Tiny Habits Book Report

Posted on 29 Dec 2021 by Steve Markham

For the last week I’ve been reading Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. My first impression of the book wasn’t great, to be honest, but I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s a very practical book, and even during the most chaotic week of the year, I’ve added a couple of feel-good habits to my daily routine.

It’s not that hard to summarize the core thesis of the book.

  1. B=MAP, Behaviors are simply a result of Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt
  2. People change best by feeling good (not by feeling bad)
  3. Habits (and behavior more generally) is the result of conditions, not an indicator whether you are A Good Person. Think of a habit like a chemistry experiment, or a new recipe that needs tweaking.

#1 seems vastly over-simplified, like the terms are so vague it could mean anything. But the author does a good job defining and clarifying terms, and it is clear by the second chapter that he chose these words very intentional (largely to avoid re-using words that have come to mean unhelpful things, in his opinion). Throughout the book he references a plot with motivation on the vertical and ability on the horizontal.

The line y=1/x is the “action line”, and behaviors above the line will happen (ie, there is sufficient motivation and ability). High ability with no motivation, or high motivation with no ability, will prevent a behavior from occurring.

He suggests a 7-step design process for generating habits (and modifying behavior in general):

  1. Clarify the aspiration, or the desired outcome.
  2. Explore behavior options that would contribute to the aspiration or outcome. This is brainstorming; generate many ideas and plan to throw out most of them.
  3. Match yourself with specific behaviors. He suggested plotting each idea from step 2 with “impact towards the aspiration” on the vertical axis, and “how likely I am to actually do it” on the horizontal axis. The top right quadrant are your “golden behaviors” and you should start forming habits around the best two or three.
  4. Start tiny. Basically, move to the right on the action line plot by making it easy, or move the behavior to the right on the golden behavior plot. Floss one tooth. Do two pushups. TINY habits.
  5. Find a good prompt. All the ability and motivation in the world aren’t enough on their own. You need something to remind you to actually do it. In general, habits are easiest if you do them immediately after something that is already in your routine. “After I [do something I always do] I will [do something new].”
  6. Celebrate successes. This is NOT talking about incentives, like “I’ll go on a beach vacation when I hit my weight loss goal” or some sort of reward. This is a quick dopamine-generating action done during or immediatey after completing the tiny habit. A big smile, or a fist pump, or a “nailed it!” or something like that. He thinks this is a missing ingredient in many self-improvement strategies. “Celebration will one day be ranked alongside mindfulness and gratitude as daily practices that contribute most to our overall happiness and well-being.”
  7. Troubleshoot, iterate, and expand. You start very tiny. As the success momentum builds (from frequent, small successes, not rare big ones) you add more tiny habits, or expand the tiny habits into small ones, then big ones.

There are a couple of other useful concepts referenced repeatedly in the book. Ability is a product of Time, Money, Physical Capability, Mental Energy, and Routine. If any of those are lacking, ability will limit your ability to do a behavior. Motivation is unreliable, so don’t base your success on always being motivated. When you feel a wave of motivation, focus on one-time tasks that increase your ability (like watching a video to learn technique) so that the daily routine is easier and doesn’t require massive motivation. All of these same concepts can be used in reverse to stop a bad habit. Btw, he doesn’t like “break a bad habit” and prefers “untangling a bad habit” since it’s more like the slow and steady untying of a knot, than a one-time large force.

Applying this to myself, I added three habits this week. First, what he calls the Maui habit, which is to start each day with a little optimism, specifically “When I put my feet on the floor for the first time in the morning, I will say Today is going to be a great day.” I have never stuck with an exercise routine, so I’m trying out “when I go to the basement, I will do two pull-ups” for a while. Lastly, “Whenever I reflexively open a time-waster website (Reddit, YouTube) I will open Kindle reader in another tab.” (Importantly, I don’t have to actually read anything, just open the tab. TINY!)

We’ll see how this goes, but it certainly feels like the sort of book I’ll end up referring back to often. It’s a very practical way to think about behavior in general, and debug my actions when they don’t match my aspirations.