If you hate the monotony of running on the treadmill, but drag yourself to the cardio room daily, believing self-torture will eventually become a habit—that’s not heroic; it’s bad design.
According to B.J. Fogg, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University who has studied behavior change for more than 20 years, doing something you don’t enjoy and subsequently failing to make it habitual is actually more detrimental to a mission for change than doing nothing at all. To create a real lifelong habit, the focus should be on training your brain to succeed at a small adjustments, then gaining confidence from that success, he argues. To do that, one needs to design behavior changes that are both easy to do and can be seamlessly slipped into your existing routine. Aim for automaticity.
As proof of this concept, Fogg points to the massive experiments for which we’ve all been the lab rats: the success of tech giants like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, companies that have made fortunes testing—and figuring out—how to make millions of people use their products as automatic habits. This is Fogg’s area of expertise at Stanford, where he researches the ways computers (including mobile phones) can persuade humans, a field known as captology (from CAPT, “computers as persuasive technology,” a term Fogg coined). He also directs the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab and runs “persuasion boot camps” for industry professionals.
To help people figure out how to make new behaviors they actually want as routine as turning to Google to search the web, he developed the Fogg Method, which references several psychological theories and is comprised of three key steps. The first is about identifying your specific desired outcome: Do you want to feel less stressed at work? Lose 10% of your bodyweight?
Next, identify the easy-win behaviors—he calls them “tiny habits”—that will put you on the path to that goal. (This requires introspection, because the going method for reducing stress may not be the behavior that will work for you, Fogg emphasized in an interview with NPR last year. Maybe you’d find short walks more meditative than meditating, for instance, or perhaps jogging with your retriever sounds more inviting than lacing up for a spin class.)