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One of the bad habits I struggle with is the purchasing of books about habits. This has become quite costly as there has been a proliferation of research and popular works. Search Amazon for “psychology + habits” and you will find books about the seven habits, the eighth habit, the power of habits, and habits that are described in titles as good, bad, mini, elastic, high-performance, million-dollar, positive, now, achievement, neuro, hidden, and atomic. While there is overlap between ideas and methods, one of the most intriguing systems is that of Dr. B.J. Fogg in his book Tiny Habits.

One of the main messages from Dr. Fogg’s book is that we often try to change too much at one time. We feel highly motivated and make a big commitment, but we do not consider whether that change is realistic within our personality and circumstances. If the change is too daunting, painful or beyond our ability, the likelihood of the change lasting is minimal. Change can happen, but we need to craft the change to be small, easy, and as rewarding as possible.

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To create a new habit, Fogg recommends starting small and reinforcing that minimal behavior. As an illustrative example, when he wanted to start the habit of flossing, he made it his goal to floss only one tooth. He would floss one tooth and celebrate that accomplishment. After some time, the habit of flossing was so ingrained into his routine and he knew it was within his ability, that he built up to flossing all his teeth. A habit that he still does, twice a day.

In her review of Tiny Habits for Tradition Online, Professor Tamra Wright, a certified Tiny Habits coach herself, notes that Dr. Fogg’s approach resonates well with the thought of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, primarily as it relates to the hope that the approach instills. When we use the correct strategies, we can change, and things can get better. Building off Dr. Wright’s point, we can also see traces of Tiny Habits in Rambam’s works as well.

A hopeful attitude toward change is so fundamental to Rambam’s position that he dedicates two full chapters in his Laws of Repentance to a philosophical exposition on free will, culminating his treatment of the topic by writing “Since free choice is granted to all men, as explained, a person should always strive to do teshuvah” (7:1). Change for the Rambam is always possible, since we always have free will. He starts his exposition on free will by writing, “Freewill is granted to all men. If one desires to turn oneself (“lehatot atzmo”) to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his.”

Rabbi Hayyim Angel remarked that the language of “lehatot atzmo” – “to turn oneself” – connotes a small, incremental change. This slight change of direction will have compounding effects that will lead to the path of the good and the righteous. Following this reading, Rambam is emphasizing the importance of tiny habits that will facilitate more substantial change.

The same connection between free will and tiny habits can be seen in Pirkei Avot (3:15), where Rabbi Akiva relates that despite G-d’s foreknowledge of events, we still have free will (“Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted”) and closes off the Mishna by stating, “And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of deeds.” Here Rambam explicitly encourages tiny habits, writing:

And afterwards he [Rabbi Akiva] said that the virtues do not come to a man according to the quantity of the greatness of the deed, but rather according to the great number of good deeds. Indeed, the virtues arrive by repetition of the good deeds many times… A parable: when a man gives a thousand gold coins one time to one man… and he does not give anything to another man, the trait of generosity will not come into his hand with this great act, as [much as] it will come to one who donates a gold piece a thousand times and gives each one of them out of generosity…

There is one more important overlap between Rambam and Tiny Habits. Repentance is often seen as a daunting and negative experience. While there is a place for healthy negative emotions within the teshuvah process, the more painful the proposed change to our current dispositions, the more unlikely it will work. In order to make the process more positive, Dr. Fogg recommends that we actively celebrate even those small successes (i.e. “great job flossing that one tooth”). That positive feeling helps propel future positive feelings, in line with Pirkei Avot 4:2 that “one commandment leads to another commandment.”

Perhaps this is why Rambam emphasizes toward the end of Hilchot Teshuva all of the positive aspects of change, including the belief in “The good that is hidden for the righteous is the life of the world to come” (8:1), and the positive change in the relationship between man and G-d: “Great, indeed, is repentance for it brings man close to the Shechinah… Repentance brings near the far apart. Yesterday this sinner was hateful to the presence of G-d, scorned, ostracized and abominate, and today he is beloved, desirable, companionable and a friend… How superior is the degree of repentance! Yesterday this sinner was separated from Hashem… But today he is connected with the Shechinah… he observes commandments, and they are received with pleasure and joy… moreover, his works are pleasurably anticipated” (7:6-7). Finally, he concludes the last chapter elaborating on the importance of love in our motivation to serve G-d. The process of change should be positively reinforcing and rewarding.

While hopefully we will be inspired during the Yamim Noraim to want a complete positive transformation in our personal, interpersonal, and spiritual lives, we will do well to remember that if we want to have lasting behavioral change, we should keep our practical goals small, build tiny habits, and enjoy the process. By so doing, may we merit achieving teshuvah sheleima, a complete repentance, before G-d.

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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School, an instructor at RIETS, and the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. He graduated YU with a BA in psychology, an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli and Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS, before attending St. John’s University for his doctorate in psychology. He has been on the rabbinic staff of Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY since 2010 and practices as a licensed psychologist in NY. His book “Psyched for Torah,” his academic and popular articles, as well as many of his lectures are accessible on his website, www.PsychedForTorah.com.