Turn Behaviors Into Habits – Even If You Lack Self-Control

Motivation is fickle. Willpower is unreliable. Don’t depend on motivation and willpower for changing behaviors. Make the behavior easy to do. Then repeat to make it a habit.

A Lack Of Self Control?

When Melissa[1] came to me for coaching, she identified several goals she wanted to work on. Her most important goal was to get her home office organized. This was the area that was most disruptive to her life and the one causing her the most stress.

Melissa shared that she could get one section of the place organized, say her desk top or the stacks of paper on her bookshelves, but within a few days, everything was chaos again. She wasted a lot of time looking for papers or other items she needed which caused undue stress.

“I guess I just lack the self-control to make myself do what I need to do,” she lamented. “I spend so much time and energy looking for articles I need, that it is impacting my life. It is hampering me from getting important tasks done yet I can’t keep myself motivated to keep things organized.”

Willpower Doesn’t Work

Melissa had a misconception that many of us share. We try to change behaviors based on willpower – making ourselves do or refrain from doing.

But as we know from research over the last several years, willpower is a finite commodity. We use it up during the course of daily activities, then when we fall back into old behaviors we wanted to change, we blame it on a lack of self-control.

However, there is another way. “Willpower,” says psychologist Dr. Ben Hardy, “is for people who haven’t decided what they actually want.” [Hardy] You can decide what you want, then set up systems to make your desired behavior easier.

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

Dr. BJ Fogg founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and created the Tiny Habits Academy to help people change their behavior. In his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, Dr. Fogg shares the “Fogg Behavior Model”.

The Fogg Behavior Model is represented as B = MAP
where
B = the desired Behavior
M = Motivation, which runs from Low to High
A = Ability, which goes from Hard to do to Easy to do
P = Prompt

Motivation is your drive to perform the behavior. This drive is not constant however and – like willpower – waxes and wanes, being high one moment and low another. Even though it can’t be depended upon, most of us try to use motivation alone to change an existing behavior or to begin a new one.

Ability refers to your capability to perform the behavior. If it is too hard, you won’t (or can’t) do it, regardless of how motivated you may be.

“Motivation and ability work together like teammates,” says Fogg. [Fogg] The less you have of one, the more you need of the other. Knowing this allows you to analyze a behavior. If you aren’t doing what you say you want to do, check in on your motivation and your ability. How can you improve one or both?

Meanwhile, keep in mind that nothing happens without a prompt. “If you don’t have a prompt, your levels of motivation and ability don’t matter. Either you are prompted to act or you are not. No prompt, no behavior.” [Fogg]

Why am I not doing what I want to do?

As I said earlier, when we fail to perform a behavior we want to do or to do more of, we typically focus on motivation. We blame our failure on a lack of self-control or a lack of willpower.

However, Dr. Fogg advises us to take a different approach. Don’t start with motivation. Analyze your attempts to change a behavior by following these steps in this order [Fogg]:

  1. Start with the prompt. Is there a clear and unambiguous one? As Fogg says, “No prompt, no behavior.”
  2. Evaluate your ability to perform the behavior. Is it easy to do? How could you make it easier?
  3. Finally, are you motivated to do the behavior? Dr. Fogg identifies 3 areas of motivation: Person – Action – Context, or environment. [Fogg] Consider each area.

Person: Does it really matter to you? Could you make it more important?

Action: Is there a built-in reward for doing the behavior or punishment for not doing it?

Context: Can you arrange your environment to move you toward the desired behavior?

Repeat Behavior To Create Habits

In Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, James Clear adds a fourth step to turn a desired behavior into a habit . . . reward the behavior.

This is Clear’s habit model with the corresponding steps in the Fogg Behavior Model.

  1. Cue = prompt
  2. Craving = motivation
  3. Response = ability
  4. Reward = result of performing the behavior

How I Helped Melissa Change Her Behavior

Truthfully, when Melissa and I tackled her organization issue, it was well before either of these habit models had been conceived. Luckily, we stumbled upon a similar approach.

First, she established how important, on a scale of 1 to 5, the goal of having a well-organized home office was to her. She said it was a “5”, indicating she had high motivation to achieve her goal.

We broke the task down into manageable steps, so that she de-cluttered and organized one part of her office each week. Sometimes, she enlisted the help of her two children who often used her office space to do homework.

When she completed one area, I encouraged her to use the “Zorro Circle” technique to keep that section neat. Taking small steps and working to hold on to the gains she made ensured her ability matched the need.

To hang on to her wins, and keep the parts she had organized from getting re-cluttered, Melissa agreed to take a few minutes at the end of her work day to straighten up (the Zorro Circle). We didn’t call it a “prompt” but I suppose that’s how it functioned.

Actions

You can use the Fogg Behavior Model to change any behavior or to begin a new one. Add the Reward step from James Clear’s Habit Model and automate the desired behavior.

  1. Select a behavior you want to change or to start doing.
  2. Decide on the prompt that will remind you to perform the behavior. (A technique that works well is to tie the new behavior to an existing habit – called “habit stacking” [Woods])
  3. Choose the reward you’ll get when you successfully perform the habit. BJ Fogg lists 100 ways to celebrate in his book, Tiny Habits, including
    o Say “Yes!” while you do a fist pump
    o Visualize fireworks going off for you
    o Give a big smile
    o Strike a power pose
    o Give yourself a high five
    (See the book for more or use these as a starting point to come up with your own.)
  4. If you didn’t perform the behavior when you said you would, don’t think of it as a failure. You’re experimenting and there are no failures – only learning. Make the behavior smaller, easier to do and try again.

Experiment With Behavior Change

Notice there is no “lazy” or “weak” measurement in the behavior model. This is not about judgment, it’s a scientific model for change. Look at your behavior change as an experiment.

BJ Fogg tells us that the more we perform a behavior, the easier it gets. The trick is to make it as easy as you can to get started. Experiment with the prompt and the reward. Make the behavior as easy as you possibly can, remembering that motivation and ability work together – the less you have of one, the more you require of the other.

Just as Melissa discovered, this is not about having a lack of self-control or willpower, it’s about deciding what you want, then taking steps that are too small to fail. And that is how you embrace the Excelerated Life™!


Excelerated Willpower™ — becoming highly self-regulated — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


Footnotes:

[1] The client’s name and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Resources:

Clear, James. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results. New York: Avert, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018

Fogg, Phd, BJ. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020.

Wood, Wendy. Good Habits, Bad Habits. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.


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