Book Review - Tiny Habits

This is a short review and discussion on one of the more helpful books I read on the topic of habit formation - Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg.

Book starts by giving you a framework for understanding behaviour formation with the Fogg behaviour model, as shown below.

B = M A P

M = Motivation
A = Ability
P = Prompt
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B = Behaviour

Motivation, ability and prompt are the parameters which you can tweak to form a new behaviour.

To give an idea about how this framework is used in the book to explain habit formation, we can consider a hypothetical habit on starting a running habit.

Motivation

In the context of habits, motivation is the drive you have for forming the behavioural change. Most people think this is the most important criteria when it comes to making or breaking habits, but throughout the book, Fogg makes the case that that is not the case.

In terms of our concrete example, motivation is how much you’d want to get into the running habit. Motivation could be based on extrinsic factors or it could be intrinsic. For example, an extrinsic motivation for running could be to win a price in the upcoming road race, whereas intrinsic motivation could be to enjoy the the freedom of a run in the morning without any competitive aspects.

Motivation is important to get you started on something you’d like to do. No matter how much ability you might have for the task at hand, in this case running you might not get out of the house if you do not have motivation. You could have done track and fields in school and having learnt good running technique, but at this point in your life after a long hiatus from running, it is unlikely that you would stick to a running habit if you do not have the motivation.

You could have a pretty good prompt too, but still without some motivation, you are more than likely to give up on the habit even if you manage to give running a shot a few times. Thus, it is important to pick habits you are motivated about and if it is about health and exercising, there are so many habits you can pick up and it doesn’t have to feel like an uphill battle.

Ability

Ability is simply the competence we have at the endeavour we are taking on as a new behaviour. In terms of our example, that would be your running ability. Even though we are born to run1, it helps to learn about proper running techniques to keep running in a way to minimise chance of injuries. For example, if you have not run for a while, it might not be the best idea to sign up to run a marathon in a short time. The book goes further in discussing how much natural ability one might have vs how much one might be able to learn from.

As with anything in life, once you get started on a habit, you tend to get better at with more experience thus improving our ability. After all the best way to get better at running is not reading a bunch of books on running, but as runners would say, to pound the pavement2.

Prompt

Prompt is the last part of the behavioural change, but quite an important one. This could be a simple trigger which signals you to take action on the task you want to do as a habit. For example, in the morning you can set up a prompt to get ready for running as soon as you finish the morning coffee. Here the the act of finishing the coffee is the prompt for your next behaviours which is getting ready for running.

Fogg emphasise the importance of having consistent prompts for behavioural change.


I also quite liked the emphasis of starting with tiny habits, which is the book’s title after all, and let the habits evolve naturally. Starting small and taking baby steps is a good way to get started on any kind of habit. Forming new behaviour is not easy and there’s a lot of inertia which one has to overcome to even get started and if you set too high a bar for the habit to even count toward your goal, there’s a pretty high chance that you won’t even get started on that.

In terms of the running habit we discussed in this post, I think it might be better to start with a program like couch to 5k3 vs training for a marathon4! You can always go tinier - your first goal might be to just run a couple of blocks in your neighbourhood or just even mix it with walking. Making the tiniest of habits, if you are sufficiently motivated is a pretty good way to get started and naturally you’d fine yourself expanding on your goals.

If this is something you like to read more about, I highly recommend the book.


  1. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen 

  2. Expression aside, try to find more forgiving paths to run than pavements if you can! 

  3. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/couch-to-5k-week-by-week/ 

  4. Here it could be a balancing act with motivation as well. For example, you might feel more motivated to achieve something tangible such as getting a Marathon finisher medal than just running a 5k! 

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