As your friend who shops for expensive calendars at Paper Source knows, New Year’s resolutions are mostly a scam by Big Planner. Still, if you’re going to make one, may we humbly suggest you turn your attention to your relationship with technology.
At this point, we all know that resolutions aren’t necessarily the best way to make changes in our lives. So how do we alter our relationship with technology? We asked BJ Fogg, who founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, for his advice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Once you’ve decided on a goal, what’s the first step you should take?
I don’t use the word “goal” in my work because it is ambiguous. Instead, I refer to setting aspirations.
Let’s say you do want to reduce your screen time. Your next step is to explore specific behaviors to do this. I explain how to do this systematically in Tiny Habits, but you basically come up with a whole bunch of different ways you can do that.
For example, you could: delete Facebook from your phone, make a very hard password for Instagram and not save it to your phone, turn off notifications after sitting down at work, leave your phone in the car when going into a party or restaurant, charge your phone in the kitchen rather than the bedroom (if it’s not in the bedroom then you are not going to wake up at night so readily and scroll through), and so on.
You’re not committing to any of these options yet, but you explore the many different options.
What can you do to make sure your resolution sticks?
Part one is the creative step. Part two after you come up with these options is to select the ones that you actually want to design into your life. This is based on three criteria that I explain in Tiny Habits:
Find among all of those options what is going to be the most effective.
What from the above can you get yourself to do?
What can you do to make your habits stick?
Focus on things that you want (not that you should do) and get very specific. And I mean specific in terms of what you need to do. Not just “I’m going to reduce screen time.” If your new habit is charging your phone in the kitchen, not in the bedroom, that is something you could do by starting a charging station in the kitchen to wire that in as a habit.
You can go wrong by picking a behavior that is too hard.
Now there is one more thing. The thing that makes habits wire to our brain is not repetition, it is the emotion you have as you’re doing the behavior. If we keep going with the phone in the kitchen example, let’s say that when you dock your phone, at that moment you pause yourself to feel a positive emotion. This can be a “good for me” or “way to go” internal praise, or you envision how much better sleep you’ll have. There’s different ways of doing this and there is a whole chapter on it in Tiny Habits, but the point is you can make it stick by doing the preceding steps and as you’re doing the new habit, by feeling successful. It’s that feeling and emotion that wires things in. This is very different than the traditional wisdom, and this is the breakthrough that does in fact work.
Where can you go wrong with making or breaking tech-themed resolutions?
You go wrong by picking should, like “Oh, I really should stop using Facebook” or by staying too abstract, like “my resolution is that I’m going to reduce my screen time.”
You can go wrong by picking a behavior that is too hard. If someone says they are going to close all of their windows and type for an hour, an hour is way too big of a goal, and that is the mistake. What can also go wrong is if you set yourself up for big goals and fail, then blame yourself. If you don’t write for an hour a day, you can say things to yourself like “Oh, I must lack willpower, I can’t change.” On the first page of my book I talk about exactly that. If you have tried to change through other products or programs and it hasn’t worked, that’s not your fault. You haven’t been given the best way to do this until now. It’s not a character flaw, it’s a design issue. The design is what people can learn and do.
Is a “resolution” really the right way to approach any sort of behavior change?
No, it’s not! Though I am so glad that we have a time of the year when people do evaluate where they want their life to go and where they can improve, however, the tradition of how to do that is setting people up to fail. What I’m hoping through Tiny Habits, is people will figure out what is the best change to make, and how to do it in a way that doesn’t intimidate them, and then succeed. That is what Tiny Habits is all about.
One part of me wants to tell others to stop doing resolutions, but another part of me says no. This is a natural time in our culture for people to reevaluate. Just set resolutions in this good way. I think that what I would do if people are super motivated at the first of the year to change, is to learn the skill of change. When motivation is high, you are open to learning things. When motivation is low, you are not going to want to learn the skills of change.
Why do you think people might want to be more thoughtful/intentional about their relationships with technology, especially at this time of the year?
[It’s] important because at this time of year we are with friends and family where we can develop those close relationships or the relationships that should be most close and the most supportive. If we’re on our phones connecting with people on the other side of the world that don’t matter much to us, we’re losing an opportunity.
It’s not your job to take a photo and post on Instagram.
In fact, this year I was in charge of planning my own family reunion of about 45 people gathered in Idaho for about 4-5 days. I decided that this year the theme as going to be “airplane mode.” So we had a reunion that was all about when we are here together you do not get on your devices or screens and we had rules and guidelines to get people to connect with each other, to play games and so on. That’s sort of like the holidays when you have a special way to connect in real life in ways where you do not let screen time or tech get in the way. I thought everyone would rebel but they didn’t they really did see the value of this. It was really interesting and everyone was on board, from the 80-year-olds to the kids.
Any other advice for people who are trying to change their relationship with technology?
There is a lot I could give, there is so much, but I think one takeaway I would give is to not feeling like you have to document everything. If you have a Christmas party with close friends, are on the beach alone, or at a meal with a great partner, don’t always feel like you have to document it. It’s not your job to take a photo and post on Instagram. At the party yes, take a quick picture or video, but don’t document everything and don’t feel like you have to. I believe in the future we’ll see that as maybe naive and immature behavior losing the opportunity to be there in the moment.