Small Changes Big Impacts: BJ Fogg | OYNB 093

One Year No Beer Podcast Episode 093 – Small Changes Big Impacts with BJ Fogg

If you’ve ever tried to get rid of a bad habit – or even develop a new good habit, you know how difficult it can be to change your behavior. Today’s guest has a lot to share about the real keys to success when it comes to changing behavior – and they’re not what you think. 

BJ Fogg is the person behind the Fogg Behavior Model. If you’re not familiar with it, the Fogg Behavior Model is built around a simple formula: behavior change = (motivation)(ability)(prompts). Essentially, behavior happens when these three things come together at the same time: motivation, ability, and a prompt. 

“If you wanted to play the guitar, for example, you wouldn’t sit down and try to play the hardest song. You would start with easier songs, develop skills, and then step up to something more challenging.”

In today’s episode, BJ talks about changing behavior generally, and also about how his concepts of changing behavior can be applied to people who are trying to change their behavior as it pertains to alcohol. He also talks about the need for different approaches when it comes to untangling unwanted behavior.

BJ also takes the time to talk about his own personal journey with alcohol. He’s been alcohol-free for two years now, and during today’s interview, he discusses living in wine country, learning to appreciate wine and drink socially as an adult, and why he decided to give it up. He also explains the benefits that he experienced by giving up alcohol. Listen to the episode to learn more about BJ’s professional expertise and personal experience.


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Episode Transcript

Ruari: Today, I’m going to be joined by Silicon Valley’s legend, BJ Fogg, founder of the iconic Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. BJ has cracked the code of habit formation. His book, based on 20 years of research and used by over 60,000 people, Tiny Habits, reveals that the key to changing behavior is the opposite of what you’ve been told. It isn’t about will-power, it’s about starting small and making it feel good.

I only had 30 minutes of time with BJ today, sadly. What I want to do is I’m going to explain to you his behavior change model on this podcast, and then really encourage you to pick up the book, and then we’ll dive into the interview with BJ.

It’s called the Fogg Behavior Model, and really, it’s built around a simple formula: behavior change = (motivation)(ability)(prompts). Let me explain. Behavior happens when these three things come together at the same time: motivation, ability, and a prompt. Imagine down the left-hand side, vertical—motivation—and you’ve got low motivation up to high motivation. Then along the bottom, you’ve got ability. A thing is either easy to do—over to the right, or hard to do—over to the left.

Imagine you want somebody to donate to the Red Cross. If they have a high motivation, and if it’s really easy for that person to do, they will be in the upper right-hand corner of the model—high motivation, easy to do. This is where a person, given the prompt, will do it. No problem, it happens. The behavior happens. In contrast, if someone has low motivation to donate to the Red Cross, and if it’s really hard for them to do—they have to log in to three screens, do that CAPTCHA thing which you get wrong—then they will not do the behavior when they are prompted.

There’s a relationship between motivation and ability. This curved line called the action line shows that relationship. If somebody is anywhere above the action line, which goes from the top left in a curvature down to the bottom right. If somebody is anywhere above the action line when prompted, they will do the behavior. In this case, they will donate to the Red Cross. However, if they are below the action line when prompted, they won’t do the behavior. If someone is below the action line, we need to get them above it for the prompt to instigate the behavior. Either we have to increase motivation, or the behavior needs to be easier to do, or both.

This model applies to all types of human behavior. In summary, when motivation, ability, and a prompt come together at the same moment, that’s when a behavior will occur. If any of these three elements is missing, the behavior won’t happen. You’ll hear BJ say that he has unlocked the theory on humankind of behavior change. Wow. We are graced with BJ’s presence on our podcast. I’m so excited for you to hear this interview. Not only to hear a bit about his science, but more importantly, what most people have not heard, his own personal journey with alcohol, and how he changed his relationship, and also how much that impacted his life.

If you don’t find this podcast helpful, inspiring, thought-provoking, and full of stuff, I don’t know. Stop listening to podcasts. This was one of my favorite interviews to do. BJ is an absolute hero for me, right at the epicenter of everything that we’re trying to do here at One Year No Beer. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Great to have you on the show, BJ. Thanks so much for joining me.

BJ: Thank you for inviting me.

Ruari: It’s been a while since I’ve seen your face. I’m glad we are seeing each other. We’ve met a few times in Arizona, and Genius Network, Consumer Health Summit, things like that. Talk lots over time, haven’t we?

BJ: Yeah. It’s good to be here. I didn’t know I’d be on video. If you can’t see me, anybody, my face is really shiny because I just put on moisturizer. I was out surfing. I have this routine. If you can’t see me, just imagine my face all shiny like a mirror.

Ruari: When you say they were putting moisturizer on me, how many people are putting moisturizer on you?

BJ: That’s funny. I’m going to have to see if I really said that. That’s very funny. I do have a speech impediment. No, I have a speech impediment, but not a bad type.

Ruari: Awesome.

BJ: I love it. Call me out whenever I say something crazy. I love that.

Ruari: I’m going to dive right into it. I’ve explained already to people about the wonderful Fogg Behavior Model in the book Tiny Habits, which came out January of this year. That will be behavior change = (motivation)(ability)(prompt). Give me the oversight on that. What is really the one thing that is going to help us change behavior?

BJ: There is an easy way to understand how behavior works. What you just said, it comes down to motivation, ability, and a prompt. If you want to stop the behavior, for example, if you take away any one of those components, the behavior will stop. If you can reduce or take away motivation, ability, if you can make it harder, impossible to do, or if you can remove the prompt—the prompt is the trigger, the cue, the reminder. All behaviors break down to those three things, and you can use it to design how to get a behavior to happen, or how to stop a behavior.

Ruari: Absolutely. You’ve got one other beautiful gem, and it’s about making people feel success.

BJ: Yes. A habit is a type of behavior. It’s a type of behavior. In the larger realm of behavior, a subset is a habit—it’s something you do automatically. The way that you cause a behavior to become automatic is emotions—is what creates the habit. Emotions are what rewires the brain: If you do a behavior, and you feel a positive emotion as you do it, if your brain associates an emotion. I have people focus on the feeling of success. That’s what causes the brain—the neurochemistry in the brain to shift—and that’s what causes the habit to wire in. It’s not repetition, it’s emotions that change the brain.

Ruari: If we apply that to specifically somebody who’s got a more intimate relationship with alcohol than they would like, and they’ve decided to go on this journey of changing that relationship with alcohol, how do they wire in that success? How do they go by this process?

BJ: Some habits are really, really easy to break, but this kind of thing with alcohol is not that necessarily. What I suggest in phase one is to get good at creating new habits. Changing behavior is a skill or it’s a set of skills. Let me use an analogy. If you wanted to play the guitar, for example, you wouldn’t sit down and try to play the hardest song. You would start with easier songs, develop skills, and then step up to something more challenging.

In the same way, if people are trying to create a new habit or stop a habit and it’s hard, start with easy things. There are really easy habits you can form just like easy songs you can play on the guitar, and then learn those skills of change, and also increase your confidence you can change, so then you can tackle harder things.

Ruari: I love it. That sits perfectly with what we do because in reality, with most people with their relationship for alcohol, they’re searching for something, so they’re looking for a drug to shortcut into relaxation, or to destress, or to unwind, or to feel fun, or whatever these things are. Actually, by cultivating a habit, which helps you feel relaxed, so meditation’s a perfect example. Doing a small bit of that meditation each day, we’re starting to create those new habits, one of the ways to change our relationship with alcohol. That works.

I start off by creating new habits, that’s phase one. Phase two, after I’ve started to create these new habits, and I’m still trying to change my relationship with alcohol, what’s that?

BJ: I don’t want to overstate my level of expertise. Yes, I do think what I’ve done with the behavior model. Creating that model, it’s like a big riddle that hasn't been solved thousands of years. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but humans have long thought about how does behavior work—and even biblical times. Now, here’s this model that describes all behavior. Having that as a foundation, we can now look at things like habits, or stopping behaviors, or stopping behaviors in a new way with a new understanding.

I’ve been able to expand that work to different types including helping people stop behaviors, but in my book Tiny Habits, I’m pretty careful to point out that if you have an addiction—however, someone might find that—yes, this book and this method will help you. However, find a program that specializes, find an expert that is a true expert in this particular challenge. I’m so glad with what you’re doing. Having people work with you, and that’s your expertise—so I know a lot about behavior and how it works in general, but I don’t want to overstate my expertise and say, “I know a lot about helping people who have—say they’re addicted to alcohol or have an unhealthy relationship—that I’m the world’s expert on that.”

Certainly, looking at what works, helping people understand how behavior works in general, and then bringing in your expertise, or your team’s expertise is really important.

Ruari: I’ll second that, and I’ll give some even more kudos back to you because the reality is, in society, we’ve too often looked to go, “Oh, that’s addiction. That belongs over there.” The reality is that 80% of the people who might be considered in the addiction or addicted space actually just need change. When you treat people with this, “It’s just habit, and you can change it, and you have the power, and it’s all in your control.” They can change themselves. They have the power to do that, and we see that a lot.

BJ: Let me push back a little bit on what you said. I think what you said is right, but I don’t want to send the wrong signal. Too often, the change program said, “Look, if you just had enough discipline,” or “If you just had enough willpower you could do it.” That is the wrong message to get out in the world. It’s like, there are products and programs that were created around methods that are not good, and people have used those, or they’ve seen things on TV, or the read blogs, and then when they don’t succeed with those programs or those methods, they blame themselves. That’s not helpful, and that’s not accurate and fair.

Yes, it’s within people’s capacity to learn how behavior change works, to learn those skills, and then apply it to challenging problems. Absolutely. But people need the right way to do it. When it comes to forming habits, the Tiny Habits method is the best way to do that. It’s for creating habits, and you can create any habit that way. When it comes to untangling, that's how I think about breaking bad habits. In my book, I had to say, “Let’s not use break anymore because it’s not about a sudden moment. Let’s talk about untangling.”

Untangling is more complicated, and the way you untangle, I’m thinking, again, I’ve not studied addictions, I don’t want to get on the space, but the way that you untangle different ones is different, and different people have different processes. Forming habits can be really easy. The Tiny Habits method is straightforward. The way that you untangle them can get complicated, which is why I so appreciate your work and focusing on what you’re doing because people need—for different kinds of habits that people want to stop—we need different programs, and for different types of people.

There’s one way to form habits. We need a multitude of approaches to help people untangle unwanted behavior.

Ruari: It’s so interesting. The word untangle really describes how it can get into different areas, you associate it with different things, and link to identity, or status, and all that stuff.

BJ: I don’t know if you want to go here, my own journey with alcohol.

Ruari: Yes, I’d love to.

BJ: Why don’t you ask the questions? I’m happy to talk about what—I can move away from my professional version of me and go into a personal version of me, quite my work.

Ruari: That is what is amazing because we really connected over that on your own alcohol-free journey. I want to hear about that. How long are you now alcohol-free?

BJ: Two years, two years.

Ruari: Woohoo. Two years no beers.

BJ: I’ll just dive in. I grew up Mormon in California, very strong Mormon family, so alcohol was never considered and really viewed as bad. Fast forward as a gay man, couldn’t also be Mormon. My partner and I have been together 25 years, and we moved to wine country in California, not for the wine, but to be by a river. I’m really, really big on nature. We bought a home right there by the river. I talk about this a lot, and it’s part of my book, the environment around you really does and influences your behavior.

The fact that we live in wine country, wine was everywhere. All the talk was about wine, and wine barrels, and harvest, and crush, and all that. We had no palate for wine because both of us grew up Mormon. In fact, it tasted terrible to us, and the only wine we could palette was White Zinfandel, which later we learned was super low class. We didn’t know that. Little by little, we started being trained on and people would take us under their wings and give us wine tasting lessons. Then we developed a palette for, and we appreciated it, and then just started drinking socially, and drinking more. It was just part of the culture.

Then about seven or eight years in I was like you know, it isn’t serving me. I don’t feel like a huge problem with it, but my life would be better without it. But then part of me said no, I really don’t want to give up wine. I enjoy it. Then one day, one of my friends—a neighbor—in fact a couple, said oh, we don’t drink anymore. We stopped. I was like why would you stop? That’s what I thought. I was like good for you. Why would you stop? The guy said, and he’s really smart, he’s a former engineer in Intel. He said yeah, guess what, you lose a taste for it after a while. I was like no, I don’t think so, Dale.

Ruari: You’re just convincing yourself with that.

BJ: Exactly. I just put it in the back of my mind, it’s like wow, I didn’t know they had a problem, and I don’t think they had a problem. They’re getting older, and they said we want to optimize our life. Then one day—probably two years later, a year later, or something—I was just driving home from a wedding of my friend, and I don’t know why it was then at the four-hour drive, but on the drive you know what, I’m stopping. I’m stopping. I’m done. There have been times when I tried to do less, drink less, and it would kind of work, and kind of not. No, I’m done. I’m done. When I get home, I’m going to tell my partner.

We would have the habit of pouring a glass of wine. He would pour a Manhattan, and we’d sit on the porch, and look at the river, and watch the birds. It was such a great ritual. It was so, so good to do, but we did it at most every night. Got home, and that evening we sat out on the porch, and I just got out sparkling water. He’s like oh. I said yeah, I’m not drinking tonight. Because I didn’t want to get home and say guess what, I’d stopped. I just didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to set the bar too high. It’s like oh, I’m not drinking tonight. He’s like fine.

The next night we sit there, and I get out some sparkling water or something, and I put a lemon in it. I was like yeah, I’m just not going to drink tonight. He’s like wait, you’re not going to turn Mormon on me again, are you? No, no, no, I said, I’m just not going to drink for a while. Yeah, there were these moments like yeah, it’d be really nice to have a glass of wine, but instead I have this and that’s fine. Then about two weeks in, my partner said you know what, I’m going to join you. I’m going to stop drinking too. We’re doing this together, which I didn’t force him to do. I didn’t think that would work. The good news is he supported me from the beginning—other than the wisecrack: reverting Mormon—he certainly supported me, and I appreciated that.

When he stepped in and said yeah, I’m going to do this with you, that was great. Then we never looked back, and here is a surprise. I’m sure there are other aspects, and you’ve heard these stories. What I was surprised by was yes, I did lose the taste for it, bam, like my friend said. Even a bigger surprise, and this happened immediately, how many benefits there were from stopping. For me, what I learned is it wasn’t a good plan to just scale back. I’m the kind of person—I learned for this kind of thing—I’m all or nothing. I had to just stop. Stop, stop, stop.

I started discovering all these benefits I didn’t expect. In the morning I’m 100%, and there’s not a wine bottle or wine glass that is dirty. I should’ve listed them all. Certainly, I felt better, and I felt even more confident. Then here’s my reaction, it was why didn’t anybody tell me there were all these benefits? How come nobody spoke up and said yeah, yeah, yeah. Not only do you go kind on your liver, which of course, everybody should be concerned about, but there are all these other benefits. When you can see that clearly, the bargain that alcohol is making with you is not a good bargain. It’s a bad bargain.

Ruari: Amazing. It is a bad bargain. This is amazing—the realization. But then why didn’t somebody tell me this before, or was I not listening?

BJ: Yes. I think you’re right. People believe what they want to believe. I wasn’t looking for the benefits of stopping drinking entirely. I wasn’t looking for that. I don’t even know why there was this moment driving home where I was like you know, I’m done. I’m done. It didn’t have much to do with the wedding because it wasn’t like I have this moment at the wedding where I was drunk, or I made a fool of myself at the dance floor. There is just something that I just decided I’m done. I knew I could do it.

Let me back up. Because I’d practiced habits so much, I knew a lot about change, so I had skills of doing it. I knew I had the skills because I had practiced creating habits so much. I was quite sure my partner would support me because that’s how the relationship works. When somebody wants to do something like learn this or learn that, or let’s rearrange the furniture, it’s so supportive environment. I know not everybody has that. I knew I had all the advantages, and yes, the hardest thing was the social situations. That was the hardest thing. It wasn’t the, “I need a calming mechanism, or I need a way to relax.” Social was the hardest, but I made game plans for that, and I got through them. Now, it’s not hard at all socially.

Ruari: It’s amazing. Also, the discovery. You not only had a supportive environment, but you also had the skills already in understanding behavior and changing behavior. You had success very much already lined up for you in making the choice.

BJ: But I didn’t have a program, and I didn’t have a mentor, I didn’t have a peer. Those are the kinds of things you’re providing. That would’ve been really helpful for me. I was just on my own, but yeah, I studied behavior changes, and yeah, I had skills, and I knew what I needed to do in general, but I was a little bit on my own on this. I didn’t want to go public and announce it. I don’t know. I’m happy to talk about it now. It’s just such a good thing to help people get free of alcohol. I can’t think of any reason that’s a good idea to drink.

Then looking back as you see the way the publicity happens around it, and the way newspaper articles write about it, once you get outside of it and look back in, it’s totally transparent what a deceit that is. But you don’t see it when you’re inside.

Ruari: Like why was I doing that? We are trying to reach the people who don’t know it yet, which is probably the hardest thing to do because it’s just like you in that situation. I wasn’t at a place where it was causing a problem. I wasn’t at a place where I’d had an accident. It hadn’t gone to the extreme. That was like it’s almost one drink. I wonder what that’s like. The reason why we built it up as a challenge is let’s just challenge people to do some days off booze so that they have the realization themselves. They almost are transported to that 90-day version of themselves and go oh my God. This is amazing. Why didn’t I do this before?

BJ: The number one thing for me—I mean there are lots of benefits. It’s my mornings. I’m 100% in the morning. I got up at 4:00 or 4:30 this morning, I'm up that early now. It’s not like an alarm clock. I get up, and I just start my day, and it’s awesome. I’m 100%. Whatever I want to do, I’m 100% capable. Whereas there were days after drinking, I wasn’t. I wasn’t that good. It wasn’t like I was really screwing up on things, but I now know I wasn’t 100%.

In fact, I remember going to a swim meet. I was going to compete in a swim meet. This was on a Saturday. I think I went to a friend’s party on a Friday, and I get up on the blocks to race, and it’s like you’re kind of hungover BJ, and you’re racing right now. You’re not 100%. Now I know that won’t happen whether I’m surfing, or a conference call, or competing in a swim meet, or anything. I do love that every morning is mine 100% without compromise.

Ruari: Because if you wind back 2 ½ years ago to you, you would have said you were on 100%. The reality is, you are on 120% because you thought it was 100% back then. People who are drinking, even if they're just like you, they’re having a glass of wine a day, that's all or a few bit, but not that much. They’re like no, this is fine. I’m feeling perfectly normal. I’m feeling 100%. No, no, you’re not. This is 120%.

BJ: Like I said, it increased my confidence. I remember there are times I’d be going into a business meeting, and I was like okay, this is a big deal. I need to be 100% sharp. Why did I have that extra glass of wine last night? A little nagging sense of I know I’m not 100%, and now I’m not at risk for that. That’s my own journey. I don’t want to prescribe that to others since I’m a behavior scientist, but I’m also a person. I don’t want to say this is the scientific way to do it. This is my personal experience.

Ruari: What an awesome personal experience it is too. You’ve got something coming up now.

BJ: Yeah, a little bit. Why don’t we do what we need to do?

Ruari: Looking back at that journey now, not just the benefits, what do you find you say to people now who are drinking? Do you find yourself saying anything about it, or careful? Bear in mind you’re saying I wish somebody had told me.

BJ: On social events, I use Tiny Habits for this. When the host offers me a drink, I say I’m not drinking tonight, or tonight I’m sticking with sparkling wine. I needed that game plan. I knew that was coming, and it happened, and there was a moment of like what? What’s wrong with you? Then, guess what, that social group started drinking less across the board. It was a group that got together and gathered and it was less and less. Then I would bring my own non-alcoholic drinks and just not make a deal of it. There are probably six or eight social events where I was a little, and then it was done. Then it was totally done.

If I could talk to myself who I was five years ago, I would say okay BJ, understand that at least you—for this kind of thing—you’re all or nothing. The whole, ‘I’m only going to have one glass, maybe two a night,’ no. Instead, just stop. Then I would say, ‘No, I don’t want to stop.’ Well, just try one night. Just do one night, and practice, and see how it goes. Don’t set yourself up for failure the rest of your life because there is going to be a part of my brain that goes, ‘No,’ and sabotages that effort, so just one night.

Then maybe, just try—when you’re ready—just do two nights, and then learn the skills of not having drinks. Go to a party, and don’t drink at the party. Go to a business networking, and don’t drink. Practice these different things so you know you can do it, you know how to do it. Then I would’ve told myself even though you feel like you’re never going to completely stop, just practice these little things and then watch what happens. There’ll be a moment when you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m done.’ Then you’ll be more capable and more confident for doing it.

Ruari: That’s setting yourself up for success. I love it—and doing it in pieces. Did you do a little bit of that before you took your break?

BJ: Yeah. I look back now and absolutely, I’d navigated networking events, parties, and so on. I’d done the groundwork. I’d taken the baby steps. Even though I wasn’t doing it deliberately because I didn’t think oh, I’m going to stop entirely. But I just knew there were times like oh, I’m not drinking at this part because I have to speak early in the morning, I’m giving a keynote, or sometimes at business events I’m the speaker. Everybody else can be slightly drunk but I’m speaking. There’d been times I’d already done that kind of thing, for sure. It wasn’t 0-60 or 60-0.

Ruari: That’s probably a good one for most people looking at it and is thinking before I go and do the challenge, have I already done some of these things and navigated it? Amazing stuff. Thanks so much, BJ. I guess, one last thing and really being specific to now. I just have to pause slightly because it just hit 8:00 in the UK, and we have a big round of applause to the National Health Service. Outside, everybody’s standing out in the streets applauding, and shouting, banging hands in the UK to celebrate the health service because we’re in the middle of coronavirus pandemic, and lockdown, and things like that.

My last question to you is, trying to change behavior in a time like now seems more difficult because there are all these things going. What would you say about that?

BJ: I would just say, for some people listening to this, now is exactly the right time—exactly the right time. Now is the time, so many things are changing around you. Change leads to change. Your other habits are unsettled. Now is the time where you want to protect your body and be prepared in case you do get the coronavirus, you want to strengthen your body. Now is the time you’re not going out to parties, and bars, and networking events. There’s a lot of reasons that for some people listening to this is exactly the right time.

Ruari: Brilliant. Well said. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast. Can’t wait to do another one again soon, BJ. Thanks so much for joining us.

BJ: Thank you. Thank you for having me in. Thank you for the awesome work you’re doing. It’s really important.

Ruari: Yeah, thanks.

Just before you go, and if you haven’t got it already from this podcast, check out BJ Fogg’s book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. There is so much good stuff in here. At One Year No Beer HQ, we are studying this, and have been studying this, and trying to work out how we can implement this theory into not just how we interact with you, but also the kind of technology that we use to help change behavior.

Everything that is in this book is going into our thought processes. Why not get ahead of the game? Get the book. Start to read it. Create behavior design in your life. Some of the really interesting things are linking behaviors. We didn’t even get on to that into this podcast. I’ll give you an example because there’s a great part at the appendix here—linking the behaviors.

When you take a behavior and link it to something that you do naturally anyway, let’s take brushing your teeth. Let’s say that you’re trying to do exercise, and you want to set yourself up for success because the most important with habit change is success. You write on the mirror above where your toothpaste is when I brush my teeth or immediately after I finish brushing my teeth, I do one press-up. Afterward, I give myself a massive pat on the back for being successful at doing exercise. That’s all it takes to start wiring that behavior. Every time I brush my teeth, I’m going to do that press-up, and boom, you are building an exercise habit.

Isn’t that so simple? Isn’t that something that all of us can do? Isn’t that something that we can all embrace right now and start building these positive habits no matter what is going on in your life? Amazing. Grab the book. Get out there. Start designing behavior, and let’s change lives together. See you soon.

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