Tiny habits = big results when changing behaviour
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I know I should eat more vegetables/drink more water/go to gym three times per week….why can’t I get myself to actually DO it?” Have your clients every struggled with the same issues? Or maybe you know someone who actually managed to give up sugar and start going to the gym three times per week, but then it tapered off when they got busy until they eventually gave up.
Health professionals need to be masters at instigating behaviour change. The new book I’ve been reading on this topic is Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. Based out of the Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University, I’ve been following BJ’s work for over 6 years now and his approach has had the biggest impact on my work and how I help clients change their behaviour.
The reality is that people are not great at setting goals for themselves (at least based on my experience). We always have big, elaborate intentions which are hard to maintain when we get busy and stressed out. Then we feel angry and guilty when we can’t maintain the behaviour and this has a massive impact on our self-esteem/confidence levels and how likely we are to attempt that change again. It’s a negative cycle.
So what’s the solution? Tiny habits.
What if…instead of trying to force ourselves (using willpower) to do things we think we “should” do, we focused on consistently implementing teeny, tiny healthy habits which were easy and enjoyable?
It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s actually the little things we do each day which add up to big things. If you skip lunch or have a biscuit with every cup of tea/coffee for one day…that isn’t a big deal. If you do that everyday for a year, that is a very big deal. If you start working from home and your step count goes from 10 000 steps per day to 2000 steps per day for one day or week, that doesn’t matter much. But if that continues for a year, the impact on your weight and your health will be massive. People love to set really huge, elaborate goals but these are incredibly hard to be consistent with. And it’s the CONSISTENCY/ ROUTINE (and feeling confident in your abilities) which are the most important elements when it comes to changing behaviour (at least initially). For example, to transition from not eating any vegetables, to having one bite at your evening meal sounds so insignificant that most people wouldn’t bother. But once people have a good routine and a bit of momentum, it’s infinitely easier to “dial up” a behaviour and have two bites of vegetables at a meal, then four. Compare this to the usual approach, where people tell themselves they have to eat 5 servings of vegetables and fruit everyday from day one. That’s pretty unrealistic and unsustainable, especially if you aren’t already in the habit of buying and preparing vegetables and fruit that you like. Big, daunting goals make people feel overwhelmed and so often they don’t start at all…giving excuses like they don’t have time and will do it later.
If you want to implement a new behaviour, there are four elements which MUST be in place otherwise a behaviour won’t happen:
1. You have to genuinely want to do it (aka Motivation).
We all have a long list of things we know we “should” be doing, but if you don’t actually want to do it, you won’t (at least not for long). Motivation levels rise and fall like a wave, so go for the “quick wins” and start with something you actually WANT to do (and of course, pick something which has the added bonus of helping you move towards your goal). As an example, I recently decided that I wanted to increase my fluid intake.
2. It has to be super easy (aka Ability)
What is the easiest, tiniest, first step you can take to initiate the behaviour? Ideally, choose something which takes less than 30 seconds to complete, because then you won’t be relying on motivation and willpower to do it. Maybe it’s to floss just one tooth or put your trainers on. People always fight me on this saying they can do way more than what I’m proposing, but I always tell people that they can EXCEED the goal whenever they want. However, the goal must stay tiny so there is a 100% chance of success (remember, the primary aim is to build a routine/habit and for the person to feel successful).
For me, I realised that there were many times when I wanted a drink of water but my glass was empty and I was busy doing something else so there was a delay in getting up to get another drink. So I decided to buy pint glasses so that I would need to make fewer trips to the kitchen in order to refill. Buying bigger cups was easy and something I only had to do once. Instant success.
3. You have to remember to do it (aka Prompt).
Post its, alarms, notifications….there are many ways to remind yourself to do something…but it’s generally easiest if you just “piggy back” a new behaviour onto something you are already doing consistently. As soon as I….(wake up in the morning)….I will….(take a sip of water). I now keep a pint glass of water beside my bed so that it’s the first thing I see when I wake up. I try to drink as much as I can before I even get out of bed in the morning, and have found that momentum increases the amount of fluid I drink all day.
4. You must feel good/successful doing it (aka Celebrate your success).
“Bad” habits usually give us a hit of dopamine when we do them. This feels good which then reinforces that behaviour and makes us want to do it again. So how can we get a dopamine hit when we drink more water, eat vegetables or some other healthier activity? Celebrate! I admit, I feel pretty silly doing it, but it totally works. Feeling great IMMEDIATELY after you do a new behaviour speeds up the habit-forming process (note: there can’t be any delay or it doesn’t work). So do a happy dance, a double fist pump in the air or something else, but reinforce that new positive behaviour if you want to be motivated to do it again. And make sure you help your clients celebrate their success as well.
There is obviously a lot more to this process, but I’ve tried to highlight the most important elements above. Check out Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg (and Atomic Habits by James Clear) for more practical ways to help your clients create positive change.
To refer a client who wants to develop healthier habits around eating, please contact Sheri Taylor, Specialist Rehab Dietitian at 0121 384 7087 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To have more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox, please sign up for my monthly newsletter below.