It took me a long time to read this book. Some of that was life stuff, but some of it was that this was by far the most useful of any of the books I have read so far; this is legitimately a book that I would give to someone who wanted to transform their life but was having trouble doing so, assuming that they were someone who had expressed a desire to be given self-help books and that I was someone that they would feel comfortable receiving those books from.
Because of this, it took me a long time to read. Books that basically don’t work or tell you anything noteworthy you can blow through. This book forced me to think about what I actually wanted, which was hard and scary. I thought about doing a whole riff here where I treated this book as a grimoire and pretended that it was dark and menacing and dangerous, because anything that can actually change your life is kind of creepy and dangerous, but ultimately it seemed too labored.
There are things that I hate about this book — the depth of my hatred is a direct reaction to a) how well I think this book can work and b) a sense of betrayal. I really liked the parts of the books that I liked; I am angry at some of what the book has been put in service of. So, you know, bear that in mind.
The book: Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, PhD
Is the author smart/do they know things I don’t: About 80 percent of the way through the book I would have given BJ Fogg not my life, but maybe my place in line, my table at the restaurant, my coffee order. Then some things happened, including a section where he tells you to refer to him as a Stanford scientist in order to induce others to participate in Tiny Habits with you. This is technically true, but it was a breaking point for me, and I am therefore going to decline to admit that he is smarter than me.
Does the main idea seem true: Yes. The idea is right there in the title, which is that you pick a very small change to make and you do it repeatedly and that will not only create that particular habit but it will help you change other things about your life. It is very consistent with what I have seen work in my own life, to the extent anything has. When I quit smoking I started working out and I was able to do that because I worked out in a super-time limited way six days a week, and it worked really well, although it did not work forever.
Moment where I was like, oh boy, here we go again: This book was interesting, because although it had the slightly bland style of a lot of Stanford types, it didn’t say anything that I found super annoying or off putting until the end when I realized that all the habits in the examples were exactly the sort of habits most prized by American middle class society. Eating better, exercising more, taking deep breaths, drinking water, tidying our desks, cleaning our counters. Not bad habits to have. As I have discussed before, this year I have started tidying my desk a lot more and it has made me more productive and that’s good, because the things that I do at work are things I think are important and valuable.
But we live in a broken world where literally millions of people are deprived of things like a safe place to sleep and safe drinking water and freedom from being bombed and shot at.
And the point of the tiny habits system as this book proposes it is that it can change anything — in itself it is truly value neutral. So it feels weird, given how fucked up our world is now, that what the book proposes (again implicitly) as targets for what it says is a tremendously powerful behavior modification system are exactly the same kinds of things that Men’s Health and Real Simple tell you.
Honestly, it starts feeling sinister. It’s probably not deliberately sinister; it’s the product of our society, which holds some genuinely bad actors, but also a lot of people acting within the limitations both mental and material of a system more powerful than them. But BJ Fogg, PhD, actually does seem genuinely brilliant in his straightforward and agnostic curiosity about how to change the way people do things, and so it winds up feeling political and also fucked up that all of that potential for change is being put in service of helping people lead lives that hew more closely to our current set of values, values that have, frankly, failed us.
Fogg suggests that following the precepts of this book can change the world. And I suppose he’s right; we are changing the world every day. On the other hand, I do not think that our current state of affairs can or should be fixed by individual people displaying more self-agency in eating properly. I think, actually, that a lot of the problems we face are because a certain subset of people have come to believe that they should have complete control over their way of life. This book is aimed at giving that same subset of people even more tools to control their lives. This seems bad to me.
Also, Fogg promises you an extra chapter on using the tiny habits method for business, to be downloaded from his website, but what it actually is is a mechanism to get you onto his mailing list and advertise his seminars to you, in the most gentle and tactful way possible, and this comes at the very end of the book when I was already grappling with the political implications of the whole thing, and it really pissed me off.
Single most awesome thing in the book: The moment I really gave myself over to the book was when he talked about how his model for behavior doesn’t have a “lazy” axis — there is a generosity in Fogg’s worldview, in which we are all doing our best and need some assistance to do so, that seems rare and praiseworthy to me. The other thing I loved about this work is how it puts front and center the idea that feeling good is central to change. In my experience, my character has always been built best by being the recipient of incredible generosity, and I feel like that doesn’t get talked about enough.
Thing that seemed like it could be useful if I actually tried it, which I didn’t: There are a lot of exercises that involved brainstorming possible tiny habits and writing them down and I refuse.
Thing that actually did influence my behavior: One thing that I thought was completely brilliant was the idea that for any habit you’re trying to build in you need to celebrate yourself after you do it — you need to stand there and be like, awesome job, self, and you need to do that consciously and repeatedly. I don’t know if it helped, but I enjoyed it.
Thing That I Would Like To See The Numbers On, Sir: A lot of the book has a surprising amount of Fogg trying to eat better, and one way in which he does it is by saying, at restaurants, “No bread for me, please.” And because 90 percent of the restaurants I’ve been to which offer bread bring a basket for the table I want to know how many people eating with him have been cheated out of their rightful bread.
Other Things I Thought About While Reading This Book: When I was in undergrad there was a guy on Telegraph who handed out free bumper stickers with gnomic slogans (I think you could pay but didn’t have to, and I didn’t because I was kind of a jerk) and I got this one that said Versatility Is Better Than Servitude and I had it up on my wall for years and years and I think about it a lot now that the gig economy has taught us that versatility and servitude are not incompatible, and this book reminded me of that bumper sticker. But of course, the ability to keep trying, and to try different things is an incredible one, and is to be celebrated. You try to keep your house clean in one way and then you try in another way, and sometimes your old coping mechanisms fall apart and hopefully you can recognize that and create new ones. But none of that on its own will save you; the question always remains what it’s being put in service of.
It is worth noting that for me, at least, that kind of consistent and ongoing experimentation and ducking and weaving and bobbing is also exhausting and draining, which I feel like this book fails to properly acknowledge.
Useful Counter-programming: This post by my friend Patricia Marino
Next [Indefinite Period Of Time’s] Book: The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, just because I have spent so many years hearing and making jokes that reference the title.