Want to Change a Habit? Prompts are the Key.

“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” Frederick Langbridge

You are what you do every day. Most of us have a few good habits that make us feel good about ourselves, and a few bad ones that make us feel less good. If we could increase our good habits and decrease the number of bad ones, there’s no doubt we’d be happier and healthier.

BJ Fogg, PhD, founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. He’s also the author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, and he has identified what it takes to start any new good habit or stop any bad habit you want.

He writes that one benefit of mastering a new habit is that you start to change your identity. “When you create a host of positive changes, you move closer to the person you want to become. If you feel successful in these changes, you will naturally view yourself differently and begin to embrace a new identity. …This leads to more positive habits. But it also has the side effect of crowding out the behaviors you don’t want, the ones no longer in line with the identity you are embracing and the person you are becoming.”

I wrote in a previous post that his behavior model consists of three essential elements: Motivation, Ability, and Prompt. Your motivation is the why you want to change your behavior. Your Ability is how  you will change your behavior. And the Prompt is when you will do the behavior. Designing effective prompts is your key to success.

You can help change your behavior by removing prompts. Silencing notifications on your phone. Removing apps that draw you in for hours. Canceling Netflix. Throwing out the ice cream in your freezer. Removing prompts works because you won’t be tempted or reminded to do the behavior you want to change.

But starting a new positive behavior requires you to design prompts that cause you to do something – a more challenging prospect. Here’s how to design effective prompts. The first step is establishing when  you will do the new tiny habit. (See the previous post on tiny habits if you need a refresher.) Be specific. “While my coffee is brewing in the morning.” “When I sit down at my desk every morning.” “Right after I finish dinner.” “Right after I brush my teeth before bed.” Connect your prompt to a specific task you do every day on automatic pilot.

Next, consider what kind of prompt will work best for you. Fogg says you can choose from one of the three kinds of effective prompts: Person Prompts, Context Prompts, and Action Prompts. Person prompts are your own brain’s reminders that you need to do something. Person prompts are not very reliable in changing or starting a habit.

That’s why Fogg recommends Context prompts. Context prompts are reminders within your environment that spur you to take action. Sticky notes, leaving your keys next to the package you have to mail out, a reminder on your phone – you get the idea. Setting context prompts are easier than ever with voice assistants like Alexa and easy online calendars like Outlook. But Fogg says setting too many Context prompts will start to erode their effectiveness. You’ll start to become blind to them. They also get lost among the prompts that come from ads and social apps – the ones that are pulling you back to old habits.

So Fogg recommends Action prompts. Action prompts come from an activity you already do regularly, a habit or task that doesn’t take willpower to do every day. Dropping off kids at school. Brushing your teeth. Cleaning up after dinner. Fogg calls these “anchors” because you’ll use them to anchor your new behaviors. Whatever it is, tie a new tiny habit to it and you’ll be off to a great start.

Design the prompt by writing down the behavior. “Right after I brush my teeth before bed, I’ll lay out my workout clothes.” “After I drop off the kids at school, I’ll log yesterday’s meals into my food tracking app.” Be specific and keep it tiny. Just one action that you can do quickly, in 30 seconds to a few minutes.

Here are some Context prompts I have used successfully in my life. I keep reusable bags in my car and return them after I unpack groceries so I never forget to bring them into the store. I leave my keys next to whatever I need to remember to take with me when I leave the house.

My Action prompts include filling my cats’ water and food bowls while my coffee is brewing (I’m running water anyway.)

If you’ve had a prompt that has worked for you in the past. Let me know in the comments.

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