The Atomic Habits Model provides a simple and actionable framework that can be applied to any situation. However, sometimes it can be hard knowing where to start.
Which element matters most?
Does it matter which order I do them in?
Are there nuances to using the model that make it easier or harder to do?
Models are great, but it's helpful to have a checklist. Do Step 1, then Step 2, then Step 3, etc. until finished. Checklists are used in many high-stakes situations - aviation, surgery, the military - because they work. When it comes to behavioral change, the best checklist I know of is found in the book Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg.
At the core of Fogg’s work is a formula he refers to as B = MAP. As we’ll see in a moment, the structure will look quite familiar if you’ve read my article on the C2R2 Model from Atomic Habits.
The Atomic Habits model was directly inspired by BJ Fogg's behavioral science research at Stanford.
Fogg has an excellent description of the model in his book, so I will let him explain it in his own words:
"Behavior happens when three things come together at the same moment: Motivation, Ability, and Prompt.
You can visualize this model in two dimensions. Along the vertical axis is the level of Motivation for a behavior, and it can range anywhere from high to low. Along the horizontal axis is the Ability to do a behavior. It's also a continuum. On the right side is high Ability, and I'll label that side as "easy to do". On the left side of this axis are behaviors that are "hard to do".
Suppose you want someone to donate to the Red Cross. If they have high Motivation, and if it's Easy for that person to do, they will be here (in the upper-right corner of the model). When a person here gets Prompted to donate, they will do the donation behavior.
In contrast, if someone has low Motivation to donate to the Red Cross, and if it's Hard for them to do, they will be here in the lower-left corner. When that person is Prompted, they will not do the behavior.
There's a relationship between Motivation and Ability. This curved line, called the Action Line, shows that relationship. If someone is anywhere above the Action Line when prompted, they will do the behavior. In this case, they will donate to the Red Cross. However, if they are below the Action Line when prompted, they won't do the behavior.
If someone is below the Action Line, we need to get them above it for the Prompt to instigate the behavior. Either we need an increase in motivation, or the behavior needs to be easier to do, or both.
This model applies to all types of human behavior.
In summary, when Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt come together at the same moment, that's when a behavior will occur. If any of the three elements are missing, the behavior won't happen."
If you look closely, you'll see how similar the B=MAP model is to the C2R2 Model. Look at the parallels:
(We’ll talk about Fogg’s Celebration concept in a moment)
However, the thing I really like about the B=MAP model is that Fogg uses it as a scaffolding to create a 7-part “behavior checklist”. The seven steps include:
Clarify your aspiration
Brainstorm behavior options
Match a specific behavior
Find a good prompt
Troubleshoot, iterate and expand
If you want to truly understand the process, then I highly encourage you to pick up his book, Tiny Habits. In the meantime, let me give you a couple of pointers for each of the categories.
Step #1: Clarify Your Aspiration
Before creating a new habit or changing an existing one, the first question you should always ask yourself is, "Why do I want to make a change?"
What do you want to accomplish with your new habit?
What are your dreams?
What result do you want to achieve?
What kind of person do you want to become?
You'll notice that some of these questions sound familiar from our discussion about identity in James Clear's model. That's not a coincidence. Successful habit change always results in a change in identity.
Clarify Your Aspiration is a critical first step because there isn’t a single "right" way to get what you want. There may be "best practices" or generally agreed-upon solutions for accomplishing your goal, but we must be careful that we don't fall into the trap of closed-minded or dogmatic thinking. Life is complex and there are many ways to accomplish a given aspiration.
For example, let's say that you state your goal as "I want to lose weight". Is that really what you want? Is it about losing weight, or is the real aspiration to feel more comfortable in your own skin? Or perhaps you want to feel like you have more control over your life?
It's very important to get clarity at this step because the answer you come up with will change the space of relevant solutions.
Continuing with the example above: what if you didn't lose any weight on the scale, but you lost body fat and gained muscle mass? Would that be considered a success? Or, what if you took a public speaking class to overcome a lifetime fear of speaking and suddenly you had massive confidence in social situations? Would you still feel like you needed to lose weight?
Maybe your goal really is just to lose weight, and that’s a great goal. Losing excess body fat - particularly visceral body fat - is almost always a positive thing and will improve your health and your energy.
But the important point is this:
Clarifying Your Aspiration helps you identify “why” you want to make a change. Once you know the “why”, then you can focus on the “how”.
In my experience, getting clarity about your aspirations is harder than it appears because we often lie to ourselves about what we really want. It's easy to settle on the "accepted" answers - "I want to lose weight", "I want to eat better", "I want to exercise more" - while never addressing the real reasons for change.
Spend some serious time on this first step (Clarify Your Aspiration). The time invested will pay many dividends moving forward.
Step #2: Brainstorm Behavior Options
Once you've clarified why you want to start a new habit, the next step is to brainstorm potential habits that will help you accomplish your aspiration.
Fogg uses a helpful exercise to accomplish this called the Swarm of Behaviors. In essence, you place the desired outcome - the Aspiration - at the center of a page. Then, you brainstorm 20-25 possible habits that would enable you to accomplish that outcome. This brainstorm should be fast - no more than 10-15 minutes.
At this stage, any ideas you come up with are legitimate. Don't inhibit your creativity by thinking, "I could never do that habit".
In fact, Fogg recommends using another technique called the Magic Wand question to stimulate further creativity:
"If you could wave a Magic Wand and get yourself to do any behavior that would help you achieve your Aspiration, what would it be?"
Additional questions that Fogg recommends as prompts include:
What behaviors would you do one time?
What new habits would you create?
What habit would you stop?
The goal of this stage is to get creative. It’s easy to get stuck in narrow forms of thinking:
"In order to lose weight, I have to go to the gym."
Think more broadly! If you wanted to lose weight, you could:
Cut out sugar
Join a hiking group
Join a rec league for basketball, baseball, soccer, etc.
Cut out refined carbohydrates
Cut out vegetable oils
Try intermittent fasting/time-restricted eating
Walk 10,000 steps per day
Start a food journal
Start a weight-loss blog
Create an accountability group with 2-3 friends
Join Weight Watchers
Start a new outdoor hobby
Sleep at least 8 hours per night
Start a consistent meditation practice
Buy a Pogo stick (do they even sell those anymore?) and compete against your 8-year-old to see who can do it for longer
Remove toxic relationships from your life
Get a new job that affords you more free time
Buy a standing desk
Mount a pull-up bar in a doorway in your house
Buy a set of resistance bands to have at the office
Clean out your fridge and stock it with healthy foods you like
Go out to restaurants fewer times per week
Stop drinking soda/pop
Stop drinking alcohol
Join a cooking class
Go on a 2-week boot camp retreat
Hire a coach
And hundreds of other suggestions.
That list took me less than 5 minutes to come up with. Remember, at this stage, the point isn't whether the ideas are good or feasible - you just need to break yourself out of your default thought patterns. Get creative!
Step #3: Match a Specific Behavior
At this point, you have brainstormed a range of possible behaviors that will help you accomplish your Aspiration.
This begs the question: which one should you pick?
The answer is another Fogg technique called Focus Mapping.
Focus Mapping is about ranking your brainstorm list according to two criteria:
First, rank each habit according to how impactful it is likely to be. Using our weight loss example above, you might rank “Enrolling in a 2-week boot camp” as Very Effective whereas “Getting a new job” as Not Effective.
Then, rank all of your brainstorm options according to a second criteria: how willing/likely are you to do the habit? Going on a 2-week boot camp retreat might be high impact, but do you want to do it? How likely is it that you’ll do it?
Focus Mapping doesn’t have to be high-tech - a simple whiteboard and Post-it Notes are perfect:
The goal of this stage is to discover what Fogg calls a Golden Behavior. A Golden Behavior has three criteria:
The behavior is effective in helping you realize your Aspiration
You want to do the behavior
You can do the behavior
If you want to know whether your proposed habit is a Golden Behavior, then simply ask whether it meets the three criteria:
"How effective is this behavior in helping me to achieve my Aspiration?"
"Do I want to do this behavior?"
"Can I get myself to do it?"
If you look at the picture above, you’ll notice that Golden Behaviors are the ones that fall in the upper-right quadrant. These are the behaviors that you are most likely to do & will have the biggest impact.
One last point…
I find that Step #3: Match a Specific Behavior requires a lot of practice to get right.
Picking a Golden Behavior demands a level of introspection that most people aren't used to. It requires you to have an honest conversation with yourself about (a) what truly motivates you, and (b) what you can realistically do. This requires you to deal with yourself as you truly are, not how you imagine you ought to be.
Remember, according to Fogg, every behavior is the confluence of three things: Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt. Unless you are intrinsically Motivated to do a behavior and you have the Ability to do it, no amount of cajoling, guilt-tripping, or coercion is going to work in the long term.
The odds are good that the first couple of times you pick a Golden Behavior it will turn out to be less “Golden” than anticipated. That's okay! Learn to give yourself grace, examine why the behavior didn't produce the intended outcomes, and modify your approach for the future.
The exciting part is that every time you do this exercise, you will get better at it. Over time, it becomes easier and easier to create new habits. Eventually, you will reach a point where you can almost effortlessly install new habits into your life that actually work.
Step #4: Start Tiny
The principle behind Start Tiny is similar to the concept of "Make it Easy" from the C2R2 Model.
Think about your own attitude towards taking on a new task. Which task are you more likely to do: the one that takes one step and requires five minutes of your time, or the one that takes dozens of steps and requires hours of effort? Obviously, we are far more inclined to do the easy step.
Start Tiny address the “A” in the B=MAP model. There is a dynamic interplay between Motivation and Ability. If our Motivation is high, then Ability can be low and we'll still do the behavior. Conversely, if our Motivation is low, then our Ability to do the behavior needs to be high in order to compensate.
However, in real life, Motivation is a fickle mistress and comes and goes like the wind. Therefore, Start Tiny is about converting our desired habits into the smallest, easiest form possible so that we don’t have to rely on Motivation.
Start Tiny/Make it Easy is one of my favorite principles to use on a daily basis for designing habits. I find that the principle of Start Tiny pairs nicely with another principle of productivity called incrementalism. As the name suggests, working incrementally is about breaking a task into smaller, more manageable chunks. Though the total amount of work remains the same, breaking a task into smaller components can significantly change the psychological "starting cost".
I've said it before, and it bears repeating here: humans are not robots. It is pointless to berate yourself about how you "should" do things in a certain way. "Should" is the enemy of effective habits. The only thing you "should" do is learn how to design habits that align with human nature. In the process, you'll find that you will be more productive and happier.
Where to Start
I have found these two questions from Fogg’s book useful for generating “Start Tiny” ideas:
What is making this behavior hard to do?
How can I make this behavior easier to do?
“What is making this behavior hard to do?” - The answer is always one thing: friction. Friction is a catch-all term that describes anything that opposes your efforts. Friction can come in many forms:
Disruption to your normal routine
Deviance from accepted social norms
“How can I make this behavior easier to do”? - Once again, the answer is simple: remove friction. Improving your skills, getting appropriate tools & resources, or breaking a task into smaller steps all help to decrease friction.
A great way to visualize friction comes from The Persuasion Slide by Roger Dooley. Though it is geared towards selling/marketing, it’s still a great mental model for how friction can speed things up or slow things down:
Habits that are hard to do (i.e. high friction) are like a rusty slide: you can try to do them, but it’s going to be rough-going. Conversely, habits that have been appropriately scaled down (i.e. low friction) are like a water slide: once you get started, you effortlessly flow through them.
Learn how to spot & remove friction, and you will be well on your way to mastering Start Tiny.
Step #5: Find a Good Prompt
B=MAP and C2R2 both agree that every behavior starts with a trigger/cue/prompt. In other words, behavioral routines are set into motion from specific signals in the environment.
However, prompts can come in an astounding variety of forms because they are dependent upon interpretation. As we mentioned before, the sound of a slot machine might be a strong prompt for a gambler while simultaneously being meaningless to a non-gambler.
When designing a new habit, the most effective types of prompts are ones that piggyback off of existing habits. BJ Fogg refers to this piggyback effect as "anchoring". By attaching a new habit to an existing Anchor habit, you significantly increase the odds that you'll remember to do the new habit, provided you choose a good Anchor habit.
An Anchor habit should be something that you do every day:
Go to sleep
Go to the bathroom
Eat a meal
Brush your teeth
Attend a meeting
Turn on your computer
Go for a walk
Once you have identified an Anchor habit, then you can “attach” the new habit to it. Here are a few ways that Fogg recommends attaching the new habit:
Trailing Edge Habits - Attach the new habit right at the finishing edge of the Anchor habit. For example, "As I turn off the car upon arriving home from work, then I will take three deep breaths and smile."
Meanwhile Habits - Perform the new habit while the Anchor habit is ongoing. For example, "While my coffee brews in the pot, then I will do two pushups."
Pearl Habits - Execute the new habit in response to a “negative” Anchor habit. For example, "Every time my co-worker complains about our boss, then I will mentally think of one thing I'm grateful for."
Fogg gives three additional tips for choosing a good prompt that I have found helpful:
Match the physical location
Match the frequency
Match the theme/purpose
Never Forget Groceries Again
Here’s a useful variant of the “physical location” prompt so you don’t forget to pick up items on your grocery list.
Both iPhone and Android have the ability to set geo-location-specific Reminders. Throughout the week, whenever I remember I need to pick something up from the store - or, more accurately, when my wife reminds me that we need something - then I quickly jot it down in a dedicated “Grocery List” note on my phone.
<— That’s the habit. “When I remember something I need from the store [ANCHOR], then I write it down in my Grocery List note [NEW HABIT]”
Later, when I arrive at the grocery store, that same note automatically pops up on my Home Screen since I set its geo-location to my local grocery store.
This habit works great for me because it reduces friction. Since I have a dedicated note on my phone, it’s incredibly easy to add new items to the list. And by setting the geo-location reminder, I don’t have to rely on my memory. (This is a variant of another behavioral technique called “commitment devices”)
The funny thing is that I don’t even need the geo-location reminder anymore. I’m so used to my phone buzzing when I arrive at the store that it’s now second nature for me to think, “When I park at the grocery store, then I will open my phone and review my grocery list.” In Fogg’s terminology, parking at the grocery store and reviewing my list has now become an Anchor Habit for me.
Step #6: Celebrate Success
The phrase “carrot and stick” is a popular metaphor for describing how to induce behavioral change. While overly simplistic, it does capture an essential concept regarding human behavior. Broadly speaking, if you want to motivate action, then you’ve got two options:
Punishing failure (or threatening it) is effective - simply find the level of punishment that motivates the individual to take action.
The problem with punishment, however, is that it’s a terrible long-term strategy. You may be able to use punishment as an effective motivator for a while, but it almost always comes at a cost.
Punishment is predicated on fear, and we know that fear reduces creativity and trust. Low creativity and low trust are not a recipe for long-term success!
On the other hand, rewards can be effectively used over the long term to induce desired behaviors. The challenge, however, is that most people choose rewards that are:
Secretly punishments in disguise
Consider the classic example of rewarding behavior with money. Unless you have an inextinguishable supply of money, rewarding behavior with money is unlikely to be sustainable.
Conversely, if the amount of money is lowered to sustainable levels, then the payoff is unlikely to sufficiently motivate the person.
Finally, money as a motivator almost always becomes a punishment in disguise because it activates the "fear of loss" circuitry.
A Better Way
A more effective way to motivate behavior is by modulating emotion. The greatest predictors of long-term behavioral change are when a person feels (a) a sense of meaning and (b) progress in their actions.
You already know the power of those feelings. Think of a time in your life where you felt like you did a great job. Maybe you nailed an interview, made someone laugh, served others, got a promotion, scored a game-winning goal, or mastered a complex topic. Think about the internal "glow" you experienced at that moment - that radiating feeling of warmth and goodness. It felt great, right?
Now, imagine that you could bottle that feeling and strategically deploy it to change your behavior. It would be pretty effective, wouldn’t it?
But what would that even look like?
The answer to that question is exactly what BJ Fogg means when he says to "Celebrate Success".
Fogg is explicit on this point:
"Emotions create habits. Not repetition. Not frequency. Not fairy dust. Emotions."
Remember what we said before? Humans are not machines. You can’t just program a human like a computer and send them on their way. If you fail to consider the emotional component of behavior, then you’ll miss a large part of what makes you human.
You can fight against your emotions, or you can use them to your advantage. The choice is yours.
Finding Your Celebration
So, how do we incorporate the concept of Celebrating Success?
First, think about how you normally respond to getting good news. If your favorite sports team wins, do you pump your fist in the air? Do you say a certain phrase or word? Do you do a little dance?
Think about another situation where you felt incredibly positive. Maybe you figured out a challenging situation, or you received a compliment from someone you admire, or you just found out that your dream job offered you a position.
How did you respond? Did you mimic dropping an imaginary microphone? Did you smile in a certain way? Did you play the “air drums”?
There are no right or wrong answers here. The goal is not to pick the "right" Celebration. Rather, the goal is to pick the Celebration that makes you feel happy.
BJ Fogg calls this process finding the "Shine". All of us experience a warm glow, or Shine, when we do something that we feel proud of. Therefore, the goal of this exercise is to identify what creates Shine and then bottle it up so we can use it on-demand.
Next, we need to strategically deploy Celebration to modify our behavior.
Celebration can be used at any time:
The moment you remember to do a habit
While doing the habit
Immediately after completing the habit
The point of Celebration is to send a signal to your brain that says, “Pay attention: the thing I am doing right now is important!”. The more you can send that signal in conjunction with the desired behavior, the better.
Fogg recommends rehearsing your Celebration to help make it automatic. The general formula looks like this:
“After I [ANCHOR HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT], then I will [CELEBRATION].”
I just used this tactic last week to help install a new habit. My wife likes to have a glass of water on her nightstand in case she gets thirsty during the night. She had been asking me for weeks to make sure she had water, but for whatever reason, I kept forgetting to fill it. So, last week I rehearsed exactly how I was going to do it moving forward:
“As I’m getting ready for bed: after I set my phone on my nightstand [ANCHOR HABIT], then I will grab my wife’s glass on the way to brushing my teeth [NEW HABIT]. Once I am finished brushing my teeth, then I will fill my wife’s glass with filtered water and then set it back on her nightstand on my way to bed. The moment I set the glass down on the nightstand, I will do a fist pump and say “Nailed it!” [CELEBRATION]”
Does that seem ridiculous to you? Perhaps it is…but I didn’t forget to get my wife water once last week. By the time my wife reads this article, my forgetful days of failing to get her water will be a thing of the past.
The funny thing is that I’ve been studying habit formation for years, yet I kept struggling to implement the new habit until I sat down and mapped out how I would do it. Part of that mapping process included a Celebration tactic. Now, when I successfully get my wife water, I find myself laughing each time as I fist-pump the empty room.
Celebrate Success can feel silly sometimes, but I promise you it works!
Step #7: Troubleshoot, Iterate, and Expand
Everything that we have done up to this point has been in preparation for this final step. As we went through Steps 1-6, we received an invaluable resource. Do you know what it was?
Every step up to this point generated data (i.e. feedback). Each time you clarified your aspiration, brainstormed a behavioral option, or designed a tiny habit, you received feedback about the efficacy of your decisions.
However, data means nothing until it is interpreted. You must objectively evaluate the data and determine what it is telling you.
The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough. Think about it this way: when looking at human history, what period of time is most responsible for the explosion in technology & progress that we see today?
The answer: the Scientific Revolution.
The reason the Scientific Revolution was so transformative was that it equipped humans with a set of cognitive tools for systematically determining truth. Instead of relying upon superstition or anecdote, we developed a systematic approach that allowed us to more reliably overcome human bias (albeit imperfectly). The scientific method is so incredible because over time it allows us to converge upon what is actually true about reality rather than defending what we think is true.
How does that apply to building better habits?
As you work your way through Steps 1-6, you will quickly realize that some of your predictions fail to produce results. At times, you will find yourself dreading a behavior, or feeling overwhelmed, or putting things off, or losing motivation, or forgetting the behavior altogether. That's normal! It doesn't mean that you are a failure or you can't change. All it means is that the initial conditions were insufficient to elicit your desired outcomes.
In other words, you need to tweak something to make it more effective. (In UX research, this is called “A/B testing”)
Step #7 is a life-long step. You will always be tweaking your behaviors to make them more effective at accomplishing your desires. I find this process incredibly rewarding because the effects compound over time. With each passing year, you will find yourself getting better and better at developing behavioral prompts that reliably produce results. Said another way, you will learn - at least in a rough sense - the personal blueprint for your own behavioral map.
Anecdotally, this process has helped encourage a strong sense of purpose and meaning in my life because I feel a deep sense of control over my actions. I am reminded of the words from William Henley's iconic poem Invictus:
I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.
Maybe you want to learn to play an instrument, or learn how to program, or develop a career skill that would get you promoted, or master a complex topic for a personal hobby. Now imagine that you could effortlessly design behavioral prompts and habits that would guarantee you achieve your result. Imagine how powerful it would feel to have the ability to do anything you want in life.
The amazing part is that you don't have to just imagine it - that skill is available to you now. Follow the behavioral design steps we discussed, analyze the data, make changes, and repeat.
An easy way to remember the Tiny Habits process of behavioral design is with BJ Fogg's ABC mnemonic:
Anchor —> Behavior —> Celebrate
Start with an Anchor behavior (something that you consistently do every day)
Then, choose an appropriately-sized new Behavior to link to the Anchor behavior. This new Behavior will be executed as soon as the Anchor behavior finishes.
Finally, make sure to Celebrate when you do the new Behavior.
Rinse and repeat until success!
Most importantly, have fun 😁
And if you come up with a great ABC sequence, leave it in the comments below!