Tiny Changes Create Lasting Changes

Natasha Magino
Concept art of a man pushing over dominos that gradually get larger

With every year, comes new pressure to meet New Years resolutions. Some are easy to check off, but others may start to look like mountains to climb. We may put our most difficult resolutions on the backburner where they are soon forgotten until they resurface the following year. A list that was so exciting to make, can eventually feel impossible to execute. 

While New Year's resolutions may work for some, they make many of us feel overwhelmed. What if we didn't put a time stamp on when we had to achieve these goals? What if we focused instead on taking baby steps that focused on short-term wins and progress rather than perfect achievement? 

Dr. BJ Fogg, a leading behavioral scientist and a professor at Stanford University, has some ideas for how to do this. Dr. Fogg started his career researching the persuasive power of digital products, like wearable apps. Now he focuses on human behavior, specifically the conditions we need to make changes in our lives. He conducted a study with over 1,000 people to find out why it's so hard for us to make lasting changes in our life. And he found that three things get in the way: 

  1. First, we judge ourselves too harshly when we fail. If we're trying to lose weight, but then we order a big meal, we feel bad about ourselves. And people don't change by feeling bad. 
  2. Second, we mistake aspirations for behaviors. A behavior is something you can do at a specific point in time, like turn off your phone, whereas an aspiration might be to spend less time overall on your phone. 
  3. Third, we set big, lofty goals and rely on motivation to achieve them. But motivation is unreliable. And while we often assume that to get a behavior to happen we need to focus on motivation - in reality motivation is not as important as we think. 

He concluded that making tiny changes is the best way to create lasting changes. 

In his book, Tiny Habits, Fogg explains his three-step formula for creating lasting change

  1. Start Tiny. Focus on small actions you can do in less than thirty seconds, such as flossing one tooth or doing two push-ups. Do the Tiny behavior immediatey after an Anchor Moment. 
  2. Find an Anchor Moment. An Anchor Moment is either an existing routine (like brushing your teeth) or an event that happens (like a phone ringing). The Anchor Moment is your cue to do the new Tiny Behavior. 
  3. Celebrate Instantly Right after you do the Tiny Bheavior, celebrate immediately by saying "I did a good job!" or "Awesome!" This may feel strange but it wires the new behavior into your brain. 

You can put Dr. Fogg's advice into action

For example, let's say you decompress after a stressful day of work by having a few glasses of wine, and your resolution is to drink less. You can take a baby step in that direction by using "arriving home" as your anchor moment. As soon as you arrive home, grab your favorite nonalcoholic beverage. Emphasis on favorite, because while it may not match up to your normal drink choice, indulging in something else you like will help encourage you to take this step.  

For this example, let’s say hot chocolate is your favorite nonalcoholic drink.  When you arrive home, you grab a mug and take long sips of hot chocolate to help yourself feel settled.  While this is not an immediate solution, you are still moving in the right direction, because alcohol was not your first choice. You can switch up your non-alcoholic drink choice to keep things interesting, maybe next time it’s your favorite smoothie, tea, or even juice. While this may seem minuscule, you are always choosing something else first, and that is worth celebrating!  

Even a huge resolution like finding the right treatment center for yourself can follow this approach. Each time you think, "I need to find treatment" you can use this as an Anchor Moment to find one treatment center in your area and add it to a list. While it is not a deep dive into making sure the center is the right one for you, you are taking the step to have the name handy when you decide to. Think about how much time it will save future you; that baby step definitely deserves a pat on the back. 

Starting and completing resolutions can be tough. We put so much pressure on ourselves because something about the new year feels like we have to transform ourselves. Not everything has to feel time sensitive and rushed. Giving yourself time to complete a goal is still making an effort. Taking your time, taking a break, and attempting again doesn’t mean you have halted your goals. It means you're making progress, and that's what matters the most. 


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