On Tiny Habits

One of the most curious aspects of my personality is the dramatic impact of a particularly good or bad experience on my motivation. If a specific instance of experience is perceived to be positive then I will feel more motivated to repeat a similar experience; the converse is also true.

The thing about motivation is that it is fickle: in Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg argues that reliance on our level of motivation is a particularly unwise choice because there is a natural undulation in motivation that is dependent on too many other factors. His solution is to build tiny habits that are linked to already existing habits, leveraging the brain’s capacity to learn.

So when I faced the responsibility of returning to the Mystamyr gaming table after a particularly “bad” session two weeks before, it was the habit of getting online on the bi-weekly Monday night combined with deciding to just achieve one tiny thing that allowed me to overcome my extremely low motivation.

But here’s the thing: the session was a “good” one. Waking up the morning after a “good” session I am filled with enthusiasm and energy to create for the next session. Positivity flows. I feel like of course I can continue to run the game – how could I not, with such a great session last time?

The fallacy is that between this last session and the next one there will be hundreds, if not thousands or even millions, of tiny pressures downward on my motivation. I will get worn down at work. There will be setbacks in my life of all different shapes and forms. I will get tired. I will miss some night’s sleep. And so on.

I cannot rely on a “good” session to propel me forward to the next one. While that one experience certainly helps to confirm my intention to run Session 20 after such a “good” Session 19, the reality is that I cannot rely on my motivation.

Back to Tiny Habits: the Fogg Behaviour Model predicts that if the task feels too hard then you won’t do it:

As with all human behaviour, we gamers need to break the tasks we intend to achieve into smaller – much smaller – pieces and make them easier. Turning up to session is the last action in a whole list of preparations that a GM needs to make. You need to take each one of those prep steps and make them tiny. Easier. Then, when your motivation is low, you can stand a chance of actually acting on them.

Whether prepping a first session for a new scary anxiety-creating game or with a game that has been going 19 sessions and looks to be getting pretty complex, the challenge is the same: how can you make each step to the table tiny and easy?

I break things down to the simplest game structures.

The most basic of all is to run a combat scene… and that’s just what I did last night. Prepping for next time? I just need to find the map of the next location (we made that back around Session 3) and then aim to run it as the next simplest game structure: the location crawl.

Working from simple to complex in small steps means I stand a chance of getting to the table. I can layer in small preparations for the next (more complex) tasks by breaking them into smaller steps.

Need a new location map? Add one additional room or corridor to the map per day for a month. I went further by linking this intention to making a cup of coffee earlier in the year – leveraging the habits I already have – and discovered that by adding one room to a dungeon map every time I was standing next to the coffee machine waiting, I could draw a big map in just a few days.

Once a map is drawn, then you key one area at a time. Tiny steps which add up. By the time you get to needing that prepped map at the table, you’ve already built it and keyed it. Tiny habits make giant progress.

Stop relying on motivation because it’s too fickle. Read “Tiny Habits” and leverage the learning from Stanford Behavioural Lab.

Game on!


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