YNAB Podcast Episode 71: The Key to Reinventing Yourself


Hello YNABers. My name is Jesse Mecham and this is podcast number 71 for You Need A Budget, where we teach you four rules to help you stop living pay check to pay check, get out of debt and save more money.

I floss daily. I was at the dentist a little while ago and got to tell them for the first time in 32 years that I floss every day – no lying, nothing magical about it. I implemented BJ Fogg of Stanford’s Persuasion Technology Lab, implemented his program called Tiny Habits. It is life changing. And I interview him now. It’s simple but profound stuff that will change your life. Here is the interview.

BJF: I’m going to close my door or my dog might bark. We’ll see.

J: You bet.

B: Okay.

J: The last podcast I was on was just me and I sneezed really loud – I couldn’t hold it back. And then I was like, “Oh, just edit it out,” and then after I’d published I realized an hour later, “Oh, I didn’t edit out the sneeze.”

B: People are like, “Oh my gosh. Jesse’s a real person!”

J: Exactly! No mistakes, no sneezes, nothing. Well, let me have you give listeners just a brief background on who you are, what you do and… yes.

B: I’m BJ Fogg. I run a lab at Stanford University and I work in industry, and I focus on how human behavior works, and especially how to design systems, products, services that change behavior.

J: And I saw in your… I don’t know where I was reading this in your website, where people thought it was maybe a little bit evil.

B: Yes. My work always seems to be a little bit on the edge. When I first started the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, oh, in the late ‘90s – and even before that I was doing scientific experiments to show how computers could influence people – yes, the reaction to that wasn’t all positive. Some people thought that was either crazy or very dangerous. And now I’m using more and more the phrase “behavior design”, and to me it’s a very, I would say, upbeat and positive phrase; but some people see that as kind of manipulative. But that’s not how I see it.

J: I would love to design awesome behavior for myself. I think it’s positive. One thing where you’re kind of negative, though, and pretty vocal on Twitter – as vocal as someone can be on Twitter – but you’re kind of negative on New Year’s resolutions. And we’re well past, I think, all of those failing at this point. But just kind of speak to that. Why is it that you…?

B: New Year’s resolutions and other kind of received wisdom about changing behavior, a lot of that is just wrong or damaging. And so I’ve decided not to be quiet about that. What I don’t do is I don’t attack other people’s theories or other people’s approaches or what have you. Going after these old wives’ tales or these untrue myths about behavior, I think that’s important. And you know, once people hear it they’re like, “Yes, you’re right.” I don’t have to work too hard at getting it out there because people recognize the truth of it.

For example, the idea in the New Year’s resolution that you could pick something big and abstract, like “reduce my stress in 2013”, well, unless you drill down and get really specific, and unless you specifically design behaviors that get you to that goal, you’re probably not going to make much progress on reducing stress or weight loss or be healthier or make more money. All those things are just sort of dreams in the cloud if you don’t do the right things – if you don’t design behavior to achieve them.

J: Yes. And I hear a lot of talk of goal-setters and things like that where they would say, “Oh yes, you have to be specific. You would never say ‘be healthier’, you would say ‘run three times a week’,” or something like that. But I think you would take that, if I were to say, “Hey BJ, my New Year’s resolution is to run three times a week,” you would take it much further than just me stopping right there.

B: Yes, absolutely. I still think things like run three times a week, eat more vegetables, even walk 30 minutes a day, I still think that’s an abstraction.

J: So tell me how you would help someone walk 30 minutes a day, down to the nitty-gritty.

B: Good question, because this, in my last Stanford class, this was the main project that all 40 students worked on for the quarter. And to walk 30 minutes a day, you can do that by going to the gym and walking 30 minutes on a treadmill every day after work – so that’s a specific behavior. You can do that by walking in the morning before work for 15 minutes and then walking after work for 15 minutes – that’s a different behavior. You can walk 30 minutes by walking five minutes during six work breaks – you’ve got a different behavior. So, those are all different ways. So the way to sort through that is, “Which specific type of walking fits my life?” And so I had my students create what I call walking wizards that would help people answer questions and then end up with, “Oh, here’s my walking style.”

For example, me, my walking style is as soon as the phone rings I put on my headset and I start walking. Just think about it – it’s instinctive. So I’m one of these multi-tasker, “walk while I work” kind of people. Now, I wouldn’t ever think of going to the gym and walking on the treadmill. That, to me, would just be a huge waste of time. So I would walk out in nature and enjoy that. So there’s probably seven or so main genres of how you can walk. You’ve got to find the one that fits how your life really is.

J: Yes. And that’s where it gets more specific. And that specificity is what helps… what’s helped me floss every day – which I brag about all the time.

B: I bet your dentist and hygienist are very happy.

J: Yes. For the first time ever, I went to the dentist three weeks ago and they said, “Are you flossing?” and I said, “Yes, I am, every day.” And she said that she could tell. She said that was why she asked. Maybe she was covering because she was looking to pounce, I don’t know. But she… I was pretty proud of myself to be able to say that. And the way I did it was by using your Tiny Habits program. So maybe explain that, because people are hearing, “Oh man, BJ just took walking and really specified a behavior that would fit someone’s specific lifestyle,” but the framework you have would work for any behavior, and that’s that Tiny Habits framework. So maybe explain that a little bit.

B: Yes. And you know, going back to the received wisdom that’s wrong, I don’t believe that you can only work on one habit at a time, and I don’t think it takes 21 days to quit a habit. I think they’re theories and so on. And I think the ways that people often try to create habits is they pick something huge like “I’m going to work out for 30 minutes a day”, and things that are difficult require motivation and sometimes willpower. So that means you always have to be motivated or you’re tapping into willpower, and those things are very slippery and they go up and down. And guess what? One day it’s not going to be there and you’re not going to walk and you haven’t made the habit. So the tweak, the hack that I figured out maybe two or three years ago was if you make the new behavior really, really small – if you make it so small and so simple – then you don’t have to rely on motivation to do it, and you don’t have to tap into willpower. And all you need to do is remember to do it.

So, say you picked something super-simple like one push-up – not 20 push-ups, but one. Then say, “Okay, I’m going to make this a habit of doing one push-up. Well, where does it fit in my day?” And in the Tiny Habits method, you find something you are already doing, an existing routine that will be the reminder, what I call the anchor to get you to do the one push-up.

In my own life – and I will share this – I started doing two push-ups every time… after I peed, I would do two push-ups. I normally worked at home, so that was fine. And I washed my hands, so that then became the routine, so it was just automatic. Now, over time I started doing more push-ups.

Same thing with flossing your teeth. Well, where’s the right place to floss in my routine? Well, probably after you brush. That’s probably what you did, Jesse, right?

J: Yes, absolutely.

B: Bam. And then so once that gets easier, then you can do more and more in your routine. So in other words, you’re working on not the big behavior but making the class of behavior automatic. And even if it’s small, once it becomes automatic then you can grow it. It can expand on its own to 20 push-ups or floss all your teeth or walk for 30 minutes, and that doesn’t require a lot of effort. It just kind of grows naturally. It kind of feels magic.

J: It did feel magical, and I was… It’s funny that I talk about the flossing, but it’s critical that people understand that it doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to be impactful, like I’m going to lose weight or make more money. But the effect is… Seeing it work is all that it takes to really make you a believer.

But I remember you had said, “Just do one tooth,” and I at first thought, “That’s absurd.” And YOU know it’s absurd, but you know that it’s absurd in that I’ll do one and then I’ll do probably the rest; but it’s important… it was important that I told myself, “You just have to do one.” And then the motivation is gone, the willpower is gone, and it is just a reminder. And that was a breakthrough for me. I actually remember I would floss before I would brush, and my trigger was – and I don’t know why I did that – but I thought, “What’s my trigger? Walking into the bathroom? That’s not going to do it. What if I get distracted and go into the closet?” So I made the trigger wetting my toothbrush before I put the toothpaste on. So I would wet the toothbrush, put it back down, and then grab the floss.

B: Oh, great.

J: And then I’d go about doing my thing. And it’s been… I don’t know, it’s been probably a year or something that… maybe even more where it’s just instinctual. And that is awesome.

B: Yes. And you know, I think there is value in just flossing one tooth or doing one push-up or wiping one kitchen counter. Even though your other teeth are lacking, what you’re showing yourself is, “I can change,” learning how to create habits. And that’s super-valuable.

J: Yes, that learning, that ingraining, this works. And then you apply it to other things. I had another tiny habit that I want to reintroduce because I didn’t have the right trigger for it, but I wanted to tell my wife how good dinner was. Or I just searched for something and I struggled. And I’m still… I haven’t thought about it much, but I want to find another trigger where I can say, “Man, every time at dinner this happens,” but I was finding out it was too… the environment is too varied. Dinner is sometimes out and sometimes in and sometimes a different place in the house. And so I really need to think of… If I want to tell her, compliment her on dinner, I should probably say, “Well, it’s got to be around something like getting into bed,” because I KNOW I’m going to get into bed – or something like that, but…

Specifically to people… A lot of people listening to this, they are trying to change their money behavior, and they want to manage their money better – very abstract. And I teach people that awareness is the key in changing their behavior with money. So, I don’t dictate what they do with their money, I just want them to be aware; and then magically they start to make things happen.

So, let’s assume we have a listener that spends far too much eating out with friends, and that’s their own realization. How would you apply the Tiny Habits program for that person saying, “I spend too much on eating out. How do I change that?” And they don’t want to use willpower and they don’t want to use motivation.

B: Right. Well, let me give an example that relates from my class. One of my students decided he wanted to promote walking meetings; so instead of going to friends’ and hanging out in the Coho café at Stanford, to walk with his friends and chat. And so the habit that he worked on is every time a friend said, “Hey, let’s go to the Coho and get a coffee,” he would automatically – or try to automatically – say, “Hey, how about if we go walking and talk.” So in other words, rather than getting in the situation where he’s in the Coho saying, “Well, what do I buy? I can’t buy very much. Oh, the pizza looks really good,” he just headed it off, really, and had a way to change it into a walking experience. And what he found – and he just did small scale research, like 20 people – virtually everybody said yes to that and it ended up being a great experience. So it was self-reinforcing. It wasn’t like… People didn’t say, “Hey, you’re crazy,” they’re like, “Good idea! It’s different.” So he kept actually going with that after the class and it’s kind of a little bit of a project he’s doing.

So, one of the things… One way to answer the question is to understand the sequence of behaviors. If here’s a behavior I don’t want to do, that I want to change, track the sequence back and perhaps make the intervention earlier on in the sequence.

J: Oh, okay. Because I would be too weak at the restaurant to resist the pizza – it’s over at that point.

B: Yes. I know for me, for example, I love Mexican food and I love chips and all that kind of stuff. So if I’m at a Mexican food restaurant and they bring chips and salsa and if it gets on the table, I will eventually eat those chips. [?? 0:14:51 – glitch] no, no, no. Okay. So, the habit now – and it’s rock salt and we do it with bread too – is as soon as they bring it it’s like, “No chips. No chips. No, we don’t want bread.” Or ordering, even ordering an omelet for breakfast, the habit is, “No potatoes, no toast. I just want…” In other words, you’re designing your environment so you don’t have to tap into willpower, you’re [?? 0:15:17 – glitch] upstream.

J: And the trigger is the server bringing it out, not you going in there saying, “I’m not going to choose…” like willing it, “I’m just going to resist it.” It’s you’re avoiding the environment altogether.

B: Yes. And that’s… So when I’m there at breakfast, eating an omelet, they didn’t bring toast, they didn’t bring home fries. Guess what? I’m not eating toast and home fries because it’s not there on my plate saying, “Eat me!”

J: I’ve just read a book called ‘Mindless Eating’ – loved it. And it was amazing how much we eat without… just all these other triggers that… We have triggers acting on us too that I guess we need to be aware of or counteract. It was fascinating. I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but…

B: Yes, I have the book right here. Brian Wansink’s book, yes. He’s legendary in the “our relationship with food” world.

J: It’s tall glasses, you’ll drink less than short, squatty glasses. I thought that was just so great. I mean, all I have to do is buy tall glasses!

B: Well, I’m here at my home office right now, and by design I have a glass of water right here – so that’s a tiny habit. By design I have this little… it’s a little glass cup. It’s tiny, bigger than a thimble – that’s where I put my vitamins in. And so it’s just I put the water right there, I put the vitamins there, I end up drinking a lot more water, sometime during the morning I take vitamins, and so on. Also right here I have some sunflowers I sprouted. I’m kind of doing a lot of sprouting.

J: Oh, cool.

B: And so I’ll eat some of the sunflower tops – which sounds kind of insane, but all of this is… I’m a big fan of playing around with behavior change, and even though I’ve done a lot of it and I’ve studied a lot, I’m just constantly practicing, constantly trying things, because the more you do it the better you get.

J: Yes. I’ve got to think of some more now – a handful of them. More water is always a good one.

B: Well, let me suggest one to you and other people listening to this. And it’s a trivial one, but I started doing it because at some point you’re sort of like, “What other habits do I want?” and it’s like, “Well, I’ve got to think harder about it.” So a couple of weeks ago I decided I was going to put my socks on inside out. I don’t know – just to play around with, changing my behavior. So it doesn’t really change how the socks function – maybe a little bit, but not much – but as I’m turning my socks inside out I’m like, “Yes, I’m continuing to practice behavior change.” And that is… that’s important to me.

So if you can’t think of anything else, pick something that is benign like your socks on inside out and play around with it. And if four weeks from now you’re like, “Yes, I did that. That’s not interesting to me anymore,” stop. That’s okay. I think it’s okay to stop habits when they’re no longer useful for you, or you want to replace them with something else.

J: You know one, I just thought of it – I was thinking of benign or really simple – I was thinking of smiling. And a lot of the research that has been done about how smiling literally makes you feel happier. I thought, “Man, if I come home from work and my foot hits the first step in the garage leading up to the door before I see mayhem…” which is what I’ll see with five kids, so I want to change my mood and make sure I’m a happy dad when I walk in. I could say when my foot hits the first step, I’ll smile and I’ll walk in. I would be willing to bet – I might have to report back to the podcast – but I’ll be willing to bet that I would notice a difference.

B: And I think that’s a great one. Now, some people might set that up – every time my foot hits the step I’m going to smile – but they would forget. So you know, I’ve worked with about 10,000 people now over the last year in the Tiny Habits method. When people say, “How do I remember?” there’s two things you can do.

So, let’s take your example. I think you practice behavior change a lot so you’re a little bit ahead on the game, but let’s say people who haven’t. What I would do is I would rehearse it. You know, take about five minutes and just pretend like you’re coming home from work, step on the step and smile. And after you do that, you can … positive. Then back up and do it again, and back up and do it again. So about eight times – it’s not going to take more than five minutes. And the deeper your emotion when you do it and you think, “Yes, that was great,” the deeper you can feel that the faster it will become automatic. And here’s why.

If you can generate that good feeling inside – and some people do it by doing a little dance, some people go “Bravo!”, some people clap their hands or whatever – it’s changing how your brain works. And your brain’s thinking, “Wow! That made me happy.” And so the next time you step on the step, your brain is going to say, “I want to be happy, so I’m going to step on the step, I’m going to smile,” and it’s going to get really automatic. So the combination of rehearsing it and then after each rehearsal to do what I call a celebration. And the celebration is simply find a way to make yourself feel awesome. You know, find a way to fire that positive emotion.

J: I love it. I’ll do that. I’ll close my garage before I do it, but I will do it. So it will be in private. Okay, last one and then I’ll let you go. This is fantastic. So, in this awareness mission that we go on to just try and raise people’s awareness, I think overspending, credit card debt, I think most of it is just a function of… It’s not people don’t… they don’t go out with intention and say, “I’m going to run up my credit cards,” it’s just kind of automatic. So part of that on this awareness is I want people to record their spending on their iPhone or Android as it happens, versus going back later and doing a post mortem where there’s… it’s done, it’s in the past and it’s over. So if there’s a listener out there struggling with remembering to enter their transactions on their phone, how could we apply the Tiny Habits for them?

B: I would advise the celebration technique. After you do it, think one of these things, or something that works for you. I might think, “Wow! I’m really nailing this!” I might think, “Yes! This is becoming a habit! I rock!” Or, “Boom, I got it!” Or, “Jesse would be so happy with me!” Anything like that every time you do it, try to fire off the celebration and then you will find, I guarantee, you will find that it gets more and more automatic.

J: Cool. Well, that’s is… that’s good stuff. If anyone wants to check out what you’re doing, BJ, I know I pushed this in the newsletter probably last year and we’re probably due to have another push with all the new customers and everything, but what’s the address for it?

B: If you want to do Tiny Habits, it’s tinyhabits.com and it’s a free five day course on… It’s not so much about creating habits but teaching you how habits work. It’s sort of like I’m not teaching to catch… I’m not giving you fish, I’m teaching you how to catch fish. I’m showing you the method so then you can take it away and apply it in tons of areas of your life.

J: So, tinyhabits.com. It’s fantastic. I’m going to be a happier dad when I come home, and that’s very cool.

B: You know, I’ll just keep putting on my socks inside out and practicing behavior change.

J: Thanks, BJ, so much. I appreciate it. I hope we can do it again. And tinyhabits.com for everyone to check out. Yes, thanks – this is awesome. I look forward to more of your work.

B: Thanks, Jesse.

J: We’ll talk to you later.

B: Bye bye.

Until next time, follow YNAB’s four rules and you will win financially. You have not budgeted like this.