3 steps to troubleshoot bad behavior, according to a Stanford expert – Business Insider

  • Dr. BJ Fogg runs the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. He trains Fortune 500 companies, with a special focus on health, productivity, and financial wellbeing. His early research on persuasive technology has informed the design of products that millions love and use (like Instagram, which his student cofounded). 
  • The following is an excerpt from his book, “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything.”
  • In it, he writes that when we want to do a behavior — or want someone else to — we find ourselves unsucessful. But there are ways to troubleshoot this using behavior design.
  • See if the behavior is being prompted, and if the person expected to do it has the motivation and ability to complete it.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

We often want to do a behavior — or want someone else to do a behavior — and are met with little or no success. For those situations, I have good news: Behavior design gives us a specific set of steps for troubleshooting this common problem. 

And it’s not what you’d expect. Let’s say you want your employees to show up to your weekly team meeting on time, but they consistently arrive a few minutes late. Many managers would get upset, impose a penalty, or shoot dirty looks at the people arriving late. All of those are attempts to use motivation to get the behavior of arriving on time to happen. And all of those are mistakes. You don’t start with motivation when you troubleshoot.

BJ Fogg Headshot

BJ Fogg.
Stephanie Weldy


You follow these steps instead. Try each step in order. If you don’t get results, move to the next step.

  1. Check to see if there’s a prompt to do the behavior.
  2. See if the person has the ability to do the behavior.
  3. See if the person is motivated to do the behavior.

To do an expert job of troubleshooting a behavior for yourself or others, start with the prompt. Is the person being prompted to do the behavior? You might ask your tardy employees, “Do you have a reminder to come to the meeting on time?” If they don’t, have them find a good prompt. And that might solve the problem. No drama. No dirty looks.

Just design a good prompt.

If that doesn’t work, then you move to the next step. See if people have the ability to do the behavior. Ask your tardy employees what is making it difficult for them to arrive at your meeting on time. 

Tiny Habits Cover

“Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything.”
Courtesy of BJ Fogg


You might learn that the tardy employees have a previous meeting that ends at the top of the hour and that they can’t arrive at your meeting on time.

With that, you’ve found your answer. It’s an ability problem, not a motivation problem.

But let’s pretend that they have a prompt and the ability, and that it is a motivation issue. In this case, you’d then try to find a way to motivate punctuality. (And there are lots of ways to do this, both good and bad.) Notice that fussing around with motivation is the last step in the troubleshooting order. Most people assume that to get a behavior to happen you need to focus on motivation first.

This process of troubleshooting can save you some grief both at work and at home. Let’s suppose you’ve asked your teenage daughter to stop on her way home from school to buy some poster board you need for a church lesson. She has your car, and you think that this is a fair request. She gets home from school that day, and she doesn’t have your poster board. You get upset and explain how much you need that poster board. (Both of those are motivation strategies.) Your daughter says, “Sorry. I’ll do it tomorrow.” But there’s no poster board the next day.

At this point, you might stomp around the living room, threaten to take away her driving privileges, and make a comment about how unreliable she is. (All three are motivation strategies.)

As you know, this is not a good situation.

Now let’s rewind this story and imagine that you know how to troubleshoot. You don’t get upset when your daughter arrives home without the poster board on the first day. You go into troubleshooting mode: “Did you have anything to remind you to get the poster board?”

“No. I just thought I’d remember. But I forgot.”

So you design a prompt for the next day by asking, “What do you think would be a good reminder for you tomorrow?”

And she says that she is putting a to-do note on her phone.

Guess what? She hands you the poster board with a smile the next day.

When you apply this troubleshooting method to your own behavior, you’ll find that it stops you from blaming yourself. Let’s say you don’t meditate in the mornings as you’d hoped. Instead of blaming yourself for a lack of willpower or motivation, walk yourself through the steps:

Did you have something to prompt you? What is making this hard to do?

In many cases, you’ll find your lack of doing a behavior is not a motivation issue at all. You can solve for the behavior by finding a good prompt or by making the behavior easier to do.

I want you to practice observing the world through the lens of the behavior model. It will serve two purposes. One, it’s fun. Two, it will help you break things down along the lines of motivation, ability, and prompt so you can identify what’s driving your own behavior — or anyone else’s.

Many people who use the behavior model for step-by-step troubleshooting report that this method helps them see the machinery of human behavior. You will be able to deconstruct your efforts at change and know how they are being undermined or supported. You’ll be able to better understand why you do some behaviors that you later regret.

We all do things that we don’t like.

Eat popcorn for dinner.

Yell at the kids.

Binge-watch Netflix.

But we don’t have to be blind to these behaviors or frustrated by them. And we really, really don’t have to blame ourselves.

From now on, I want you to look at your behavior the way a scientist looks at what’s growing in a petri dish — with curiosity and objective distance. This is going to be different. I’m not dwelling on willpower or rigidly prescribing something that is going to set you up for feeling bad. I want you to treat your life as your own personal “change lab” — a place to experiment with the person you want to be. A place where you not only feel safe, but also feel like anything is possible.

On sale today, “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything” is a new book by Dr. BJ Fogg detailing breakthrough ways to create positive habits in your life quickly and easily.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.