off on family, on colleagues.

WebMD: You talk about stopping bad habits as well as starting new ones. Which is more difficult?

Fogg: Most of the time stopping is harder, because people are talking about habits like snacking, social media, snapping at their kids. Those are harder to unwind than starting a new habit.

Step one for stopping: Don’t blame yourself about the habit. It’s not helpful. If it’s a deeply entrenched habit you’ve tried to break before, step two will surprise people: Focus on creating a bunch of good habits. Set aside the “you drink too much at night” habit, and instead practice a bunch of good habits using the Tiny Habits method. Then, step three is to watch your identity and confidence shift. When you see you can change, you start thinking of yourself differently. Step four, there will be a time when you realize you’re ready, you have the confidence and skills to stop. I’m talking about the harder habits—not just throwing the trash in the right receptacle. And if they’re really hard or life-threatening, find the right specialist and get help.

WebMD: Why is it a mistake to blame ourselves for bad habits?

Fogg: Too often products and programs set people up to fail. They pick something hard, then they can’t do it, and they blame themselves. I want to make it really clear: It’s not your fault. We live in a culture where the food environment, the social media environment, the political environment—it’s all stress, eating, drinking, negative self-talk. That’s not any individual’s fault, but we blame ourselves for binge eating, drinking too much, snapping at the kids. That’s a function of what’s going on around us. It’s not the person’s fault, not a lack of willpower.

WebMD: What’s the big message you hope people will take from your book?

Fogg: Making a new habit is easier than you think, and it’s actually fun if you do it in the right way. It doesn’t have to be about enduring and suffering. You don’t have to be perfect. Tiny Habits is an approach that’s playful and flexible, and it’s not about being perfect. It’s about discovering what works for you.

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