Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

woman flossing her teeth

Creating Sustainable Behavioral Change Part 14: the BJ FOGG way; Summing it all up.

by James Porter April 29, 2022

Stanford psychologist and behavioral change expert, BJ Fogg is famous for saying if you want to get a behavioral change in motion, “start by flossing just one tooth.”

In this the last installment I thought I’d try to review much of what we’ve covered so far about making tiny changes. This is the work BJ Fogg, the Stanford University psychologist who is turning the world of behavioral change upside down. He was one of the first people to suggest that computers could change people’s behavior. When he first started researching this radical concept back in the 1990’s people were horrified by even the IDEA that computers could change a human being’s behavior.

Now, with over 2 million phone apps and web portals available, hundreds of thousands of which, specifically designed to help people change their behavior, we know conclusively, it’s not a matter of whether computers can change behavior but how well can they do it? And can they do it better than other options like a 12-step program, a health coach, a counselor or a psychologist?  As an advisor to many Silicon Valley tech companies who create these behavioral change apps, BJ Fogg has been at the forefront of both a tech revolution AND a behavioral change revolution.

Listening to BJ Fogg, I thought it was interesting to hear him rail against the use of the word “engagement.” This wellness buzz-word is meaningless to him, since engagement doesn’t necessarily lead to behavioral change. Wellness vendors promise to deliver a certain level of engagement and imply that behavioral change just automatically comes along for the ride. He says we are over-promising when we suggest that engagement alone will deliver the behavioral changes that people are looking for.

As Fogg likes pointing out asking someone to walk for 30 minutes a day, eat 5-10 fruits and vegetables a day, or even drink 8 glasses of water a day is asking a LOT. These behavior changes are hard to do – and the vast majority of people WON’T successfully take up these changes, simply as the result of engagement. “It’s like throwing somebody in the water and expecting them to learn how to swim.” So if engagement means to you that participants, who make it all the way to the end of an 8-week program, are going to be transformed in walkers, fruit and vegetable eaters, or water drinkers, chances are, you are going to be disappointed. AND if you over-promise that mere engagement is going to deliver on these promises, you are going to have a LOT of disappointed people on your hands, too.

Fogg makes an AMAZING point, that when we approach behavioral change in this way, we may be doing more harm than good: Because the majority of the participants in these programs who aren’t going to achieve these results and ARE going to walk away from them feeling like failures and may be turned off to wellness forever more.

At the beginning of a talk Fogg gave at the high-tech conference SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST, he holds up a beanie bag Monkey and a Frog (think of these as two different human beings) and announces: Frog says he is going to walk every day for 30 minutes from now on. Monkey announces he is going to walk for 10 minutes a day for five days. Which one is more likely to be walking a year from now? (Fogg loves using goofy props.)

His surprising answer is Monkey. Let’s say it rains on the third day. Monkey is more likely to say, it’s just five days. I can deal with this rain for ten minutes. I only have two more days to go. Frog on the third day is going to say to himself, “forever is a long time” and he won’t go out on the third day AND because he didn’t do the third day he will feel so guilty about it, he isn’t going to want to walk on the fourth day either and now the new behavior is now extinguished.

At the end of his five days, Monkey is experiencing what Fogg calls “success momentum.” Monkey says to himself, I think I’ll try this again next week. Monkey is GROWING a habit while Frog has extinguished a habit. (And we as wellness professionals and trainers are constantly putting people in the same head-space as FROG!!!)

“Say goodbye to willpower and forget about guilt,” Fogg explains in this same South by Southwest presentation. “Whenever you hear someone say ‘we’ve got to motivate behavior change’ a red flag should go off in your head and you should say to yourself ‘that’s probably NOT going to work.’” This de-emphasis on motivation is what separates Fogg from everyone else in the behavioral change arena. He prefers to use the words “facilitating behavioral change.” Fogg is all about making the change so easy to do, that you don’t need ANY willpower to do it. To this end, he is always citing the ridiculously easy example of flossing one tooth.

I want you to really try to imagine putting this minimalist behavior in place. In other words, I want you to take this idea of flossing just one tooth seriously. (As Fogg likes to point out, people ALWAYS over-reach and want to start with a MUCH harder challenge and that’s just one reason why they so often fail: “Flossing one tooth isn’t going to help me,” people will argue.) Despite your rational-seeming objections, after brushing, you agree to floss just one tooth. That’s it. Even though it may SEEM to be TOO easy at first, to humor me, you go along with it, particularly if you are one of those people who KNOWS you should be flossing but aren’t.

You floss just one tooth every day for a week or a month or a few months until this TINY HABIT is firmly in place. Can you see how once you’d established this ridiculously EASY habit of flossing one tooth in place, how EASY flossing the rest of your teeth would eventually become? This is how you grow a behavior. You START by creating the habit FIRST and then fill in what you want from the behavior later. It’s more important to plant a seed, experience success, and let your willingness (or motivation) to do more grow out of that success than to try to tackle the end goal (of flossing all your teeth) right at the beginning and then failing right out of the gate.

This is the foundation of Fogg’s whole approach to behavioral change. When you boil it all down it’s about taking the focus OFF motivation and willpower and putting it ON seeding a habit and gradually growing it into something bigger over time.

In that same South by Southwest presentation I referred to earlier Fogg says “the more you practice creating tiny habits, the better you get at it.” The more I read about Fogg the more I realize how much he LOVES coming up with just the right words to describe the tiny steps involved in bringing about real SUSTAINABLE behavioral change. At the end of his presentation at South by Southwest he leaves us with three more terms that nicely sum up a lot of what you need to know about his approach moving forward:

Blossoming: A tiny seed planted in the right spot will grow without coaxing.

Cascading: You don’t have to do it all at once. Just keep going with a tiny change and trust in the ripple effects to bring about the rest.

Springboarding: Small changes prepare you for a big leap down the road.


James Porter
James Porter


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