The 3 Aspects of Changing Any Habit

What is one habit you want to do more often?

What is one habit you want to do less of or stop doing altogether?

Take a moment to think about these questions. I’m sure lots of things come to mind.

Maybe you’ve tried to build or break some habits only to find yourself falling back to your old ways. Then beating yourself up thinking your inability to change is some sort of moral failing or character flaw.

That’s not the case. 

Usually, when people don’t change their habits, it’s because they don’t understand certain essential truths about human nature. When you’re familiar with the reasons why you do virtually anything, you can be more successful with long term change.

BJ Fogg, PhD outlines in his book Tiny Habits, how behavior stems from the following three components:

Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt.

A habit is just a behavior you frequently repeat.

Why do we frequently repeat certain behaviors? Because we have some desire for the reward we expect the behavior to provide. We have the motivation to take action.

If you pay attention to your thoughts and feelings throughout any given day, you’ll see this play out in ways both big and small. Examples include: 

  • You want a clean mouth, so you have the motivation to brush your teeth.
  • You want to earn a paycheck, so you have the motivation to complete your assignments at work.
  • You want to be entertained at the end of a long day, so you have the motivation to hop on Netflix.

That said, even if this makes sense to you, you may still wonder why you don’t feel truly capable of taking the necessary action to achieve some of your goals. For example, you might genuinely want to lose weight, but you can’t seem to commit to a fitness regimen. You have the motivation, in the sense that you desire a certain outcome, but this doesn’t translate into consistent action.

It’s a frustrating feeling. Luckily, understanding the other aspects of this behavior model will help you understand why some good habits are easier to adopt (and some bad habits are easier to break) than others.

Wanting to have a certain experience is just one factor in this equation. You also need to have the ability to act on that want.

This clarifies why the ease with which you can adopt or break a given habit seems to vary so wildly on a case-by-case basis.

Again, you brush your teeth because you want a clean mouth. However, that’s not the only reason brushing your teeth may be a habit you have no trouble sticking with. Brushing your teeth is also probably easy for you to do. You simply need to head to the bathroom, grab your toothbrush, and spend a couple of minutes completing a low-effort task. Your ability to engage in a behavior — brushing your teeth — is high, as is your motivation.

Compare that to a habit you might struggle with. Maybe you’re not exercising regularly despite wanting to lose weight. That may be because your ability to exercise is limited for various reasons, such as:

  • Your nearest gym is out of the way, and thus, you feel you lack the time to stop by regularly.
  • You don’t have fitness equipment at home.
  • Being out of shape makes performing certain exercises exhausting.

On the other hand, your ability to engage in a behavior that will help you gain weight could be high. You have the motivation to snack throughout the day because you crave the pleasure snacks offer. If snacks are readily available in your home or workplace, you also have the ability.  

Eating snacks is easy to do. Working out is hard. You can understand why you’re more likely to snack than exercise.

Ok, but why do you do certain things at certain times?

There are very few things you do in a day that are completely random. Something prompts (or cues) you to engage in a behavior.

The alarm goes off, prompting you to wake up and start your morning routine. You walk by the vending machine when you arrive at the office, which prompts you to buy a snack. You sit at your desk, prompting you to check your emails.

A prompt triggers a desire or motivation to engage in a behavior. Ability determines if you actually will engage in that behavior. When you realize how these factors work together, you can change your behaviors.

How to Change Your Habits with This Behavior Model

Understanding this model of human behavior has direct and practical benefits if you want to develop good habits and discard bad habits.

For example, maybe you want to stop snacking throughout the day. You might not be able to eliminate your motivation for snacks. Turning off a craving is no easy task. However, you could change another factor. If you make the conscious choice not to keep snacks in your home, your ability to act on your cravings will be limited, because every time you wanted a snack, you’d have to head to the store and buy one. Not keeping snacks in your home may also remove one of the prompts that triggered your motivation to act on a craving in the first place.

You can also use these principles to adopt good habits. You can prompt yourself to work out regularly by scheduling workouts for specific times throughout the week and setting an alarm as a reminder. Or, you could leave some gym clothes on your bed when you leave for work in the morning, so they’ll prompt you to work out when you get home. You can also increase your ability to work out by purchasing some fitness equipment. Or, you could focus on a type of exercise you can easily do in or near your home if your schedule makes getting to the gym a challenge.

Remove or add prompts in your environment!

All that said, while understanding this behavior model will make changing your habits easier, don’t be discouraged if you don’t transform your life overnight.

The very expert who introduced this behavior model even insists that incremental change seems to be the key to making lasting, big behavioral shifts. Luckily, by continuing to take steps in the right direction, you absolutely can achieve your goals.

Photo by Caleb Riston