How to Make Tiny Habits Even Better
In June 2020, I ran a couple of Tiny Habits online trainings for my Polish audience. Each time, I designed three new tiny habits for myself. I learned a lot from that experience.
BJ Fogg, the inventor of the Tiny Habits method, is a genius. I confirm everything he says about behavior design in his book.
Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. – Thomas Edison
It’s easy to be a genius, when you got tens of thousands of people through your trainings, gathered feedback, and put it back into work. Yet, there is still room for improvement in Tiny Habits. I went through two weeks of practicing tiny habits in one month and found numerous improvements that can increase students’ chances for success.
Hence, this post, lessons learned from my Tiny Habits practice.
Here are the tiny habits I practiced during those two weeks:
#1 After I use a bathroom, I will pop into my children’s rooms.
#2 After I finish my morning journal entry, I will open my journal on the last page and write down at least one person I’m grateful for (and the exact reason I’m grateful).
#3 After I come to my home office with the first morning coffee, I will write a thank you note.
#1 After I decide to use a bathroom, I will go to the bathroom upstairs (where my kids’ bedrooms are).
#2 After I come to the kitchen, I will clean something.
#3 After I sit down in my chair at the home office, I will rejoice.
It’s the core of the whole Tiny Habits method, yet BJ fails to mention it till the very end of the first huge reading assignment. The whole TH method makes little sense without celebration. Chances for success drastically decrease when you don’t celebrate. The celebration should be mentioned at the very beginning and heavily emphasized.
Why? Because it’s counter-intuitive. It should make zero difference, right? There is really nothing to celebrate! The tiny, less-than-30-second action? It’s laughable, not celebration-worthy.
I bet, the above train of thoughts is what goes through the minds of most people. Why? Because we have a negativity bias. We don’t pay attention to what’s going right or well. Especially, if it’s tiny.
Plenty of people are hammered with their own crappy self-talk and it’s a simple subconscious mechanism to keep the status quo. It’s less about the status quo and more about saving your energy. Your subconscious hates doing anything but indulging your senses with pleasure. So, there is friction even against your tiny habits.
However, celebration works like hacking your system for good habits development. You develop bad habits because you get dopamine shots right when you occupy yourself with them.
You bite a Choco bar and you feel a sweet bliss.
You masturbate and you immediately feel a different kind of bliss.
You drink alcohol and you get this joyful buzz inside your head.
You inhale tobacco smoke and you can feel how it soothes your system.
You yell at someone and you feel how the tension inside you dissipates in the eruption of anger.
You tap your mobile screen and you feel a pang of pleasurable anticipation looking forward to the new messages or funny memes.
You do whatever you do, and you are immediately rewarded with a shot of dopamine. Pure bliss! So, you repeat the unfortunate behavior to get this reward again.
The celebration of tiny habits is your way to generate a similar hormonal response in your body as the effect of something you consciously decided to do.
Celebrate, and you immediately will strengthen the habit loop. You will be looking forward to doing your tiny habit next time.
Sometimes, I think humans elevated themselves to the top of the food chain on the planet by becoming the most unpleasant creatures. Looking for dangers is our default mode. Feeling down, dissatisfied and frustrated keep our minds very sensitive to any eventual threats. Feeling good is nice at the moment, but not a preferable survival mechanism.
But we no longer fight for mere survival. We have no basic tools to keep ourselves happy and content. The celebration of your tiny habits is such a tool. It’s your excuse to feel good.
2. Multi-repetition habits are superior.
My TN1#3 habit was a disaster. I couldn’t remember it. I come to my home office with a coffee after my morning ritual. I’m ready to work. Writing a thank you note doesn’t connote in my mind with work. And I had no more chance to recall I should write the note. If I forgot in the morning, the only chance was gone.
3. Context matters.
Gosh, the whole tiny habits experience was enlightening on so many levels. Going through the training twice helped me to realize how important a context is for remembering habits.
Our memory is not a hard drive, it uses associations to store information. If we put a new habit in a similar context, it will make it much easier to remember and do.
Take my TN1#2 habit – writing a person I’m grateful for and the reason. It was also a single-repetition habit, but it went much better. I’ve just journaled, so my mind already was in the writing context.
I use my journal as a gratitude journal, so there an additional connection to gratitude existed.
I’ve told you what an utter disaster TN1#3 was. After the first week, I decided I need to change the anchor for that habit. I moved it right behind jotting down in my journal who am I grateful for.
And it worked like magic. I don’t think I skipped one day since I did that. A huge part of this was the right context. I was writing those people and reasons I’m grateful for them to become more consistent with writing thank you notes. It was a natural consequence to take a sheet of paper and start writing a note right after putting my journal away.
4. Visual cues are indispensable.
Multi-repetition habits are superior, but if you base your new habit on an activity that is basically mindless, it’s hard to remember your new habit. This is where visual cues are indispensable.
Let’s take for example my TN2#2 habit. Our kitchen is connected with a living room and a hallway. There are no doors. I barely notice I’m entering the kitchen. Well, I don’t notice it at all. There is no sign to signal that something changed between one step and another. My habit anchor was too common to trigger the habit.
While the training week, I remembered about it because every day I made an inventory of my tiny habits. But right after I started referring to my habit recipes every day, I lost this habit. Well, not exactly. It became semi-automatic, I think I still cleaned something more often than not.
But I lost any control over the process. I didn’t remember about a habit, so I didn’t celebrate it and didn’t track it. A visual cue in the kitchen would be great to keep this habit in the conscious brain of my brain. A simple thing like a sticky note with one word: “Clean” would be enough.
The same goes for TN2#3. I sit in my chair multiple days a day. This activity is totally mindless. I had no visual cue and only a very distant context (yes, I find joy in my work, most of the time). It was a struggle to remember to rejoice even during the training week, and it was even harder once I stopped reviewing my habit recipes.
Now, over two weeks after the second training I still struggle with remembering the habit. I don’t struggle with the habit itself or its celebration. It feels awesome. I just don’t remember about it.
I lacked the visual cue. I thought about buying a sticker, or a few, of a smiley emoticon, but never got about purchasing them. Then, one day, I noticed a mug on my table. I use it as a visual cue for my habit of drinking a glass of water in the morning.
Also, my morning ritual is a complicated process. I have dozen+ habits and each of them cries for at least a pinch of mindfulness. I need to be aware enough to switch from one activity to another. So, there was this natural level of watchfulness on what I need to do next. Thus, a “mindless” habit of finishing my journaling session could trigger a new habit.
The mug has a sticky figure with a smiley face on it. It’s an ideal visual cue to rejoice.
5. Modification is key.
My rejoicing habit is an ideal example. The original recipe was:
#3 After I sit down in my chair at the home office, I will rejoice.
But I couldn’t connote the act of sitting down in my chair with my new habit.
I thought about a visual cue, a sticker with a smile. And did nothing about it. Then I noticed my mug and decided to put it on my keyboard every time I’ll be standing up from my chair, so when I come back, I’ll have no choice but put it away, so I’ll notice it, so it will remind me about my new habit.
But that was too much fuss. I needed to introduce an entirely new habit of putting my mug on a keyboard.
So, since my mug is on the desk all the time, maybe I should rejoice when I glance at the mug. But it made my awareness too high and the habit too frequent. I would’ve rejoiced 10 times a minute.
Well, maybe I will go back to my original plan and stick a sticker on the chair’s seat. Then, I’ll notice the visual cue only when sitting down.
See? The key is to modify your habit till it fulfills the objective. I want to be more joyful and I need a discipline, which will put me in a state of joy several times a day.
When I defined the original recipe, this objective wasn’t as clear. I only knew I need more joy in my life to be an uplifting presence in the life of my family. It took me a few iterations to get this clarity and get closer to the exact discipline.
When you operate in BJ Fogg’s framework of behavioral design those tiny modifications beget fun, not frustration. There wasn’t a single moment when I was frustrated with this habit. I was constantly focused on the end goal and curious about how I can change what I was doing to reach my objective.
A great side effect of this attitude is that you subconsciously embrace the idea that yes, you certainly can modify your behaviors and achieve the desired end result. The lack of this kind of confidence is at the source of most human miseries on this planet.
My Favorite Tiny Habit
TH1#1 After I use a bathroom, I will pop into my children’s rooms.
Sometimes you will nail it at the first iteration. I spend most of my days downstairs in my home office, alone. My kids spend most of their days in their rooms. We don’t see each other much. The lockdown vividly demonstrated to me how our behavior degraded our family life. What we needed were more interactions.
This tiny habit at least tripled the frequency of our face to face interactions. Nowadays, I’m popping into my kids’ rooms several times a day. Interactions are the fabric of our family life. Now, it can expand and enrich.
The Tiny Habits method is great. You finish up with new habits, but the process is as valuable as the effect.
Even the most reliable anchor will not help you without the right context, visual cue, or a pinch of awareness. There must be a connotation between the anchor and a new habit.
Multi-repetition habits are superior to once-a-day habits. It’s easier to create a connotation between an anchor and a habit, the habit is developed faster and solidifies faster.
Modification of your tiny habit recipes is an indispensable part of the process. It teaches you that you are in control of your behaviors and creates a can-do attitude.
I hoped I inspired you to take your own Tiny Habits training.