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Live Life Fully: The surest way to a new habit

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Quick: What does flossing one tooth have in common with doing one pushup or putting on a pair of running shoes? They're all successful barometers of establishing new habits.

We've all been there. We set ambitious goals. We're gung-ho on Day One. And maybe even Day Two. Then reality sets in, and old patterns rear their ugly heads.

Well, maybe we're just not thinking small enough. According to Dr. B.J. Fogg, a behavioral researcher at Stanford University, we need to think tiny. Fogg is the creator of "3 Tiny Habits" and says the path to lasting change is to take baby steps and build on those. And we're talking really tiny steps.

Here's an example. Instead of vowing to go running every morning for five days, just lace up your running shoes. That's it. You've met your goal. Now, I could really wrap my arms (and legs) around a program like this!

That's exactly what writer Leigh Newman did when she participated in Fogg's program. The key is building on small successes and integrating them into our lives. Then we can take the next step and the next step -- and we're "wiring" ourselves for success all along the way.

"Habiteers" are followers of Fogg's program, about 3,000 strong, and here's how some of their success stories started out:

  • Do one pushup, not 10.
  • Floss one tooth, not all of your teeth.
  • Lace up those running shoes; then take them off.
  • The key is that these tiny steps are successes from the get-go. So, we're constantly reinforcing the successful behavior in our brain.

    When developing the Tiny Habits idea, Fogg had a classic Eureka! moment, according to author Newman's article "The No-Gimmick, Fastest Way to Make Real Change," posted on Oprah.com.

    "I was opening my sock drawer," Fogg relates, "and I got some socks out, and the word 'after' just struck me." He realized he knew what he always would do after he took out his socks -- close the drawer. He'd been trained over a lifetime to close that drawer. There would never be a time he wouldn't close it. What if he attached a new tiny habit to this chain of events in his brain?

    Closing the drawer is what Fogg calls your anchor. You execute your new tiny habit after an old tiny one. Fogg has worked with innovators such as the founder of Instagram, helping him understand how and why people want to share pictures on the Internet. And now he's working with individuals.

    With the Habiteers online program, participants execute three teeny-tiny tasks each day for five days. The idea? They learn the process of habit creation; and once they know how to create habits, they can leverage those habits into bigger positive changes in behavior.

    Self-celebration is crucial to the process. "One of the secrets to making a Tiny Habit work," says Fogg, "is celebrating every single time you complete it."

    I'm thinking of those fist pumps we see from athletes -- Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova and others. Pay attention to the Olympics during the next couple of weeks, and I'll bet you'll find some outward signs of self-validation. Fogg also says we can create little sayings to repeat to ourselves, either internally or externally. How 'bout "Way to go!" or "I rrrrrrock!" Whatever anchors the success in you.

    Some of you may feel silly doing this. Author Newman relates her experience of accomplishing some initial ballet postures -- pliés. Her anchor was inserting her key into her door. "The next day I approach the door, insert the key, do three pliés and say to myself very quietly, 'Way to go!' I feel not empowered ... I feel preposterous."

    You have to have something physical to affirm the great but tiny thing you've done though, emphasizes Fogg, as he relates that some people are really good at the self-celebration and some are embarrassed by it. It doesn't matter. "Just do it," as the now famous Nike slogan urges.

    "The emotion of celebration glues in the tiny habit," says Fogg. "The reason is that your brain wants to feel happy and excited." So, do your habit enough times and your brain starts saying, "OK, key goes in, do the pliés, I get happy."

    Tips

    Create, don't break: Tiny Habits are for the creation of positive new habits, not the ending of negative old ones. Breaking habits is a whole different psychology. However, what you can do is create a new habit that blocks an old habit. Example: You eat too many potato chips at night. Quitting chips would not be a tiny habit. But deciding to take out (not eat) celery and carrots would be one -- even if the celery and carrots were placed on the coffee table beside the bag of chips.

    Practice: Practice makes perfect. The first time you assign yourself a tiny habit, repeat it five times from beginning to end to "seal it in."

    Go early or late: Morning and evening seem to be the most effective times to focus on habits. The middle of the day is usually too crazy.

    So, what teeny-tiny action can you take today? Find your anchor, do something tiny and lock it in with a fist pump. I'd love to hear your stories. I dare you -- go ahead and floss that tooth!

    Linda Arnold, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications company specializing in advertising, public relations, government relations and interactive marketing. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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