Using the Power of Positive Emotions to Make New Habits Stick

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Using the Power of Positive Emotions to Make New Habits Stick

Setting goals for 2021?  What if I told you there is a very simple, fun formula for changing habits and making them stick?  BJ Fogg, PhD, founder of Stanford’s behaviour design lab, and author of ‘Tiny Habits’ outlines a winning formula.  He shows us that you can create the necessary positive emotions to encode desirable new habits by celebrating! 

Celebration is the best way to create a positive feeling that wires in your new habits. It’s free, fast, and available to people of every color, shape, size, income, and personality. In addition, celebration teaches us how to be nice to ourselves — a skill that pays out the biggest dividends of all.

The definition of a reward in behavior science is an experience directly tied to a behavior that makes that behavior more likely to happen again. The timing of the reward matters. Scientists learned decades ago that rewards need to happen either during the behavior or milliseconds afterwards. Dopamine is released and processed by the brain very quickly. That means you’ve got to cue up those good feelings fast to form a habit.

Incentives like a sales bonus or a monthly massage can motivate you, but they don’t rewire your brain. Incentives are way too far in the future to give you that all-important shot of dopamine that encodes the new habit. Doing three squats in the morning and rewarding yourself with a movie that evening won’t work to rewire your brain. The squats and the good feelings you get from the movie are too far apart for dopamine to build a bridge between the two.

A real reward — something that will actually create a habit — is a much narrower target to hit than most people think. Here’s how to help a habit root quickly and easily in your brain: Perform the behavior sequence that you want to become a habit (“After I turn on the coffeemaker, I will get out my to-do list”) and then celebrate immediately.

When I say that you need to celebrate immediately after the behavior, I do mean immediately. Immediacy is one piece of what informs the speed of your habit formation.

The other piece is the intensity of the emotion you feel when you celebrate. This is a one-two punch: you’ve got to celebrate right after the behavior (immediacy), and you need your celebration to feel real (intensity).

Your brain has a built-in system for encoding new habits, and by celebrating you can hack this system. When you get good at celebrating, you will have a superpower for creating habits.

Here are some celebrations that you can try. They include ones you can do in the middle of a crowd or in the privacy of your own home. Not all the celebrations below will work for you. And that’s okay. You just need one. If nothing on the list below gives you an authentic feeling of success, then search for a celebration that will.

  • Say, “Yes!” or “Yay!”
  • Do a fist pump
  • Smile big
  • Imagine a child clapping for you
  • Hum an upbeat song you like (maybe the theme from Rocky)
  • Do a little dance
  • Clap your hands
  • Nod your head
  • Give yourself a thumbs-up
  • Imagine the roar of a crowd
  • Think to yourself, Good job
  • Take a deep breath
  • Snap your fingers
  • Imagine seeing fireworks
  • Look up and make a V with your arms
  • Smirk and tell yourself, I got this

When you find a celebration that works for you, and you do it immediately after a new behavior, (or while you are doing the behavior), your brain repatterns to make that behavior more automatic in the future. But once you’ve created a habit, celebration is now optional. You don’t need to keep celebrating the same habit forever. That said, some people keep going with the celebration part of their habits because it feels good and has lots of positive side effects.

For habits you do at work, drawing a smiley face after you check your habit off your to-do list might be all you need to feel successful — or think, Yes, I nailed this! If you’re at the gym and you don’t want to make a scene, perhaps you could do a little drumroll on the handlebars of your stationary bike or hum the song “We Are the Champions” in your head.

Celebration might not feel natural to you, and that’s okay, but practicing this skill will help you to get comfortable. If celebrating the small stuff is hard for you, the go-big-or-go-home mentality is probably sneaking up on you. Shut it down. It’s a trap. Celebrating a win — no matter how tiny — will quickly lead to more wins. Think about all those times you could have changed but didn’t, and here you are, two squats in — changing.

Teaching Tiny Habits to people around the world, I have heard many stories where the core message is the same: The feeling of success is a powerful catalyst for change. The data my research generates week after week corroborates this as well.

Your confidence grows when you celebrate not only because you are now a habit-creating machine but also because you are getting better and better at being nice to yourself. You start looking for opportunities to celebrate yourself instead of berating yourself. But over the course of weeks and months, these tiny, simple habits that you’ve woven into your life have changed the fabric of your world entirely.


Dean Bokhari

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