If you want to stick to your New Year’s Resolution or any new habit, don’t hinge it on a single behaviour. Instead, come up with as many different behaviours as you can think of—or what Stanford social behavioural scientist BJ Fogg calls a “Swarm of Bs.”
Fogg explains the Swarm of Bs technique in his new book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. I got an advance copy of Tiny Habits, and very much recommend it—I took a whole page of notes as I read the book, and have already started implementing the advice in my own life.
But, since it wouldn’t be fair to give away the whole book, I’ll just quote (with permission) the section on how the Swarm of Bs works:
Let’s say I’m guiding my friend Mark through this process, and he is clear about his big aspiration. He writes “reduce my stress” inside the cloud.
Next, I would say, “Mark, if you could wave a magic wand and get yourself to do any behaviour that would reduce your stress, what would it be?”
After Mark comes up with his first behaviour — getting a massage each week — I’d say, “Great. What else?”
We don’t stop and we don’t explore his idea in depth. Mark continues to write things down and I continue to say, “Great. What else?”
When guiding people in this process, I like to remind them that for now they have magical powers. They can get themselves to do any behaviour. Move to Maui. Bring a dog to work. Get a management job that pays 30 per cent more. It’s important to explore in this step — and be wildly optimistic.
Eventually, you will have a Swarm of Behaviours that will range from wacky to logical to surprising. And that’s a good thing.
Once you’ve generated a Swarm of Behaviours, begin identifying the behaviours that would be either easily achievable or highly effective. If you’re lucky, a few of the behaviours on your list will be both easy and effective—which means those are the behaviours you’ll want to put in place in order to jumpstart a new habit you’re looking to form.
And yes, you’ll want to have multiple behaviours buzzing as you work towards your goal of reducing stress or getting better sleep or spending more time with family. Why? Because there will be some days when at least one of your easy, effective behaviours won’t be that easy to complete—but the rest of your Swarm of Bs can pick up the slack.
Here’s an example: If you decide to reduce stress by getting regular massages, taking your dog to work, and using your snooze button to spend the first nine minutes of every morning practicing mindfulness, your snooze button habit will still be there even when you’re so busy you have to cancel your massage (and your next massage will still be on your calendar even on a day when you don’t get to practice mindfulness because your kids woke up sick).
“I’ve been studying behaviour and habits for more than 20 years in my lab at Stanford,” Fogg told me. “Tiny Habits uses the science of behaviour change from my lab on how we form habits and shows you exactly how you can design your own simple habits to transform your life quickly and easily.”
I haven’t decided what my 2020 New Year’s Resolutions will be—but if I do put any big resolutions or goals into place, I’ll also create a Swarm of Bs that can help support me as I work towards achieving them.
And remember: even though the easily achievable and highly effective behaviours will be the most likely to help you achieve your goals, your Swarm of Bs might also lead you towards a behaviour you’d never considered before. Maybe you’ll start thinking about a behaviour that you want to implement even though it sounds difficult or audacious or impossible.
By doing something as simple as “brainstorming all of the ways that you might keep your New Year’s resolution,” you might end up changing your entire life for the better.