Committed Action: Developing habits for a valued life

Last year. I began making wild yeast bread. It started from an interest in making whole foods for my family (after reading Michael Pollan's Cooked) and has grown into a weekly habit. On Saturday evenings, I "feed" my wild yeast and measure and soak the grains. On Sundays, my family works together to fold and turn the silky dough during it's slow (7 hours total) fermentation. Our weekly practice of bread nourishes many of my core values: teaching my kids about about where food comes from, collaboration, slowing down, developing gratitude for simple things. I have yet to make the perfect loaf in my over 100 attempts at bread making. Like Buddha Nature, I will never arrive at perfection because the perfection is already here. Bread making helps me to slow down enough to see it.


Recently, I have become more interested in the psychology of developing values-based daily habits and why it is so hard to do them. Why is it so hard to get into bed at 9 when I know that without more sleep I will be irritable, and less effective as a parent and therapist tomorrow? Why is it so hard to take a breath before yelling at my kids when they are fighting? Why is it so hard to walk the the short path to my meditation cushion and just sit down?

About 4 months ago, Dr.  Mavis Tsai recommended I look into BJ Fogg's research on formation of tiny habits. I proceeded to do what I usually do when people give me a suggestion for making change--I avoided even Googling the word "habit"...for months.

There is a psychological principle that explains my stagnation: Motivation Wave. When our motivation wave is at its peak, it is easy to do hard things, but when our motivation wave is at its trough, we can only do easy things. In Western culture, we tend to expect ourselves to do hard things all of the time. We expect ourselves to rely on willpower, which is an exhaustible resource. As Charles Duhigg write in The Power of Habit, "Willpower isn't just a skill. It's a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there's less power left over for other things."  With two young kids, a full practice, and 7 hungry chickens, my willpower is running on fumes.

Creating Tiny Habits

The good news is that BJ Fogg's research shows we can bypass willpower altogether. He proposes that we can make sustainable changes by creating "tiny habits."

Tiny habits are small behaviors that surf motivation the wave and are linked to our greater values. Over the past month, I have been applying the science of tiny habits with my clients, my family, and myself. Follow the simple steps below to establish sustainable, changes that align you with a meaningful life.


STEP 1. Identify the value you want to grow and establish the first tiny step toward your value. 

Here are some examples from my clients and personal life (without identifying whom they came from).

Value: Feeling connected with your spouse Tiny Habit: Find your spouse and greet him/her as soon as you walk in the door (before you go pee, before you get a snack, before you...)

Value: Self acceptance and self love Tiny Habit: Focus on one positive thing about yourself every time you go to the bathroom

Value: Self compassion Tiny Habit: Practice soothing rhythm breathing when you have an urge to eat candy at work

Value: Core strength that supports an active lifestyle Tiny Habit: Do 30 seconds of plank before getting into the shower

STEP 2. Design what Duhigg calls a "Habit Loop" 

Remember Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's rats? In order for our tiny habits to be maintained it is helpful to anchor them to existing cues (Pavlov's classical conditioning) and reward ourselves once they have occurred (Skinner's operant conditioning).


Step 3. Establish cues

Choose a cue that occurs as the same frequency as the habit you want to create. Getting in the shower, making coffee, going to the bathroom are all great examples of external cues. Cravings, irritation, dysthymia are examples of internal cues. Then write down this statement:


Example: After I put the kids to bed (cue) ---> I will brush my teeth (tiny habit) before going into the kitchen

Example: When the kids start fighting (cue)---> I will take two long breaths (tiny habit)

Step 4. Establish Rewards

Choose a reward that occurs soon after your tiny habit. Then write down this statement:


Example:  After I brush my teeth (tiny habit)-->I will smile at myself in the mirror

Example: After I take a breath (tiny habit)--->I will tell myself I am a great mom

STEP 5. Execute Your Plan

Practice your habit for a short time period (e.g., 5 days) then and revise and add to it. Unfortunately, the statement that it takes 21 days to create a new habit is a myth. Research by Lally and colleagues suggests new habits take on average 2 months (66 days). Some habits will take up to 8 months to solidify. So, be patient, compassionate and kind with yourself.

Focus on tiny. Focus on sustainable. Focus on progress not perfection.