Create a New Habit the Easy Way

  • by

If you did succumb to the age-old tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions this year, chances are that at least one was to create a new habit.  Maybe it is to work out, or make your bed every day, or to get 8 hours of sleep every night.  But, how confident are you in your ability to create a new habit?  I’ve been experimenting with a method for creating a new habit that focuses on going small, instead of going big.  Minuscule.  Tiny.

In his popular strategy called Tiny Habits, Dr. B. J. Fogg, a Stanford psychologist, describes a simple way to experiment with new routines.  He suggests picking an entry level habit that is so small that it is easy to change and so simple that there is almost no excuse not to do it. A tiny habit should be directionally correct, or in a direct line with the bigger habit you are eventually aiming for.  And, the tiny habit should occur in the same time, space and frequency as your bigger habit will.  Finally, you need to anchor your new tiny habit to something that you already do and you need to celebrate each time you do the new habit.

The tiny habit is stated like this: “After I __________, then I will ___________.”

Dr. Fogg shares some personal examples. He describes working up to 50 push-ups a day, just through creating a tiny habit of 

After I go to the bathroom, I will do 5 push-ups.”   

I decided to test the Tiny Habit approach with three new habits of my own. After a few months, I am reporting mostly positive results – one success, one huge success, and one failure.  I can definitely see the potential for specific scenarios where I want to create a new habit.

Here are my test run tiny habits.

Create a new habit – Take 1

I wanted to practice more meditation.  I have studied the benefits of meditation and I know that it can help lead to more deep work.  So, my first tiny habit was:

After I push brew for my Keurig cup of coffee, I will practice a few moments of meditation until the cup is brewed.” 

This worked with the Keurig and I did it for a solid week. But, I got a new Nespresso machine for Christmas (which I love, by the way!)  The short brew time is great for my morning espresso jolt, but not so great for meaningful meditation.  I think that this tiny habit failed to become a real habit because I didn’t anchor it correctly. Meditation doesn’t happen in the kitchen and it needs to be longer than the brew cycle on a cup of coffee. If I experiment with this again, I will try anchoring meditative moments to slowly drinking and savoring that lovely first cup of hot coffee.

Create a new habit – Take 2

I wanted to start flossing my teeth every day.  My dentist is the nicest person on earth and every six months, I’m crushed by her disappointment about my non-existent flossing habits. I even put off my dentist appointments just to avoid seeing her sweet face turn gloomy when she sees the state of my gums. So, my tiny habit was:

“After I brush my teeth in the morning, I will floss one tooth.”

See how tiny that is? Just one tooth.  That lasted about two days.  Then, the other teeth started to feel deprived. As a pathologist, I also have a thing about symmetry. I worried what would happen if I accidentally flossed the same tooth every day. I started remembering our poor, very old cat Nicholas who lost all but one of his pitiful teeth in his extreme old age (we started calling him “snaggletooth”.) On day three, I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down and flossed them all.  By day four, the floss on top of the toothpaste in my drawer became a nuisance and it was just as much work to move it as it was to floss my teeth. By week two, I kind of liked flossing and by week three it was a habit.   Interestingly, I was traveling for a week recently, and didn’t have the urge to floss my teeth even once. But back at home, the habit returned immediately. (I hope you are reading this Dr. Lundy!)

Create a new habit – Take 3

I wanted to build my strength up.  I used to be much stronger before a hip injury a couple of years ago set me way back. So, my tiny habit was:  

“After I go to the bathroom, I will do 5 air squats.” 

The first week was great.  I even did my air squats in the middle of the night when I got up.  During the second week, five felt like too few, so I’ve increased to ten. I was on a roll! Week three came around, and air-squats began to be pretty boring. And, even though they are a great body-weight exercise, it wasn’t satisfying my real goal of building my strength back up. Attempting to create a new habit for air-squats forced me to  re-think what I like about exercise (actually, nothing) and reconsider my exercise plan with a bad hip. I came up with a pretty interesting conclusion that I’ll cover in a future post. Even though I quit the air-squats, I used it as a catalyst to get back to the gym, which means that this tiny habit can be interpreted as a huge success.

The importance of celebration

The right environment and set-up to create a new habit is important, but Dr. Fogg also highlights the importance of a mini-celebration for solidifying the new habit.   By this he doesn’t mean tangible rewards like shopping sprees or a glass of wine.  He describes celebrations as simple as giving yourself a high five, doing a little happy dance, or just saying out loud “good job me!”  I’m definitely not convinced about this part of the tiny habit approach. It felt pretty goofy and ridiculous to say “I am awesome” after flossing my teeth. I do believe that hooking a new habit to some sort of internal reward is critical. My simple flossing routine ends with the reward of running my tongue over my newly cleaned teeth and healthier gums. Yeah for me!

Create a new habit – My take-away

I like the Tiny Habit approach. I think it is crucial to stick to the rules. If you want your tiny habit to grow into a larger and sustainable habit, it really does have to directly relate to the habit to which you are anchoring. Brushing your teeth and flossing go together naturally. Meditation and brewing coffee? Maybe not. Even though Dr. Fogg made push-ups and potty breaks work for him, hooking air-squats to the bathroom just didn’t fit for me. If you want to try out the Tiny Habits process for yourself, just jump in and test it out. If you just can’t imagine doing it alone, Dr. Fogg’s coaching team has a free 5-day program, which is a guided experience through a Tiny Habit week.