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How To Use Tiny Habits To Improve Your Health

Ready, Set…Fizzle

Karl* wants to get back into the habit of running regularly. He’s gained about 10 pounds over the last 2 years, and where he used to regularly hit the trails about 5 times weekly, lately he’s “just not motivated” to get out the front door.

Do you have anything like this in your life? Do you have a habit or routine you’d like to start, but either you just can’t seem to get traction, or you start but find the habit impossible to maintain?

I certainly do. Let me give you a personal example. I’ve always wanted to become a “journaler,” routinely writing about my days, what I’m learning, what challenges I’m facing, memorable events, interesting conversations, and the like. I’ve heard it’s helpful for learning and progressing past challenges, and can be good for dealing with stress. I’ve tried several times to make journaling a habit, but I’ve never been successful. I’ve never been able to make it stick.

Contrast that with my morning “wake up” exercise routine. I decided about a year ago to do 5 minutes of exercise every morning to help me energize for the day and to help with my sleep. I’ve now gone over 200 days without missing a morning.

Why are some habits successful and others not? What is the difference between success and failure? What can you do to be more successful creating new habits in your life?

The Fogg Behavior Model

Researcher BJ Fogg created a simple and elegant model of behavior that can serve you well. He writes extensively about habits in his recent book, but for today I’d like to hone in on one small piece of the model and give you two practical suggestions you might try.


Briefly, the model states that 3 things need to come together for an action or behavior to happen:

Most people rely on motivation to try and start new habits. The problem is that motivation, or willpower, is unreliable and often runs out before you want it to.

Dr. Fogg has observed in his research that people are more likely to have success working on increasing ability and creating good prompts. For today I’ll discuss 2 ways to increase ability to help dial in habits.

Tiny Habits and Starter Steps

Let’s come back to Karl and his running habit. Karl might remember his past when he was running 25-30 miles per week. To him, when he thinks about going for a run he’s thinking about running 5-10 miles and being out for an hour or more. In his current situation, that feels like a lot of effort, and it’s taking a lot of motivation to get out the door. So much motivation, in fact, that he’s not getting off the couch.

To make it more likely that he can get his exercise routine dialed in, he’d be well served to make his initial routine easier to accomplish. Two ways he might do this are with “tiny habits” or “starter steps.”

  1. Tiny habits. Start with a small version of the habit you’re trying to build. Dr. Fogg talks about building a tooth flossing habit by flossing just one tooth. Rather than trying to start with a 5 mile run, Karl could try to start with a smaller version, such as a 1/2 mile run. If he was still having trouble, he might make it even smaller (100 yard run). He could add distance once his tiny habit was feeling easier. For journaling, I might try writing just once sentence per day. The idea is build up the “automaticity” of the routine before making it more challenging.
  2. Starter steps. Start with one step of a multi-step process. Dr. Fogg gives the example of a young woman who wanted to cook a good breakfast. Her starter step was to turn on the stove when she entered the kitchen. Karl might focus on the routine of putting his running clothes on and going out the front door. For journaling, I could focus on simply picking up the journal and reading my last entry.

Dr. Fogg emphasizes that it is important to celebrate when you accomplish your goal. This can be a simple fist pump or shout out (“I’m awesome!”) but it should be done right away.

Once the easier version of the habit is becoming more ingrained in your routine, you can work on making it bigger or increasing the number of steps.

How will you use this?

Think about your own desires. Is there a habit you’ve been trying to start that feels really big? Really hard? Is there a way you could focus first on a tiny version of that habit? Or a starter step?

I hope you’ll pick a habit or routine to work on this week, and that by making your desired routine easier to start, you’ll gain traction where you’ve been slipping before.


Dr. Topher Fox

*names changed for privacy

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