Using Tiny Habits to change behaviour

When it comes to problem-solving and innovation, you will often have to influence people’s behaviour. Making people change their habits is not easy. Force rarely works. Luckily there are more positive ways of changing behaviour. One particularly powerful technique is using Tiny Habits.

In earlier posts, we’ve written about nudging, gamification and other psychological tricks to help people change their behaviour for the better. In this post, I’d like to talk about another behavioural design principle: using Tiny Habits.

Before I go into detail about how you can start using Tiny Habits to change behaviour, let’s take a look at the theory behind it.

B = MAP

The ‘Tiny Habits method’ was developed by BJ Fogg, the founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford. Fogg figured out that simplicity is the key to successfully changing behaviour. 

In his book ‘Tiny Habits, Fogg describes how shrinking your habits down to small actions allows you to create new habits or to stop the ones you’d like to get rid of. Fogg describes the principle behind this as ‘B = MAP’. Behaviour only happens when motivation, ability and a prompt come together. You have to be triggered to do it, want to do it and be able to do it, otherwise it won’t happen.

While ability can be improved and a prompt can be designed, motivation is problematic. Some days you will be motivated to do something, but at other times motivation will be low. You can’t rely on motivation and willpower to change a behaviour. Just ask all those people who really want to stop smoking or eating unhealthy snacks.

Motivation and willpower are not reliable. Tiny actions, however, don’t rely on either.

“Simplicity changes behavior” – BJ Fogg

If you make the desired action small enough, there won’t be any reason not to do it. In other words, you won’t need a lot of motivation to make yourself take action. Doing a full workout in the morning will take some discipline, but doing one single pushup against a wall after waking up won’t be much of a challenge. While ridiculously small actions like this might seem insignificant, they can be used to naturally grow a new behaviour. After all, the more you do something, the easier it becomes and the less motivation you’ll need to do it. One pushup against a wall becomes a normal pushup on the floor, which becomes a set of two pushups, etc.

In his book, Fogg focuses on changing your own behaviours. However, the principles in the book are equally useful in changing the behaviours of others.

The Tiny Habits ABC

Using Tiny Habits to change behaviour consists of 3 steps: an Anchor, a tiny Behaviour and instant Celebration.

A: the Anchor moment

You need a trigger to prompt people to start doing the new behaviour. The trigger can be an existing routine or an event that happens. It’s basically a reminder to do your tiny behaviour.

A trigger can be as simple as a push message. Remind your target audience to do the desired behaviour.

A great example of such a trigger is the ‘Papier hier!’ (‘Paper here!’) exclamation you hear in the Dutch theme park De Efteling. To keep visitors from soiling the park, interactive waste bins have been introduced, shaped like a hungry man; Holle Bolle Gijs. While walking in the park, you’ll regularly hear variations of this hungry man request paper to eat. A great trigger for children (and adults) to throw in their waste paper.

Holle Bolle Gijs, the ever-hungry waste bin. Watch a full overview of all the variations here.

B: New tiny Behaviour

Make the behaviour you want to promote a simple as possible. You can do this by scaling down the behaviour you’re after, or by starting with the first step. This first step is the tiniest move in the direction of the desired behaviour. The idea is to make your tiny behaviour so small that there is no reason not to do it (even when motivation is low).

Do you want your colleagues to start using a new IT system? Simply ask them to open the application when they start their day. Or even better: let the program open automatically when they start their computers. Grab their attention and chances are that they will spend more and more time exploring the program.

A great example of a starter step is the message you see when you create an account on Facebook or Linkedin. One of the first things that will pop up is a message asking you if you’d like to invite your friends. Notice how this act requires very little work. Most of the work has been done for you. You basically only have to press the ‘send’ button. In fact, Linkedin will keep making recommendations for people you might want to add to your network and pages you might want to follow. You only have to click the ‘connect’ or ‘follow’ button. It doesn’t get any easier.

C: Instant Celebration

By celebrating, you tell your brain to associate the sequence of behaviours with a positive feeling. You’re creating positive emotions to link to the new behaviour. For this, it is important that the ‘reward’ happens during or directly after the desired behaviour. Make the person who completed the action feel successful.

Many apps use variations of small celebrations to make you want to keep using the app. By letting you unlock items, displaying achievements or awarding you badges, you keep feeling successful and will be more inclined to keep going.

And remember the talking waste bin in De Efteling mentioned above? When a visitor deposits some trash in the gaping mouth of the humanoid bin, a satisfied ‘Thank you, thank you’ sounds. This is not only a fun way to make people feel successful, it’s also a great incentive and a new trigger to throw in more. Children will gladly run off to collect more trash that might be lying around!

A very polite trash bin indeedview original video.

Make it as easy as possible

Before you start designing for the new behaviour, analyse what makes the behaviour hard to do.

Some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Does my target group have enough time to do this?
  • Does my target group have enough money to do this?
  • Is my target group physically capable of doing this?
  • Does the behaviour require a lot of creative or mental energy?
  • Does the behaviour fit a current routine?

Once you know what makes it hard for your target group to take action, you can generate ideas to make it easier. I would encourage you to use creative thinking techniques like ‘Wishful thinking‘ or ‘SCAMPER‘ to help yourself generate many original ideas.

In short

If you want to change people’s behaviour, make sure the new behaviour is easy to do, there is a trigger to prompt people to act and there is an instant celebration to help people feel successful.

In this blog post, I’ve obviously only scratched the surface of the Tiny Habits method. If you’d like to know more about this method of behaviour design, I recommend reading ‘Tiny Habits’ by BJ Fogg.

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