One of the questions that I often ask my clients in the early stages of their behavioral makeovers is:
To what degree are you in love with the worst of you?
The purpose of that question is to identify the disempowering behavioral patterns, which prevent that particular individual from producing their desired life results.
In simpler words – I want to discover what bad habits that stupid son/daughter of a bitch is clinging on to despite their better knowledge.
Many individuals who want to change their lives have a hard time, in the beginning, to muster up the attention and decisiveness to eradicate tiny bad behaviors for good.
It is easy to underestimate the power of tiny behavioral decisions, after all:
- One Snickers bar will not make us obese.
- One beer will not make us an alcoholic.
- Working longer hours once will not make us a workaholic.
- Going on 9GAG once will not make us a procrastinator.
However, all disempowering behavioral patterns start with a one-time decision for instant gratification at the cost of long-term happiness and success.
To emphasize the importance of self-awareness and behavioral mastery, I would like to share with you a little story about bad habits that I often tell my clients within their first coaching sessions.
The Wise Habit Gardener
A rich man once asked an old, wise man to help his son change his bad habits. The old man asked his son to take a walk with him through the garden. After taking a few steps, the wise man stopped and asked the young man to pluck a small flower out of the ground.
The young man grabbed the plant with his fingers and easily plucked it out. The wise man nodded, and they resumed walking.
A few seconds later, they stopped again, and the wise man pointed towards another plant, a bit larger than the last. The young man grabbed it with his hand and plucked it out of the ground with a bit of effort. “Now pluck out that one”, the wise man said, pointing towards a bush. The young man grabbed the bush with both of his hands and using all of his strength, barely managed to pluck it out of the ground.
“Now you see that small tree, there? Try and pluck that one”. The young man grabbed the trunk with both hands, pulled as hard as he could but he couldn’t even move it.
“It’s impossible, Master. I can’t do it”.
“You see my boy; it’s the same with our habits. If we let them grow and take root, it becomes harder and harder for us to stop them1”.
The moral of the story is an ancient idea that holds tremendous wisdom – the best way to kill a dragon is to kill it while it is still an egg.
Bad habits, if left unchecked, can ruin even the strongest minded person. I have had to learn this lesson in multiple dimensions of my life.
But how do we change bad habits, and how do we form good ones? This is precisely the question that this article is going to attempt to answer….
What Causes Behaviour Change – The Fogg Model
The problem with frameworks about human behavior is no that there are not any, there are too many, one more confusing than the other.
About seven years ago, a behavior scientist named Professor B.J Fogg from Stanford University developed a model that changed my understanding of habit mechanics forever. *It was also him under whom I studied habit formation personally.
The Fogg model is simple; it shows that three elements have to converge at the same time for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and a Trigger.
Before I show you how this model can help you to master your habits, I would like to let Professor Fogg explain his own model to you with his own words:
So, to summarise, for you to form a behavior you need to be:
- Reminded to do the behavior. (Trigger Element).
- Motivated to do the behavior. (Motivation Element)
- Capable of doing the behavior. (Ability Element).
This leaves us with the habit formula:
Let us investigate the three levels that cause behavior change in-depth…
Level One: Motivation
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost anyhow”.
― Friedrich Nietzsche
“Dreams don’t work unless you do”. – John C. Maxwell
“If life gives you lemons, make fucking lemon cheesecake”. – Daniel Karim
What all these great thinkers have in common is the idea that willpower is the secret sauce to success.
Is that really true, though? Is Nike correct and we just need to do it? Can we will ourselves towards getting what we want? Or is motivation overrated?
According to Fogg, there are three core motivators, each with a positive and negative form of motivation.
One of my fellow behavior designer colleagues Samuel Walzer did a great job at creating a graphic to display Fogg’s Core Motivators:
Pain and pleasure are the primary driving forces behind the behavior. Click here to read my article about the subject.
- Pleasure: We repeat what is rewarded. If it feels good, we want to feel it again; therefore, we act.
- Pain: We avoid what is punished. If it hurts, we do not want to feel it again; therefore, we avoid acting.
Summary: If you want to make a behavior stick, add a positive emotion to it. If you want to weaken a bad habit, attach a negative emotion to it.
Human beings feel positive emotions if we make progress towards a valued goal. I have created a free technique to help identify your ideal future blueprint. If you are feeling a lot of negative emotions, it could be because you have not put in the time to create a worthy aim for yourself.
- Hope: We seek pleasure, and we also seek things that we believe will give us pleasure in the future. Hope motivates us to act because we tap into the power of positive anticipation.
- Fear: The anticipation of pain is also a powerful motivator to act. Our brain maps the world and is constantly looks for two things: things that will make our life better and for obstacles towards that path. Those obstacles and dangers to our goals are emotionally experienced as painful.
Summary: Hope and fear are the driving motors behind habit formation. In my private practice, I always have my clients create an ideal future blueprint and a nightmare future blueprint because the combination of positive anticipation and fear usually creates a strong pull forwards.
- Social Acceptance: The need to belong is one of the greatest motivators there is. From ancient times, it has been beneficial to survival to surround ourselves with a high-quality tribe and a high-quality spouse. It is, therefore, only logical to conclude that we act to receive greater social acceptance, status, love, and belonging.
- Social Rejection: This one is self-explanatory; social, and romantic exclusion is so painful because of obvious evolutionary reasons. People do almost anything to avoid being rejected; there it is a powerful motivational force as well.
Summary: Belonging is an ancient need of us; we need other people to survive and thrive. We are motivated to engage in behaviors that will uplift us in our local dominance hierarchy, and we do almost anything to avoid being abandoned or rejected.
- Congruence: We all have a perception of who we are, and we all try consciously or unconsciously to align our behavior with our identity. If you think of yourself as an athlete, it will be easier for you to work out rather than if you pride yourself as being a party animal.
- Incongruence: We also avoid behaviors that are off character for us. A person who sees themselves as a workaholic will probably have a hard time dating someone who is a couch potato and who does couch potato things.
Summary: True behavior change is an identity change; if we want to use motivation to increase our chances to act, we need to reinvent our idea of who we think we are. If you want to quit smoking, adopt the role of being a health nut. If you want to read more books, adopt the identity of calling yourself a book worm. If you want to lose weight, start thinking about yourself as an athlete.
As shown, if we want to increase or decrease our motivation, we need to tap into one or multiple of these core motivators.
Below, you will find what I call the Motivation Matrix; it is a quick set of questions that will help you to increase your motivation to do certain behaviors.
Before we go to Level 2 of the Fogg model, I would like you to think about a habit that you want to form and apply the principles of the motivation matrix to it.
Take another look at the motivational matrix and ask yourself how you can tap into the power of the four core motivators to increase your motivation, to actually make that particular behavior stick!
Great job on reading the first level of behavioral change, I did not want to make it too complicated; however, it was important to me that you learn that motivation is the why behind the behavior and that the sole purpose of motivation is to get us to do hard things.
But what do we do when we do not have the eye of the tiger? Is it possible to stick to our habits even if getting out of our bed is a major win?
It is. Let us move to the second level of behavior change to find out how we can form new habits in record time!
Level Two: Ability
When I was 17 years old, a doctor made me step on a scale: 69 nerdy kilograms, not too much considering I was 2 meters tall.
What I lacked in pounds, I made up for in acne; I had more pimples than the milky way had stars.
I was as fucking far away from being the “cool“ quarterback teenager type as possible, and there was one area in my life where I struggled immensely because of it: Dating.
I just could not muster up the courage to walk in broad daylight towards a member of the other sex and ask them out.
Being the lazy bastard that I am, I started to look for ways that enabled me to get dates without having to approach girls on the streets.
And behold, I found a way to bypass my fear of talking to girls in public: Online dating.
While approaching girls was difficult for me, sending the girls I liked a cool text on dating platforms was within my realm of capabilities.
Mobile device applications like Tinder enabled me to take a habit that was too hard for me (approaching girls in public) and simplify it for me (approaching girls online) so that even a pathetic coward like me could get some dates.
This process of simplification is what I call behavioral rescaling.
Suppose you have a habit that is not really sticky. In that case, you can make it easier to increase the chances that your desired habit becomes automatic.
Desired Behaviour Mini Behaviours (5 min or less)Reading a book a week.Read one page a day.Run 10 miles in the morning.Put on your running shoes.Meditate daily for 20 minutes.Take ten deep breathes.Clean your room.Pick up three things.
According to BJ Fogg, there are six ability factors that you can manipulate to form or break a behavior:
The Six Simplicity Factors
Time is finite; we all know that. The longer a behavior takes, the less likely it is that it will occur. If you want to increase the chances of a habit happening, make it shorter; if you want to decrease the probability, make it longer.
For forming new habits, ask yourself: Can I make the new behavior shorter?
The concept of money is known to all of us; if your newly formed habit is costly, you will need more motivation to keep it flowing. Tweak the price of a product down, and the sales will go up; increase the price, and the sales will go down. If your desired outcome is to get in shape, you can start a polo habit, but you will need an awful lot of motivation to get the money to feed your damn horse.
When forming new habits, ask yourself: Can I reduce the financial cost of my desired behavior?
3. Physical Effort
We are all lazy creatures by design who want to save as much energy as possible; this is particularly true for habit formation. If you want to increase the chances that you are going to read it, you can, for example, leave a book on your bed so that all you have to do is to open it up and read.
Remember: When you want to form a habit, reduce the physical effort to an absolute minimum; if you want to weaken a bad habit, make the physical effort harder.
When forming new habits, ask yourself: Can I make the behavior physically easier?
4. Brain Cycles
The cost of behavior is also determined by the level of mental effort and focus that is required to act.
If you want to form a Japanese learning routine, you probably need to have more motivation than if you want to create the routine of drinking a glass of water. This does not mean that you cannot learn Japanese, it means that to learn it, you must make it as simple as possible. When I learned Japanese, for example, I started by watching an anime episode with Japanese subtitles; my brain already knew how to watch TV, so all I had to do was to find a stream and enjoy a good episode of Hunter X Hunter.
When forming new habits, ask yourself: Can I reduce the cognitive cost of the habit?
5. Social Deviance
Social deviance is the behavioral currency that describes how much the behavior aligns with the behaviors of your current group. If your friends are all party animals who drink a lot, ordering water and upsetting the desired group behavior will be harder than if your friends were a bunch of spiritual yogis who never drink at all.
We are the sum of the five people who we spend the most time with; if you want to form a new behavior, create a setting in which social deviance works for and not against you.
When forming new habits, ask yourself: Can you surround yourself with people who will support you and your desired behavioral transformation?
Our brain loves to do the same things over and over again; doing something new is taxing for us. We are creatures of habit; if we have to do things that are not habitual, we spend brainpower. You have already encountered this behavioral currency; when you have not worked out in a while, and you have to force yourself to get the first workout behind you. The more often you do things, the more moments you have and the less brainpower that particular behavior requires.
When forming new habits, ask yourself: How can I integrate my new habit into the routines that I already have?
The Ability Matrix
Case Study: Forming A Reading Habit
Below, you will find an example of how I manipulated the ability element to form a reading habit.
Can I make the new behavior shorter? Yes, by scaling down my reading time goal; my new target is to read for 5 minutes instead of reading for an hour.Can I reduce the financial cost of my desired behavior? Reading many books is expensive; I can also use the internet to read books and articles for free.Can I make the behavior physically easier?Yes, by manipulating my environment. I will place the book that I want to read on my night shelf so I all I have to do is to read it.Can I reduce the cognitive cost of the habit? Yes, I will read during the day and not at night when my will power battery is low.Can you surround yourself with people who will support you and your desired behavioral transformation?Yes, I will join a book club where I have to present book reviews every month.
How can I integrate my new habit into the routines that I already have?
I created an upgraded routine right after breakfast; this is a good space for my reading habit because it does not compete with other habits.
Extra Credit: Brain Train
Before we go onto the last level of the Fogg model, I would like you to think about a habit that you want to form and apply the principles of the ability matrix to it.
Remember, if you want to make a good habit stick, you make it simpler; if you want to weaken a bad habit, you try to make it harder.
The matrix will help you to investigate all six simplicity elements so that you can become the architect of your behavior and decide for yourself what habits you want to have and what habits you do not want to have.
Level Three: Trigger
Why did I eat that chocolate bar? I’m on a diet!
Why did I just waste 10 minutes browsing through IG stories? I have to work!
Why did I smoke last night? It tried to quit that bad habit!
If you are a normal human being, you will ask yourself questions like that all the time, and the truth is – if you are not Elon Musk, you probably make behavioral mistakes regularly.
I certainly have…
If you have followed me in my newsletter, you know that for a long time alcohol was to me what Kryptonite was to Superman. I just could not stay sober, no matter how committed I was, I just could not get rid of this pathological habit for good.
Sometimes I managed to say no for a week, sometimes for a month. However, eventually, I found myself hurt and ashamed in bed and saying to myself: “Again, Daniel?”
One day, after a particularly violent relapse, I was in so much pain and self-hate that I made a commitment to get technical about my behavioral problem and beat it for good.
To beat my bad habit, I reached out to some of the best behaviorists in the world. After countless interviews with them, I came to the conclusion that my failed attempts to quit booze were a result of my imperfect understanding of behavior mechanics.
This was liberating news; if my problem were information based and not character-based, I could learn the necessary techniques to contain the worst of me.
One of the behaviorists that I talked to was BJ Fogg, and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice ever for stopping bad habits:
If you can take the trigger away, you’ve solved your riddle, Daniel.”
Remember, according to the Fogg Model, behavior occurs if Trigger, Ability, and Motivation come together. To stop a behavior from happening, we, therefore, need to exclude at least one of the variables from the occasion.
The first step was to identify the trigger, so I asked myself: What triggered my alcohol habit?
External Versus Internal Triggers
To my surprise, I did not have one trigger; I had dozens! So, I started to create a trigger matrix because I figured that if I managed to learn more about the go signs of that bad habit, I could stop myself from pushing the gas pedal all the way through.
My trigger matrix can be separated into two dimensions, internal and external triggers.
For Example, Internal Triggers Can Be:
- Existing routines
- Physical sensations
For Example, External Triggers Can Be:
- Other people
- Cues in your environment (advertisements for example)
Below you will find my trigger matrix for the bad drinking habit:
- Voices of self-doubt
- Inner cravings for alcohol
- Cravings for a romantic connection
- Cravings for adventure
- Cravings for numbness
- Memories of me having awesome party nights
- My roommates
- Parties in my dorm
- My friends asking me to drink
- The weekend
- Seeing alcohol at the supermarket
- Being invited to parties
- Advertisements on the TV
After thinking a lot about my trigger matrix, I realized that my living environment (living in a bachelor’s dorm basically) was not exactly suited to my goal of staying sober.
So, to eliminate my most powerful go signs, I moved out of the apartment. To this day, it was one of the most curative yet painful decisions of my life.
Although I could not take away internal triggers, just by eliminating my external triggers, I could FINALLY get a hold of my drinking habit by leaving an environment behind that was constantly bringing out the worst in me.
Exercise: Create Your Own Trigger Matrix
One of the most effective ways to weaken an undesired behavior is to reduce the number of triggers that that particular habit has.
Write down behaviors that you want to get rid of, identify the trigger, and attempt to take it out of the exclusion.
Below you will find a few examples of how I used the trigger matrix to get rid of a few of my bad habits.
Undesired Behaviour Trigger Trigger Exclusion Snacking ice cream in the middle of the night.I open my fridge and see ice cream.I put the ice cream in the back corner of the fridge, so I do not see it anymore.Social-media procrastination.Notifications on my phone.Turn the notifications off.Eating McDonald’s on my way home.McDonald’s sign on the street.Take a route where I do not see the trigger.Compulsive TinderingTinder app sign on my phone.Delete the app and only use the desktop application.
I decided to share these personal flaws of mine with you because I wanted to show you that what you do, think, feel, and value, all come down to the quality of the external triggers in your environment.
Just think of it this way. Imagine you are shooting a movie, yet you never tell anyone that it exists, how many people do you expect at the premiere?
Probably zero, right? In a way, you can think of triggers as the marketing element of your behavior psychology.
Professor Fogg identified three types of external triggers, which I would like to share with you really quickly:
Spark triggers help when you can do a behavior, but are not motivating enough to act out on the trigger.
Example: An advertisement that asks you to buy something that you do not currently want.
A signal trigger is a reminder where you are motivated to buy something but are not capable of buying it.
Example: An example here could be the instructions given to you when you set up your new phone.
Facilitator triggers are the most powerful triggers; they combine both motivation and ability.
Example: You get an advertisement for a new watch that you always wanted to have, and you actually have the money and the technological tool to buy it within a few clicks.
Hot Versus Cold Triggers
One of the reasons why I moved out of my apartment was because I realized that I was surrounded by hot triggers, aka facilitators.
A hot trigger is a reminder that combines both motivation and ability; when my friends asked me to party with them, they know exactly what buttons to push with me to unlock “party Daniel” so I was motivated right away; they also showed me alcohol, so all I had to do was to say yes and forget my sobriety vows.
After I moved out of that apartment, I was still triggered. However, the number of hot triggers in my environment was drastically reduced.
In Germany, it is pretty much impossible to avoid all alcohol triggers. However, for me personally, going to the supermarket and seeing a beer there was a cold trigger because I could buy it. However, I lacked the motivation to do so because my friends were not pitching to me that night to come out partying.
Where To Go From Here?
Habit formation is not a science, it is a skill, and just like with any skill, it takes time and practice to form habits that stick.
Once you become fluent in the language of change, everything becomes possible, and failure is not a failure anymore.
Before learning behavior mechanics, I have often blamed myself for my shortcomings. Now, I have swapped self-hate and shame for curiosity, and I suggest that you do the same.
You have learned in this article that habits are the building blocks of your life, the only question left for you to ask is: What kind of life do you want to build?