The BEST: Tiny Habits

Tamra Wright Featured Articles - Home, Tradition Online | December 17, 2020

The BEST: Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg
Reviewed by Tamra Wright

Summary: B.J. Fogg is an American behavioral psychologist. He is the founder and director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab.

Although his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything was published in 2019, Fogg has taught the ideas behind it for many years. Graduates of his courses have created successful products and digital services, most notably Instagram, which Fogg uses to illustrate his maxims: 

Maxim 1: “Help people do what they already want to do.” (Instagram example: share photos)

Maxim 2: “Help people feel successful.” (Instagram made it easy both to share the photos and to make the photos look good, thus making the user feel successful.) 

According to the Fogg Behavior Model (represented as B = MAP), Behavior happens when Motivation, Ability, and Prompt converge at the same moment. Prompts are needed to remind us to do the behavior. When motivation and ability are both high, the desired action will follow. But motivation and ability can also compensate for each other. With high motivation we can do things that are difficult despite low ability; when ability is high relative to the task, little motivation is required. 

To create or troubleshoot a habit, Fogg argues that we should begin not with motivation, but with prompt and then ability. He gives the mundane example of his own struggle to floss regularly. He set the bar very low by giving himself the objective of flossing just one tooth. He could do more if he felt like it, but one well-flossed tooth on any given day was enough for him to congratulate himself on successful flossing. Crucially, according to Fogg, a quick moment of “celebration” on successful completion of the tiny habit means that the “feel good” hormone dopamine is released and learning is reinforced. Over time Fogg developed the habit of flossing all his teeth by building on these small successes. 

Why this is The BEST: The same psychological insights that enabled Fogg to solve his flossing problem have had a huge impact on society through the work of his students. Graduates went on to leading roles at Facebook, Google, and other technology companies. Although Fogg himself is committed to using behavior design and technology in ethical ways, there is a growing wave of concern that companies are using his insights to manipulate users into spending more time on their apps, even when this is detrimental to the users’ own interests. 

Fogg’s work intersects with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ interests in two ways. Firstly, although he highlighted concerns about the impact of technology, social media, and “narrowcasting,” Rabbi Sacks shared Fogg’s view that new technologies are not inherently good or evil, but that as individuals and societies we need to make conscious decisions about when and how to use them. Rabbi Sacks emphasized the Sabbath as one way in which Judaism can help us tame technology’s addictive qualities. Fogg reminds us that we have control over the “prompt” aspects of our phones that make them so compelling: we can disable notifications, use the airplane setting, and leave our phones in another room when we go to bed. 

Secondly, Fogg’s approach is ultimately optimistic: with the right techniques, people can not only change their behavior, one habit at a time, but also learn to feel better about themselves and more hopeful about the future. In this respect, behavior design is an important complement to positive psychology, an approach to human flourishing that Rabbi Sacks saw as a contemporary manifestation of Jewish wisdom. He frequently cited Martin Seligman, the movement’s founder, and suggested that Seligman’s approach could form the basis for a “new musar.” (See my “Afterword: A New Musar” in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.) Rabbi Sacks pointed out that positive psychology, like cognitive behavior therapy and logotherapy (all founded by Jewish psychologists), rejects purely deterministic understandings of human feelings and behavior, and emphasizes human freedom. One of the most basic freedoms is our ability to choose how we interpret and respond to events. Awareness of this freedom is one of the keys to avoiding pessimism and despair. Rabbi Sacks describes Joseph as the “first psychotherapist.” Reconciling with his brothers, Joseph was able to re-frame their mistreatment of him and his subsequent trials as part of a divine plan. 

What might a new musar, drawing on Jewish tradition as well as positive psychology and behavior design, look like in practice? Here is one example. Gratitude is one of the most extensively studied emotions in positive psychology research, and it is also, according to Rabbi Sacks, a central component not only of Jewish liturgy and ethics, but even of Jewish identity – “Jewishness,” he writes, “is thankfulness.” Research shows that feeling and expressing gratitude has multiple benefits for mental and physical health, and enhances relationships. Several positive psychology exercises have been designed to enhance feelings of gratitude. Similarly, Jewish practice encourages the expression of gratitude from the moment one wakes up in the morning (modeh ani) and throughout the day (reciting berakhot and tefillot). Yet many people struggle with maintaining kavvana during prayer, or praying regularly. A “musar” teacher trained in positive psychology and behavior design could help with these challenges on an individual basis. One person might benefit more from the positive psychology exercise of keeping a gratitude journal, striving to enhance their overall feelings of gratitude so that they can evoke this feeling during prayer. Another may need help to start a daily prayer habit, and a third might use the behavior design method to help them improve their kavvana when reciting berakhot

Change can be hard. Research suggests that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail. Similarly, how often have we noticed during Elul or the Yamim Noraim that the improvements we resolve to make this year are the same ones we were thinking about last year and the year before?

Tiny Habits provides practical guidance for looking at our values and translating them into an increasing number of small, achievable habits that can collectively become transformative. 

Rabbi Sacks observed: “Most of us believe in high ideals, but we act on them only sporadically. The best thing to do is to establish habits that get us to enact those ideals daily.” Fogg’s research, insights and explanations can help us learn to do just that – and floss our teeth as well.

Tamra Wright is Curriculum Development Adviser at Faith in Leadership. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies. 

Read more about The BEST or about the R. Sacks Bookshelves ProjectSign up here to receive an automated notice when each essay in this series posts.

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