Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

People Meditating

Creating SUSTAINABLE Behavioral Change Part 8

by James Porter March 02, 2022

Introducing BJ Fogg: The Stanford scientist who turned the world of behavioral change upside down.

In the next two installments I will describe the mechanics of how BJ Fogg’s unique approach to behavioral change works.  I’ve already talked about how Fogg focuses on making the change easier to accomplish in the last installment. Now let’s look at how you can make this happen in your own life and the lives of your clients. 

Take a look at the following graph:

Fogg Model

For any change to happen you need three things in place: A trigger, motivation and the ability to DO the new behavior. (B=mat) A trigger could be anything that reminds you to THINK about doing the new behavior, for example: waking up and going to bathroom is usually a TRIGGER for most people to brush their teeth in the morning. You probably already do this and the behavior is automatic. (This is what we want eventually for every new behavior, for it to become automatic.)

You have everything you need to brush your teeth in the bathroom and you know HOW to do it, so it’s easy. Those are all the ingredients you need to form a habit: You have the ability, the motivation (you like the way your mouth feels after brushing and you don’t like getting cavities) and the trigger which is waking up in the morning. So this behavior – because it’s a habit - ALWAYS falls above the curved blue line in the graph above. (Success)

B=mat; t stands for trigger. Triggers are an important part of the behavioral change equation but they don’t automatically lead to success. In other words, a trigger alone is not going to elevate you above the blue line.  You could set a chime on your phone to remind you to meditate for 30 minutes every day at 10 AM and that alone wouldn’t make it happen. You would have to be highly MOTIVATED to meditate for 30 minutes and you would have to feel like you have the ABILITY to do this. If you weren’t able and motivated you would fall below the blue line, every time, despite the presence of a trigger. (Failure)

B=mat; m stands for motivation. In order to get people motivated to meditate I ALWAYS talk about how meditation brings about both STATE and TRAIT changes. STATE changes are those changes that some people experience while meditating: like feeling peaceful, calm and relaxed. TRAIT changes are the structural changes that occur inside the brain as the result of meditating over time. The biggest of these being increased gray matter in the area of the brain responsible for happiness and contentment (the left side of the Pre-frontal cortex). This has been shown to occur in the brains of mindfulness meditators after just 8 weeks of practice. That kind of information can increase motivation.

No one is going to do something without at least SOME motivation. But, Fogg’s work tells us that motivation alone will not get us over the blue line if the challenge is too difficult.

 B=mat; a stands for ability. I think a lot of people fail to meditate because they don’t realize how difficult it is to keep their mind from wandering during the meditation. So they quickly feel like a failure because they feel like if their minds keep wandering that proves they are “no good” at meditation. Also trying to get people to set aside 30 minutes a day to do anything is nearly impossible, especially when trying to create a new behavior.

Now let’s say I wanted to MOVE YOU above the blue line so you experience success in meditation, WITHOUT relying on increasing your motivation to do it. What would I do? How could I move you to the right on the graph, and still create a habit that would get you meditating every day? I need to be able to figure out how to make it so much EASIER to do, that you can’t fail.

So let’s say I encourage you to meditate for just two minutes every morning right after you wake up. Your trigger is waking up: “Right after I wake up I will meditate for 2 minutes.” And what if I told you that you could do this meditation lying down and that it wouldn’t matter what-so-ever if your mind wandered as long as you attempted to bring it back to your point of focus, every time you noticed that it had wandered? Doesn’t that sound like a LOT easier to do? Do you think that would get you above the blue line?

Instead of trying to move you UP the graph on the vertical axis by increasing your motivation, I’ve moved you over to the right, focusing instead, on making you more ABLE to do the new behavior by making it EASIER to do. And if I have done my job effectively, you will experience success in meditation (especially if I remind you of what mindfulness guru, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, that “there is no such thing as an unsuccessful meditation”). This in turn will lead you to a feeling of increased self-efficacy: As your self-efficacy grows so does your ability to meditate for longer and longer.

Even if you’ve tried meditating for a certain amount of time each day before and failed: Chances are you had a trigger in place, like I’ll meditate every day right when I come home from work, but it still didn’t consistently elevate you ABOVE the blue line. But by making it easier to do – by starting with just two minutes a day lying down in bed - you are now above the line where your trigger (After I wake up) plus your motivation (I want to feel more relaxed) is in line with your ability: “Two minutes first thing in the morning, lying down is EASY!”

In our next installment we’ll look more at why motivation isn’t what we should be thinking about when we talk about behavioral change.


James Porter
James Porter