One reason our resolutions don’t last, our diets don’t work, and our resolves weaken is because sustaining motivation is hard. And that’s not your fault. In my new book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, I show you how to hack your motivation and make changes that last by using my Tiny Habits method, which is based on over two decades of original research and the personal coaching of over 40,000 people. It’s simple: break down big change into tiny actions, find where they fit naturally into your life, and then you feel good by celebrating. That’s it. People are shocked at how easy and fast this system works when it comes to forming habits.
There is a direct connection between what you feel when you do a behavior and the likelihood that you will repeat the behavior in the future. When I unearthed this connection between emotions and habits in my research on the Tiny Habits method, I was surprised I had not seen this truth before. Like an answer to a riddle, it was suddenly so obvious. I wondered why this insight was not already common knowledge.
For too long people have believed the old myth that repetition creates habits, focusing on the number of days a new habit requires. Some of today’s popular habit bloggers still talk about repetition or frequency as the key. Just know this: They are recycling old ideas.
In my own research, I found that habits can form very quickly, often in just a few days, as long as people have a strong positive emotion connected to the new behavior. In fact, some habits seem to get wired in immediately: You do the behavior once, and then you don’t consider other options again. You’ve created an instant habit. Consider if you give your teenager a mobile phone; their emotional response to using the device will wire in a habit very quickly and the next thing you know, the phone is attached to their hand. No need for repetition.
When I teach people about human behavior, I boil it down to three words to make the point crystal clear: Emotions create habits. Not repetition. Not frequency. Not fairy dust. Emotions.
When you are designing for habit formation — for yourself or for someone else — you are really designing for emotions.
What happens in your brain when you experience positive reinforcement isn’t magic — it’s neuro-chemical. Good feelings spur the production of a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger in the brain) called dopamine that controls the brain’s “reward system” and helps us remember what behavior led to feeling good so we will do it again. With the help of dopamine, the brain encodes the cause-and-effect relationship, and this creates expectations for the future.
You can hack into this reward system by creating an event in your brain that neuroscientists call a “reward prediction error.” Here’s how it works: Your brain is constantly assessing and reassessing the experiences, sights, sounds, smells, and movements in the world around you. Based on previous experiences, your brain has formed predictions about what you will experience in any given situation.
Let’s say your brain doesn’t expect the cauliflower-crust pizza to taste good. Your previous experiences with cauliflower have been negative. But you take a bite of the new pizza. And wow! You find it’s delicious. That’s when you get a “reward prediction error,” and neurons in your brain adjust the release of dopamine in order to encode an updated expectation.
The good news is that we are not helpless when it comes to our brain chemistry. Using what we know about how the brain functions, we can help our brains help us.
By intentionally creating feelings to wire in the habits that we actually want in our lives. When we hack into the ancient behavioral pathways in our brains, we gain access to the amazing human potential for learning and change. We have an opportunity to use the brain machinery we already have to feel good and change behaviors.
You can use many types of positive reinforcement to wire in a habits–this includes pleasure, a sense of relief, and more–but in my research and teaching, I’ve found that the real winner is creating a feeling of success.
To make this super practical, I’ve studied and developed a technique people can use to spark a feeling of success at any moment they want. Part of the Tiny Habits method, this technique is called “celebration.”
Celebration is the best way to create a positive feeling that wires in your new habits. It’s free, fast, and available to people of every color, shape, size, income, and personality. In addition, celebration teaches us how to be nice to ourselves — a skill that pays out the biggest dividends of all.
The definition of a reward in behavior science is an experience directly tied to a behavior that makes that behavior more likely to happen again. The timing of the reward matters. Scientists learned decades ago that rewards need to happen either during the behavior or milliseconds afterward. Dopamine is released and processed by the brain very quickly. That means you’ve got to cue up those good feelings fast to form a habit.
Incentives like a sales bonus or a monthly massage can motivate you, but they don’t rewire your brain. Incentives are way too far in the future to give you that all-important shot of dopamine that encodes the new habit. Doing three squats in the morning and rewarding yourself with a movie that evening won’t work to rewire your brain. The squats and the good feelings you get from the movie are too far apart for dopamine to build a bridge between the two.
A real reward — something that will actually create a habit — is a much narrower target to hit than most people think.Here’s how to help a habit root quickly and easily in your brain: Perform the behavior sequence that you want to become a habit (“After I turn on the coffeemaker, I will get out my to-do list”) and then celebrate immediately.
When I say that you need to celebrate immediately after the behavior, I do mean immediately. Immediacy is one piece of what informs the speed of your habit formation.
The other piece is the intensity of the emotion you feel when you celebrate. This is a one-two punch: you’ve got to celebrate right after the behavior (immediacy), and you need your celebration to feel real (intensity).
Your brain has a built-in system for encoding new habits, and by celebrating you can hack this system. When you get good at celebrating, you will have a superpower for creating habits.
Here are some celebrations that you can try. They include ones you can do in the middle of a crowd or in the privacy of your own home. Not all the celebrations below will work for you. And that’s okay. You just need one. If nothing on the list below gives you an authentic feeling of success, then search for a celebration that will.
+ Say, “Yes!” or “Yay!”
+ Do a fist pump
+ Smile big
+ Imagine a child clapping for you
+ Hum an upbeat song you like (maybe the theme from Rocky)
+ Do a little dance
+ Clap your hands
+ Nod your head
+ Give yourself a thumbs-up
+ Imagine the roar of a crowd
+ Think to yourself, Good job
+ Take a deep breath
+ Snap your fingers
+ Imagine seeing fireworks
+ Look up and make a V with your arms
+ Smirk and tell yourself, I got this
When you find a celebration that works for you, and you do it immediately after a new behavior, (or while you are doing the behavior), your brain repatterns to make that behavior more automatic in the future. But once you’ve created a habit, celebration is now optional. You don’t need to keep celebrating the same habit forever. That said, some people keep going with the celebration part of their habits because it feels good and has lots of positive side effects.
For habits you do at work, drawing a smiley face after you check your habit off your to-do list might be all you need to feel successful — or think, Yes, I nailed this! If you’re at the gym and you don’t want to make a scene, perhaps you could do a little drumroll on the handlebars of your stationary bike or hum the song “We Are the Champions” in your head.
Celebration might not feel natural to you, and that’s okay, but practicing this skill will help you to get comfortable. If celebrating the small stuff is hard for you, the go-big-or-go-home mentality is probably sneaking up on you. Shut it down. It’s a trap. Celebrating a win — no matter how tiny — will quickly lead to more wins. Think about all those times you could have changed but didn’t, and here you are, two squats in — changing.
Teaching Tiny Habits to people around the world, I have heard many stories where the core message is the same: The feeling of success is a powerful catalyst for change. The data my research generates week after week corroborates this as well.
Your confidence grows when you celebrate not only because you are now a habit-creating machine but also because you are getting better and better at being nice to yourself. You start looking for opportunities to celebrate yourself instead of berating yourself. But over the course of weeks and months, these tiny, simple habits that you’ve woven into your life have changed the fabric of your world entirely.
Adapted from BJ Fogg’s new book, Tiny Habits, published on December 31, 2019.