Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae, Who ate a monstrous whale? …She took little bites and she chewed very slow, …And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale -Melinda Mae by Shel Silverstein B.J. Fogg is a social research scientist at the University of Stanford. He is also the director of the Stanford Behaviour [...]


How to eat a whale: Changing habits one little step at a time


Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?

…She took little bites and she chewed very slow,

…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale

-Melinda Mae by Shel Silverstein

B.J. Fogg is a social research scientist at the University of Stanford. He is also the director of the Stanford Behaviour Design Lab. For many years he has been researching methods of changing people’s attitudes and behaviours. His recent book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything outlines for the general public how to change problematic behaviours.

Most of the world’s health problems are caused by non-communicable diseases (a non-communicable disease or NCD is a disease that you cannot catch from another person). The most common NCDs include cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attacks and stroke), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (such as asthma), and diabetes. In some countries, even mental illnesses like depression are considered NCDs. Half of NCDs are avoidable as they are caused by four risky behaviours: tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, insufficient physical activity, and unhealthy diet or obesity. Successful prevention of these diseases largely depends on encouraging people to  lead a healthy lifestyle.

How do you get people to follow a healthy lifestyle? As health care professionals we know simply giving information to a person on what changes they can do to improve their health is often not sufficient. As patients or individuals, we know that knowing what is good for us does not necessarily lead to change. B.J. Fogg’s ‘Tiny Habits’ method gives a tried tested means to make a change in our life. To change a habit, you need to change a set of behaviours.

Fogg found that whatever the behaviour you want to change whether it is big or small there are three things that determine that behaviour. He expressed it in the form of a formula B = MAP where B stands for Behaviour, M for motivation, A for Ability and P for Prompt. Don’t worry it is not really a mathematical formula. Let us break it down and look at each component in turn.

A behaviour happens when the three elements come together. Motivation is how much you want to do a certain behaviour. Ability is how capable you are of doing that behaviour and prompt is the cue or trigger that reminds you to do the behaviour. According to Fogg, this formula is a universal model applicable to any behaviour, whether “good” or “bad,” in any culture. You may find that hard to believe. What does addiction to video games have to do with good work habits or following a fitness regime? The building blocks of any behaviour are the same but the emotions people have about pleasurable behaviours are different to those they have of challenging behaviours.

You can design a solution for any behaviour by adjusting the components M, A, and P to find the best combination in each circumstance to the behaviour we want. Let us take each component. The more motivated you are to do a behaviour the more likely you are to do that behaviour. The harder a behaviour is to do the less likely you are to do it. If someone asked you to show what you are reading right now, would you do it? Probably you will as it is just a brief interruption of your reading. What if the person asked you to read the entire article for them?  You would be less likely to oblige. Perhaps if the person is visually handicapped or you were offered a thousand rupees you might do it.

To do something difficult you need a lot of motivation. Motivation and ability work together. When one is weak the other needs to be strong. What is the role of the prompt or trigger? Whatever the motivation and ability if there is no prompt there is no behaviour. For example, if your phone rings your motivation and ability is there to answer it but if your phone is on silent you will not hear it and you will not answer it. You can disrupt any behaviour by removing the prompt which however is not always easy to do.

Let us see how this works in practice. Let’s say you have a monthly department meeting but your colleagues consistently turn up late for the meeting. As a manager you try getting annoyed, giving them a talking to or imposing some form of penalty on those turning up late. In a way, you are trying to increase motivation by using the stick. That would be a mistake. In troubleshooting a behaviour, you should not start with motivation. You start with the other two, ability and prompts. Try these steps in order. First, check to see if there is a prompt to do the behaviour. Second, see if the person has the ability to do the behaviour. And third, if the person is motivated to do the behaviour.

So, in our example, you might ask your latecomer colleagues whether they have a reminder to come to the meeting on time. An alarm or reminder on their phones or diary would be a good prompt. If they don’t, help them to find an effective prompt. That in itself might solve the problem. If not successful, move to the next step. See if they have the ability to come on time. Ask what makes it difficult for them to arrive in time for the meeting. Work with them to find a solution. But let us say that the problem is not with the prompt or the ability but with motivation. Then you would need a way to motivate them.

What is motivation? It is the desire to do a specific behaviour or general class of behaviours. Psychologists talk of two types of motivation, internal and external but B.G. Fogg says this distinction is not useful. He describes three sources of motivation: yourself (what you really want) a reward or punishment you get for doing a behaviour and your context or surroundings (you might be motivated to drink if your friends around you are drinking).

But motivation is fickle and not easy to maintain. On the whole, it is better and easier to tinker with ability. The simplest way to increase ability is to start small. You might think that the best way to kick a habit is to go big, do something radical. Sometimes persons who took such extreme measure succeed. But they are in the minority. The majority of successful people actually started with small steps.

Making a behaviour tiny is the cornerstone of the Fogg method. If you want to do meditation as a regular practice don’t start with half an hour. You are bound to fail. But what if you were to start with one minute a day? You can do that. Of course, you would need to find the right prompt. Which brings me back to the quotation I started with. How do you eat a whale? You do it one small bite at a time.


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