The Secrets to Successful Behavior Change

Let’s face it, changing behaviors is hard—especially if we are trying to turn a short-term behavior into a life-long habit. For years we were led to believe that all we needed to change a behavior was motivation. Without motivation, we were doomed to fail and with the right level of motivation, success was surely ours. We now know that motivation alone will often not lead to sustainable behavior change.

It was then thought that all we need to change behavior is the ability to change. From a practical standpoint, this merely meant reducing physical barriers to change. For example, if we need to exercise more, we need to make sure we have the physical ability to increase our exercise. Once again, just as with motivation, we have learned that ability is not enough.

What if we combine motivation with ability? Then we are sure to succeed in turning short-term behaviors into life-long habits. Not so, says Stanford researcher BJ Fogg, PhD.  We had the opportunity to interview Fogg on our radio show and he said that in addition to motivation and ability, we need a trigger. Without a trigger, motivation and ability just aren’t enough. Based on Fogg’s research at Stanford, all three of these aspects—motivation, ability, and trigger—must come together at the same time in order to change behavior for good. “If any one of these things is missing, the behavior won’t happen,” said Fogg.

The trigger is a prompt that reminds us to actually do the behavior. This may require some creativity. Fogg told a story on our radio show about how he wanted to do more pushups throughout his day. He decided his trigger would be going to the bathroom. So, every time he went to the bathroom, he was reminded to do five pushups. He jokes that the number of pushups he would do throughout the day was dependent on his water intake that day.

Effective triggers, says Fogg, are often associated with an existing routine or something that we can consistently count on, like going to the bathroom. Perhaps the trigger is morning coffee or tea or before the evening news or a part of our bedtime ritual. 

“Find a routine or habit that you already have and have that be the prompt for the new behavior you want,” says Fogg. According to Fogg, post-in notes, alarms, digital notifications, and other technology prompts can actually become irritating and ineffective. Identifying an existing habit or daily task to tie into will likely encourage a higher rate of successful sustainability. 

Fogg adds in one more secret to successful behavior change. He says that when we combine a positive emotion or feeling with the new behavior, we’ll change the behavior quicker and it will likely last longer. 

“As you do the new behavior, fire off a positive emotion. Tell yourself you are doing a great job. Smile. High five. Do something to make yourself feel happy and positive about the behavior,” says Fogg. He calls this “the celebration.” 

“The celebration makes your brain want to do the behavior again,” says Fogg. “If you are good at firing off that positive emotion, you can make a new habit stick in just a few days, rather than weeks or months.”

So the next time you want to change a behavior, be your best cheerleader! Be sure to pat yourself on the back, Thriver, because that’s one of the secrets to long-lasting behavior change. You can do it!

If you’d like to listen to the entire show with Dr. Fogg, click here.