Book Notes: BJ Fogg — Tiny Habits: How starting small makes lasting change easy

If you find yourself endlessly scrolling through Instagram, you probably have BJ Fogg to thank for it. His pioneering work on behaviour design has been hugely influential in Silicon Valley. I was intrigued to read an overview of his work in this book and use his insights for self-improvement.

Fogg, B.J. (2020). Tiny Habits: How starting small makes lasting change easy. London, UK: Virgin Books

I’m in two minds about this book. On one hand, I found a lot of useful advice. The approach to habit building in this book is novel and not just a rehashing of ideas that one may have come across elsewhere. It’s also an uplifting approach due to the emphasis on tiny changes that everyone is capable of making. Indeed, one of the messages running throughout the book is that making a positive change should not be hard. If it’s hard, the behavioural design should change. Since I started reading this book, I managed to integrate quite a few positive habits into my life that I could not stick with before. I also found the perspective of behavioural design helpful when thinking about the behaviour of others in my professional and private life.

On the other hand, I got a bit annoyed by the style. Like many non-fiction books from US authors, the book is drawing out minor points far too much. The points are introduced, then illustrated with examples, then recapitulated in figures, and finally summarized again at the end of each chapter. I think the actual content of the book could be easily summarized in a few pages. Some characterisations also got on my nerves. Many of the things described as models are nothing more than extremely simplistic descriptions of common-sense knowledge. The simplicity does not take away from their usefulness, but I felt like the author was overselling the content. The worst example of this was the last chapter in which the author likens his method of getting people to floss their teeth to creating a panacea for all modern ills. In my view, writing a self-help book and creating products that get people to share pictures of their breakfast online is not the same as curing cancer. In all, I think the book contains useful information for any reader if they are willing to separate the chaff from the grain.

People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad

You can’t get yourself to do what you don’t want to do. At least not reliably. You might do the behavior once or twice, but it’s unlikely to become a habit.

By going tiny, you create consistency; by staying tiny, you get your new habit firmly rooted.

When you see the world through Behavior Design glasses — viewing behavior as a puzzle to be solved — the realm of the possible opens up well beyond your home or office.

Please note: This is my summary of the content of the book. While I tried to capture the main points, this is necessarily a subjective and incomplete overview. I highly recommend that you pick up the book yourself to get the full details.

The main message of the book is that you should start building habits from something tiny, e.g. just getting out the yoga mat, then celebrate every time you do this behaviour.

According to the main model of the book, habits depend on three factors: Prompt, Motivation, Ability:

  • prompt — cue to the behaviour
  • motivation — desire to do the behaviour
  • ability — capacity to carry out the behaviour

If one of the factors is missing, the habit will fail. It helps to analyse all factors when trying to establish a new habit. Further, it helps to rehearse the entire sequence from prompt to behaviour and eventual success to fully root in the sequence.

Prompt are the triggers for the behaviour. They are the easiest part to implement, but some thought should be given to them to optimise their effectiveness. The best prompts are part of the behaviour or environment, e.g. doing something in a specific sequence rather than relying on a phone notification.

Most people think that motivation is the most important aspect of building habits. However, motivation is not reliable to maintain a habit in the long term. There are different sources of motivation. Motivation can come from the self, external benefit or punishment, and the context (e.g. friends and family doing the behaviour). Motivation can be increased by celebrating successes. Further, loss of motivation can be mitigated by making the behaviour easy to do, i.e. starting with something that requires little effort or time.

The same logic used to implement new habits can be used to stop bad habits. However, some additional things should be considered. First, many people ascribe their bad habits to personal failure, which makes it even more difficult to break the habit. Second, many people start with their worst and most complex bad habit. This makes breaking the habit more challenging and less likely to succeed. Instead, it is better to start with a bad habit that is easier to overcome. The success will boost your self-confidence before tackling the difficult one. Third, it is worth considering all aspects of the habit. Sometimes, it is enough to remove, avoid, or ignore the prompt that triggers the bad habit.

So, what makes a good habit? In general, a new habit should either help you become who you want to be, help you reach a personal goal, and have a big impact despite being small.

I’m a lecturer in psychology specialised in cognitive neuroscience. My research investigated brain development in young people who struggle in school.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store