Habit Formation: “Floss one tooth.”

In a memorable iTunes U lecture entitled “Changing Behaviour and Changing Policies” BJ Fogg offers this very interesting (albeit slightly foul and creepy) metaphor to explain why behaviour practitioners ought to focus more on “ability” and “trigger” (and not just “motivation”) when designing interactions for habit formation.

While change management literature often focuses predominantly on creating a compelling vision of the future that will motivate people to take action (and this is admittedly a significant part of the equation), Fogg suggests that success in new habit formation may depend more on making it easy for people to take a desired action. This is the logic behind the idea of flossing just one tooth. “You don’t work on getting people to walk 30 minutes a day until they have the automatic reaction, ‘Oh, I’m back from my coffee break, I’m going to go walk 5 minutes,'” according to Fogg, and  similarly, if all one has to do is floss a single tooth immediately after brushing, it becomes extremely easy to do, essentially eliminating the demotivators (such as bleeding, painful gums). Fogg’s thinking is that if the tiny habit is successfully trained, it does indeed become quite natural for that habit to expand on its own. So when it comes to flossing the rest of your teeth – no pressure – only do it if it feels good!

The key idea here is that a tiny habit, placed in an artfully designed context, has the potential to “grow without coaxing.”

Fogg reminds his audience that this approach underpins the success of consumer internet giants such as Facebook and Google that have been so successful in training users to return to their sites again and again. “Just use us for one little thing – search maybe, or to share your photos – and once we’ve got you visiting us every day, suddenly you’ll be using us for maps, mail, docs, etc.” What these companies do is “Put hot triggers in front of motivated people.” In other words, they put invitations to do things that are very small and easy to do NOW, in front of people that want to do those things.

This got me thinking about an intranet project I am building. What is the one aspect of an intranet that is small and needed by everyone in the company on a daily basis? What if we could build the most amazing, intuitive, simple, searchable, sleek phonebook in the universe and get people to LOVE using it and come back to it every day? Wouldn’t it be somewhat easier to add in things like birthdays, corporate announcements, knowledge assets, etc., subsequently, without having to train people to go to the intranet instead of their traditional channels?

What other applications for this idea do you see?

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