Behavior Change Is (maybe not so) Hard.

I learned something recently that I wish I had learned 10 years ago: Self-motivation is not the way to create new daily behaviors that stick. The trick is to construct a new simple habit and just let it happen. Motivation is hard and tiring and not at all reliable but creating a habit and just doing it because it is a habit is actually quite easy. I credit BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program (more on that later) for triggering this profound shift in perspective.

10 Years of Going to the Gym…

I joined a gym 10 years ago – at first of course I was inspired and eager to get there and lift_weightswork out, but before long, trying to motivate myself to go 4 times a week – forever – became hard. I have been going very regularly, about 3 times a week ever since, but just about every time I went, I first had to have this internal conversation to talk myself into it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t and when it didn’t, I subsequently felt a sense of having failed at sticking to my goals. But whether I made it to the gym or not, the internal motivational dialogue took a tremendous amount of energy.

For 10 freakin years, I have been having this internal battle to motivate myself to go to the gym, 3 or so times a week. Not any more.

Now (for the past 3+ months), I just go, simple as that. At 6am I fry an egg and eat it, then I make a smoothie, then I put on my shoes, then I get in the car, then I drive to the gym and drink the smoothie on the way. That’s the routine, that’s the habit. No more internal motivational dialogue. Notice that the habit is to drive to the gym, the habit is not to work out for an hour. But, once I’m there, it only makes sense to get out of the car and go inside and work out (actually there have been days when I get out of my car and walk to the coffee shop instead, but only a few). Some days this routine is easier, some days it’s harder – but on the harder days, I don’t have to talk myself into why I should get to the gym to work out, I just have to remember that this is just what I do, I drive to the gym while I am drinking my smoothie, and so I just do it. I am my habits, we are all just a bundle of habits.

When I get to the gym I celebrate, and it feels good. I’m awake, out, in the parking lot of the gym, ready to go inside, and it is long before I used to even get out of bed. It is a great sense of accomplishment. I purposely put a big smile on my face and look up into the sky, my hands go in the air with a vigorous fist pump and out loud I say “YEA, I’m ready for a great workout!” That’s the reward. It doesn’t sound like much of a reward, but it turns out that a body motion like this releases hormones and impacts your brain chemistry/activity. It is a real reward, my brain seems to like it; I know because I really look forward to it. Of course the next step is to walk into the gym and do it – I’m already here and feeling good about myself… easy.

Trigger, Routine, Reward

So there is a trigger (actually in this case a series of triggers and events that lead from one to the other), an easy and enjoyable routine (drive to the gym and enjoy a smoothie on the way), and a reward (personal victory and self-congratulations).

This is not just some crazy talk, it turns out there is a ton of human behavior research behind this. A habit is a pattern engraved in the brain that has these 3 components. I’m just pissed that it took me 10 years to figure this out.

I’ve been working in the health 2.0 space for a few years now and I must have heard the statement “Behavior change is hard” a thousand times. I suppose we have all heard the same message over and over. Say it enough times and it becomes true. So why even try, right? My experiences recently are telling me a different story.

I don’t think I can overstate how fundamentally different I feel about sticking to my workout routine now, it is no longer hard to do, it is easy. Maybe this shift resonates so deeply with me because of my 10 years of doing it the hard way. I do somehow feel a bit stupid though for having taken this long to figure it out 😉

Tiny Habits

My path into studying the basics of behavior change started with my learning about BJ Fogg, Silicon Valley’s behavior design icon from Stanford. I started with his free Tiny Habits program. Tiny Habits is this ridiculously simple introduction to how to create a habit in your life. Intuitively, it seemed to me like a complete waste of time, but I suspended my disbelief and went thru the program with strict adherence to BJ’s guidance. I was really tempted to modify his instructions so they made more sense to me. I’m glad I didn’t. Among the 3 habits I chose to create for myself in the week long experiment was the floss-your-tooth tiny habit he frequently uses as an example. The habit went like this: After I get out of the shower and towel off I will floss one tooth and celebrate by pumping my fists in the air with an out loud ‘Yea’”. My intuition told me that was ridiculous: Standing naked in the bathroom? One tooth? Fist pump? BJ who?

Another habit I chose (you pick 3 to work on in the week) was related to working out: Immediately after I walk in the door when home from work, I will put on my workout shorts. Suddenly, I found myself going to the gym without having to talk myself into it – and that was the aha moment for me. Looking back on it now I can see that the cognitive work was to remember the trigger (walking in the door) and to remember to do the activity (change into workout shorts)  – that’s pretty easy! The old way was to come home and start the process of talking myself into going to the gym to lift heavy weights for an hour – very hard! 

It used to be that after I successfully (hopefully) talked myself into going to the gym, I got dressed and went. If I failed, I never changed into my workout clothes, I sat down and had a glass of wine instead. Once I was in my workout clothes the conversation was over, I just went. Now, here I was habitually changing my clothes – no motivational speech necessary. The “after I was dressed in my workout clothes I just went”  part didn’t have to change.

I am also happy to report that 4+ months later I still have not missed a day of flossing my teeth. I floss one and celebrate. And then go ahead and floss the rest. Oddly enough, this is a bit harder than it sounds because in order to throw two hands in the air and do a proper 2-armed fist pump, you have to unwind the floss from one of your two hands after flossing a single tooth 🙂 But I do it, and then continue with the rest of my teeth. Sounds crazy, I know. But it’s fun and it works.

Since my Tiny Habits week, my research into behavior and habit design has continued. I’ve taken a 6-week Irrational Behavior MOOC taught by Dan Ariely and read his books; I’ve read BJ’s book and watched videos and heard him talk a couple of times; I read Charles Duhigg’s “Power of Habit”; I read “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman… the list goes on. But this most fundamental “Aha!” moment for me came from BJ’s Tiny Habits program. I.E, all this advice I’m spewing, it’s not mine, it’s not new news.

I’ve learned quite a bit more about existing research in human behavior. One concept in particular regarding the notion that self-control is a muscle-like depletable resource has led me to swapping my workout to the morning instead of after work, but that is a story for another day.

Why Did it Take 10 Years to get here?

Maybe everyone else working on adding healthy behaviors to their lives has already figured this out and it’s just me who wasn’t looking in the right place… but I doubt it. I bought a Fitbit in late 2011, why did the Fitbit app not help me learn this? I bought a Withings scale and blood pressure monitor 1- 2 years ago; I’ve had a HealthVault account for 3 or 4 years – nothing. I.E. I’m trying to engage in my own wellness and none of the tools I have used in the past couple of years helped me learn that behavior change really isn’t all that hard. I’m a Jawbone Up user these days and much happier with the behavior change-ability of this app, but this is also a story for another day.

About Mark Feinholz

Digital Health Product Manager. Inspired by technology to help us live happier and healthier lives.
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6 Responses to Behavior Change Is (maybe not so) Hard.

  1. Joshua Solomon says:

    I like Jawbone Up as well. Great article and intro to the Tiny Habits.

  2. Thanks Mark. I too am a BJ Fogg fan. I like your ‘trigger’ of putting on workout clothes as soon as you get home. I’m curious what specifically it is about Jawbone Up (being a Fitbit user) that provides persuasive benefits for changing behavior – what a potential value proposition for Jawbone Up!

    I’ve spent my career trying to change the behavior of physicians and it’s a real challenge. Thus far the only trigger for adopting the use of Electronic Health Records (EHRs) has been government stimulus dollars. EHRs have not been designed as a tiny step-by-step process; they take the physician out of their normal workflow so the context is unfamiliar and the experience is not meaningful or measurable (except to annoy them). I’m simplifying of course, but designers of EHRs have not designed with behavioral change in mind and billions of dollars are being wasted, IMO.

    Bottom line – I agree completely with Tiny Habits – great post, thanks.

    • Hi Diane. I spent a few years working on a product for physicians – a tool that helps PCP’s manage their participation in pay-for-performance programs that use mostly HEDIS-derived measures to determine bonus payouts. The success of the tool was primarily based on making a very complex program and very complex measures seem easy by distilling it down to very simple steps that led to quarterly measure improvements. But now, I question the explicit and sole focus on the extrinsic reward of a bonus check – too much scientific study seems to indicate that cash rewards may actually have a perverse impact in the long run, resulting in a decrease in the motivational ability of the intrinsic rewards that may be more important for most physicians.

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