“Floss One Tooth”: Using BJ Fogg’s behavior model to become a better ultra runner

  • Many of us want to start new behaviors to become better runners: stick to our training plans, do some stretching, eat fewer doughnuts
  • Professor BJ Fogg has an incredibly powerful model for understanding behavior – and for figuring what you need to do to make a change
  • The Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) identifies three things must happen for new behavior to occur: motivation, ability, and a trigger.  You determine those and you’re in business.

I left my house Saturday morning on a nice and easy 12-miler, following a leisurely route through my neighborhood.  After the first three miles, however, I suddenly felt as though my heart just wasn’t into it that morning.  I wasn’t tired.  My body felt strong.  I just didn’t feel like running.  What was going on?

A few years ago I had the chance to participate in a workshop on human behavior by BJ Fogg, a superstar Stanford design professor.  Fogg has an amazing way of communicating the underlying drivers of why people do (or fail to do) things – and his principles that apply to nearly every action in life, big or small.  Whenever I’m trying to understand my own personal struggles with getting things done, I frame it up using his model!

His first principle: motivation.  To change behavior, Fogg advises, you need to work within the level of motivation you have at the time – it’s nearly impossible to will yourself to be more motivated.   Think of your motivation level like a wave, increasing and decreasing as your day goes on, highly dependent on the various plusses and minuses of your life.

motivation_wave2For instance, the high you feel after a successful race might boost motivation, while a nagging worry about a new ankle pain might lower it.  If you have to drag yourself out of bed every morning, that “low motivation” time of day might be best reserved for something easy (like stretching or making coffee), whereas just the act of joining an afternoon running group might increase your motivation level to stick to those workouts.

Key takeaway: play to your motivation levels rather than trying to increase your motivation.

The second principle: ability.  Ability, Fogg explains, is driven by the availability of resources – such as time, money, or how easy it is to do something.  Fogg shows that there is an inverse relationship between motivation and ability, so as your ability (or available resources) goes up you can actually get stuff done at a lower motivation level.  In other words, ability is good.


Let’s say you’re always pressed for time in the mornings, stressed about work.  Limited time = low ability.  It’s probably going to be a huge struggle to get your long runs finished consistently during this time – that is, without a really high level of motivation to offset your lower ability.  Don’t push water uphill – why not look for day parts when you have more time?

Fogg’s secret weapon: simplicity.  Simplicity increases ability.  Can you think of ways to simplify getting the job done and thereby making it easier to get started? Such as laying out your gear the night before?  Or planning to run only one mile in the morning instead of ten?

Key takeaways: accomplish hard stuff when you have high ability (e.g., time) and figure out ways to increase your ability levels through simplicity.

His third principle: triggers.  Triggers are the cues that spring us into action.  A fire alarm goes off?  You head for the exits.  You see a Starbucks sign?  You pull in for a latte.  Without a trigger to spur you, behaviors likely just won’t happen.

shutup-and-runTriggers can be incredibly simple.  During Fogg’s workshop, he recommended that we increase our flossing behavior by starting with an easy (read: high ability) goal – “floss one tooth” – and that we use a simple post-it note stuck to our bathroom mirrors as the trigger.  Having been a highly sporadic flosser my entire life, I was skeptical.

Wouldn’t you know, it actually worked.  Triggered daily by the post-it note, I flossed one tooth for about a week.  One tooth turned into two, two became four.  And before long I was flossing my entire mouth, twice daily.

The same thing can be applied to running.  What’s going to be your trigger to finally start incorporating speed work into your training program?  Do you need an easy trigger (like a simple reminder)?  Or do you need something more involved – like a coach?


Key takeaway: create the appropriate trigger to spur you to action.

Okay, you’re probably thinking, but when does the magic “behavior change” actually happen?  It’s pretty simple.  Your behavior changes when you have the right combination of all of those principles – the balance of motivation and ability and a trigger to get you going.


FBM is a powerful tool.  Of course, taking advantage of this system will require some personal reflection on your part – it’ll help to get an honest read on your current behavior and why.  For instance, I always wanted to be an “AM runner” and it took me years of struggling and failed attempts before I finally made peace with it, acknowledging that my morning motivation levels are ridiculously low.  Now knowing that it’s futile to try to run, I use my mornings for simple, low effort things that are easy for me to do at that time – like yoga.

So why was I struggling so much with my run this weekend?  The FBP model made it pretty clear.  Although she had encouraged me to go on my run, my wife was home alone planning our house move and I really wanted to be there to help her out.  High ability + low motivation = weak behavior.  Thanks, Dr. Fogg!


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