How to use tiny habits to accomplish bigger goals

I thought that an appropriate starting point for this blog would be to review a concept  which I believe holds great promise in the way that we think about improvement.  In the spirit of the Continuous MILE (minor improvements / large effects), the notion of a “tiny habit” may be viewed as perhaps even less significant than a minor improvement. Yet, it can be the start of something much more substantial.

The originator of this concept is Dr. BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University.

The link to his bio is given here:


What is a tiny habit?

BJ Fogg defines a tiny habit as something that takes less than 30 seconds per day.  He claims that it is very difficult for most of us to just “resolve” to start doing something.  What we need to do is simplify the action by reducing it down to a tiny habit….one that is easy and quick to do.  It should also be sequenced into some part of our daily routine that is already a habit or something we do without even thinking about it.

A key concept is that we need to have a very specific behavior that we want to develop.  Too often, we tend to think of a large, difficult task to accomplish or goal to achieve.  Fogg uses the example of flossing your teeth.  We may decide that we want to start flossing regularly, but within a few days or a week many of us will stop doing this.  Why?  Our perception is that it takes too long or we forget about doing it in the morning….it never became a habit.  But what if we just start the tiny habit of flossing ONE tooth every morning.  It is also important to associate this new habit with something we already do – like brushing our teeth.  By starting small, then gradually making the task larger by adding a few more teeth each week, we are well on our way to establishing flossing as a habit.

Another element of successfully establishing a habit is to reinforce yourself after accomplishing the task. He suggests a simple verbal reinforcing statement that you say to yourself – like “Victory”!

If you want to learn more about this technique, you can sign up for a one-week personal experiment to see if you can successfully develop 3 tiny habits.  I participated in this test and can report that one year later I am still doing 2 of the 3 tiny habits that I wanted to develop. (My tiny habits are doing push-ups each morning and saying a prayer each morning on the way to work).

Here is the link for BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits:

So what does this have to do with continuous improvement?

This simple concept can explain why so many improvement efforts fail.  Even if we identify a solution that will enable us to achieve a higher level of performance, we still have to implement this solution.  And almost always, this means that someone will be asked to change the way that they do work – which means they have to change a behavior.  If the solution makes their work easier and the person sees that it is a net benefit for them to change, then there is a good chance of success.  But even if the new way is easier, a person may be inclined to stay with their current method because “I’ve always done it that way.”

By understanding the power of tiny habits, we might ease the transition by breaking down the new task into its components.  We begin by asking the person to start by doing something simple, with the intent of gradually adding the other steps in the process over time, so we can achieve the full behavioral change. (I will discuss BJ Fogg’s Behavioral Model in a future blog.  This model takes a deeper dive into how we can influence others)

Let me provide an example of how this approach can be used.

We would like all of the managers at our manufacturing sites to go on Gemba Walks every day and have a productive one-on-one safety conversation with at least one employee.  For some of our leaders, this is a significant behavioral change.  If we break down this task into the smaller process steps, we can focus on a much more manageable beginning step that we would like to develop into a habit.

For example, we can ask the manager to develop the habit of putting the Gemba Walk on her daily action or “to-do” list.  Once she does this for a week, she can develop the habit of actually scheduling some time on her calendar for this activity every day.  Then she can work on the habit of keeping the commitment of actually doing the Gemba Walk.  And finally, she can progress into holding the conversation when she goes on the walk.  While this may take several weeks to get to the complete task, she is much more likely to have developed a habit that is part of her daily routine.

What is your experience?

Do you have any thoughts or experiences with developing and/or changing habits and how you have been challenged in the workplace or in your personal life?  Let me know what you think!

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About David Galloway

Dave Galloway is Founder and Principal of Continuous MILE Consulting, LLC. He blogs about leadership, continuous improvement, safety, and innovation. Dave enjoys coaching others to higher levels of performance.

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