What Facebook can teach us about creating new habits that last!

by | Apr 4, 2022 | Health Coaching

Estimated Read Time: 4 min

Learn about three essential elements that can help you create new habits that stick from Behaviour Scientist, BJ Fogg PhD, author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.

We all feel inspired at some point to start something new that we know is good for us or cut back on something we know is not. We make a resolution – I’m going to exercise more, eat healthier or drink less wine.…but before long our motivation has waned and we’re back to our old habits. Why is it so difficult to make new habits stick? An age-old question and one my clients and I will work through during our coaching sessions. So, I was intrigued when I came across BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model and recommend his book if you would like to learn more about the formation of habits.

Dr BJ Fogg, a behaviour scientist from Stanford University, busts a few myths we have been led to believe when it comes to sustaining new habits. Here’s one I’m sure you’re all familiar with – “It’s all about repetition! Just repeat your new habit over and over – for 21 days, or 1000 times and the habit will wire into your brain.” There is no evidence at all to back it up. If we take a look at our everyday experience we may recognise this as being true. Some habits, particularly those that make us feel good, wire in very quickly indeed! No repetition needed.

And it’s the “feeling good” part that is actually at the very heart of it all. If you experience a strong positive emotion the first time or the first few times you practice a new behaviour, it is those positive feelings of success that rewire your brain and make it more automatic. “I feel great!” “I feel powerful!” After all, it’s the brain’s goal to succeed so its owner survives. It’s not a function of repetition at all. The sad truth is that believing repetition is the key to creating a new habit can be misleading – it makes it feel like hard work, that it’s going to take a lot of effort and it doesn’t have to.

As Dr Fogg says “You change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”

Another myth is that it’s all about motivation, right? You’ve got to keep yourself motivated to change habits and if you can’t then you lack willpower. It’s all your fault. Wrong! Again, if we just refer to our everyday experience we’ll see that our motivation to do anything waxes and wanes all the time. Dr Fogg calls this the Motivation Wave. There are highs and lows, things that motivate us and things that demotivate us. We cannot rely on feeling the same amount of motivation all of the time. It’s especially difficult when it’s not something we want to do in the first place.

Dr Fogg has found after coaching more than 40,000 people using his Tiny Habits Model that a new behaviour will happen when three things come together at the same time.

  • Motivation – pick a new habit that you really want to do! (And make sure it’s something that’s going to be effective)
  • Ability – make it as easy to do as you can so even when you’re busy, stressed or sick you can still do it,
  • Prompt – pick a cue to remind you to do it. Fit it in to your natural routine.

What I find fascinating is that it is this very Behaviour Model that Dr Fogg taught to students in a Stanford University classroom back in 2007 that led these students to become product designers for Facebook, Google and Uber. They have since been responsible for building apps that can be a real struggle to leave alone. These app developers have successfully used this model against us – but what if we could use this model as it was intended – what could we achieve?

Jory Mackay, in his article “The psychology behind why you can’t stop checking your phone”, explains how product designers have used these three elements – motivation, ability and prompts – all converging at the same time, to successfully get users to keep coming back for more.

Let’s take a look at Facebook as an example: We are motivated to use it because of the sense of belonging we feel when connecting with friends, the anticipation of seeing new and unexpected content every time we open the app. We feel a variety of emotions when doing so, from joy to love to jealousy! We don’t even have to question how it works – it’s so easy and simple to use. And then there are the prompts – reminders that get you to start an action – the pings and red dots! Eventually of course, we don’t need prompts – they become internalised and instead we are driven by emotional cues – loneliness or a need for connection.

So how could we use the Tiny Habits Model to make a new habit stick? Let’s say you really want to build some muscle strength so you might then choose to begin by doing just one push-up every morning after getting out of bed. That’s manageable, right? You’re probably wondering what good will one push-up do? Well, what you are doing is keeping the behaviour so simple and easy that you don’t have to rely on motivation at all. If you keep it simple you increase your ability to actually keep practicing the new habit and your chances of success. Success is what counts here because success with simple behaviours naturally leads to success with harder behaviours. Remember simplicity is a function of your scarcest resource at that moment. If you need 10 minutes to exercise and you don’t have 10 minutes then it’s not simple. Once you have decided on a new behaviour, BJ Fogg goes on to suggest that you think about where it would naturally fit into your life. This is the prompt – something you are already doing every day that will remind you to do the new behaviour.

And finally – celebrate! Deliberately acknowledge and embrace a feeling of success immediately afterwards , even if it feels awkward at first. This is what our CrossFit coach encourages us to do after every workout – fist bumps and high fives all round. It’s that positive emotion that wires your new habit into your brain. Sadly, it appears to be our default to focus on what we don’t achieve rather than on what we do. But there is no need to judge yourself. Just like kids, adults also need positive reinforcement to change.

I have found from my experience, both personally and as a coach, that to begin with most of us have very ambitious plans and can feel so highly motivated that we want to jump in and make big changes. We want results today. Generally, we have high expectations of ourselves too which can lead to us being really hard on ourselves if we fail. But changing our behaviour and instilling healthier habits into our everyday lives is not a sprint, it is a process that takes time along a road that winds and may even turn back upon itself on occasion. And then one day…. you look back and see how far you have come.

• Fogg, B.J. (2020). TINY HABITS : the small changes that change everything. S.L.: Mariner Books.
• MacKay, J. (n.d.). The reason you can’t stop checking your phone down is rooted in your brain — here’s how to break free. [online] Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/the-psychology-behind-why-you-cant-stop-checking-your-phone-2018-2?r=AU&IR=T [Accessed 12 January 2022].