How you can use the power of celebration to make new habits stick

Jan 6, 2020 /

It doesn’t take 21 days to wire in a habit, says psychologist BJ Fogg. Sometimes, all you need is a shot of positive feeling and emotion, a dose of celebration. Celebrating is a great way to reinforce small changes — and pave the way for big successes.

Psychologist BJ Fogg is the founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University — he’s coached over 40,000 people in his behavior change methods and influenced countless more. His Tiny Habits method states that a new behavior happens when three elements come together: motivation, ability and a prompt.

If we really want to make lasting changes in our lives, Fogg believes we need to break them down into specific, easy behaviors (what he calls Tiny Habits), and find ways to trigger and reward them. Taking 30 seconds or less, a Tiny Habit is fast, simple and will grow For example, instead of having “get in shape” as a vague and intimidating goal, do two push-ups every time you make your morning coffee — that’s your Tiny Habit. After a while, you can increase the number of push-ups and expand into different exercises.

In working with thousands of people, Fogg has found one thing really helps fledgling habits to stick: Celebrating them. Here, he explains how the power of celebration can wire new behaviors into our lives — and make us feel great in the process.

Linda had a postcard taped on her fridge next to her kids’ finger-painted masterpieces. It was a black-and-white illustration of a 1950s housewife talking on the phone. Above the woman’s perfectly coiffed head was a talk bubble: “If the kids are alive at five o’clock, I’ve done my job.”

When Linda saw it, she laughed out loud. It made her smile, then it made her think. It represented an attitude of self-acceptance that she badly wanted but felt was too difficult to adopt.

Linda was a full-time stay-at-home mom with six kids under the age of 13. She loved being home and wouldn’t have had it any other way, yet she felt constantly underwater and overwhelmed. Unlike the woman on the postcard, Linda’s every thought at the end of the day was about all the things she didn’t get done or had done badly: the Cheerios on the back seat of the car (“I should have vacuumed it”); the dirty plates in the sink (“I should have washed them; my mom would never left them”); her son’s face falling after she snapped at him for teasing his sister (“I should be more patient”), and so on.

In my research, I’ve found that adults have many ways to tell themselves “I did a bad job” and very few ways of saying “I did a good job.” Like Linda, we rarely recognize our successes and feel good about our accomplishments. We focus only on our shortcomings as we scamper through our days and trudge through our years.

I want to show you how to gain a superpower — the ability to feel good at any given moment — and use this superpower to transform your habits and, ultimately, your life. Feeling good is a vital part of the Tiny Habits method. You can create this good feeling by using a technique I call “celebration.” When you celebrate, you create a positive feeling inside yourself on demand. This good feeling wires the new habit into your brain. Celebration is both a specific technique for behavior change and a psychological frame shift.

I discovered the power of celebration when I was trying to pick up a tooth-flossing habit. I stumbled on it at a time when I felt so much stress that I could barely get through each day. A new business I’d started was failing, and my young nephew had died tragically. Navigating the fallout of those events meant I hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in weeks. I was so anxious most nights that I would get up at 3 AM and do the only thing that calmed me down: watch videos of puppies on the Internet.

One early morning, after a particularly bad night, I glanced in the mirror and thought to myself, “You know, this could be the day when the wheels totally fall off.” A day of not just setbacks but paralyzing failure.

As I went about my morning routine, I picked up the floss and flossed one tooth. I thought to myself, “Well, even if everything else goes wrong today, I’m not a total failure. At least I flossed one tooth.”

I smiled in the mirror and said one word to myself: “Victory!”

Then I felt it.

Something changed. It was like a warm space had opened up in my chest where there had been a dark tightness. I felt calmer and even a little energized. And this made me want to feel that way again.

But then I worried that I was losing it. My nephew had just died, my life seemed ready to fall apart, and flossing one tooth had made me feel better? That’s nuts.

If I hadn’t been a behavior scientist and endlessly curious about human nature, I might have laughed at myself and left it alone. But I asked myself, “How did flossing that tooth make me feel better? Was it the flossing itself? Or was it saying ‘Victory!’ into the mirror? Or was it smiling?”

I tried it again that evening. I flossed one tooth, smiled at myself in the mirror, and said, “Victory!” In the days that followed, many of which were still difficult, I continued to floss and proclaim victory. No matter what else was going on, I was able to create a moment in each day when I felt good — and that was remarkable.

When I teach people about human behavior, I boil it down to three words: Emotions create habits. Not repetition. Not frequency. Not fairy dust. Emotions. When you are designing for habit formation — for yourself or for someone else — you are really designing for emotions.

Celebration is the best way to use emotions and create a positive feeling that wires in 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.

Celebration is habit fertilizer. Each individual celebration strengthens the roots of a specific habit, but the accumulation of celebrations over time is what fertilizes the entire habit garden. By cultivating feelings of success and confidence, we make the soil more inviting and nourishing for all the other habit seeds we want to plant.

You can adopt a new habit faster and more reliably by celebrating at three different times: the moment you remember to do the habit, when you’re doing the habit, and immediately after completing the habit. Your celebration does not have to be something you say out loud or even physically express. The only rule is that it has to be something said or done — internally or externally — that makes you feel good and creates a feeling of success. It could be a “yes!”; a fist pump; a big smile; a V with your arms. You might imagine the roar of the crowd; think to yourself “Good job” or “I got this”; or picture fireworks.

I like to call this feeling “Shine.” You know it already. You feel Shine when you ace an exam. You feel Shine when you give a great presentation and people clap at the end. You feel Shine when you smell something delicious that you cooked for the first time.

If you’re stumped on what celebration might work for you, put yourself in the following scenarios and watch how you react. This will give you a clue about your natural ways of celebrating. As you read them, don’t overthink or analyze. Just let yourself react.

Scenario #1: You apply for your dream job. You make it through the process all the way to the final interview. The hiring manager says, “We’ll send an email with our decision.” The next morning the manager’s email is waiting for you. You open it, and the first word you read is: “Congratulations!” What do you do at that moment?

Scenario #2: You’re sitting at work. You have a piece of paper to recycle, and the recycling bin is in the far corner of the room. You decide to wad up the paper and throw it; you are not sure you’ll make it. You aim carefully and toss the paper. Up it goes into an arc and it vanishes into the bin — perfect shot! What do you do at that moment?

Scenario #3: Your favorite sports team is in the championship game. The score is tied and as the time on the clock runs out, your team scores — and wins the championship. What do you do at that moment?

Suppose you have this as a proposed habit: “After I walk in the door after work, I will hang up my keys.” I encourage you to celebrate the exact moment your brain reminds you to do your new habit. Imagine you walk in the door after work, and as you’re putting down your backpack, this idea pops into your head: “Oh, now is when I said I was going to hang my keys up so I can find them tomorrow.”

Celebrate right then. You’ll feel Shine, and by feeling it, you are wiring in the habit of remembering to hang up your keys, not the habit of hanging up your keys. When you celebrate remembering to do your habit, you’ll wire in that moment of remembering. And that’s important. If you don’t remember to do a habit, you won’t do it.

Another time to celebrate is while you’re doing your new habit. Your brain will associate the behavior with Shine. A woman named Jill was trying to adopt the practice of wiping down the kitchen counter right after she used it. What most reliably prompted the feeling of Shine for her was picturing the meal that her husband would make that night and imagining him giving her a kiss and saying, “Nice work, babe.” Her celebration was her visualizing this moment. It allowed her to connect her small action with positive feelings of togetherness. This celebration wired in the remembering and increased her motivation to wipe the counter in the future. Fast-forward to today: Jill wipes the counter without even thinking about it.

I know that celebration can sometimes trip people up. They can’t get themselves to celebrate, or they’ve tried out different celebrations and still feel like a big faker. It also may not feel that compelling or comfortable. If that’s how you feel, I suggest that you try one of my favorite techniques to get a taste of the power of celebration: the Celebration Blitz.

I encourage everyone to do a Celebration Blitz when you need a score in the win column: Go to the messiest room or corner in your house or office, set a timer for three minutes, and tidy up. After every errant paper you throw away, celebrate. After every dishtowel you fold and hang back up, celebrate. After every toy you toss back into its cubbyhole — you get the idea. Say, “Good for me!” and “Wow. That looks better.” And do a fist pump or whatever works for you. Celebrate each tiny success even if you don’t feel it authentically, because as soon as that timer goes off, I want you to stop and tune into what you are feeling.

I predict that your mood will be lighter and that you will have a noticeable feeling of Shine. You will be more optimistic about your day and your tasks ahead. You may be surprised at how quickly you’ve shifted your perspective. You’ll see that you made your life better in just three minutes. Not just because the room is tidier, but because you took three minutes to practice the skills of change by exploring the effects of tiny celebrations done quickly.

Excerpted from the new book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything by BJ Fogg. Copyright © 2019 BJ Fogg. Used with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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