How To Design Behavior: Ability - Article Header

If we are not able to do something, we won’t do it. It is that simple. 

Say hi to Joey; he is very familiar with this. During the last year, he has miserably failed to succeed in any of his habit goals.
– His Paleo diet lasted for about one bread-less week in January,
– His new gym shoes have only been used for walking to brunch on Sundays and,
– His meditation habit ended before he could say “Om.”


He failed to understand the power of ability when designing his habit and behavior goals.

How To Design Behavior: Ability - Joey


This is the first part in a series of articles on how to design behavior. It will provide a detailed insight into what determines our ability, how we can manage it and how to become better at developing habits and behaviors in our lives.

So what do we mean by ability? I like to define it as the ease in which you can complete an action. It is a combination of your skillset with the difficulty of the task at hand. 

Why does ability matter in behavior change? To illustrate, let’s consider the seemingly simple act of going to yoga class at the gym. We might have it in our calendar (be triggered) and want to go (have the motivation), but chances are we still won’t go if some external factor has decreased our ability. For example, if we forget our gym clothes or have to drive a long-distance to get there. Either way, something has made it very difficult for us to get our butts on the yoga mat. 

It can also be that the activity itself is too difficult or that we perceive it to be. Here it is helpful to imagine our level of ability being on a spectrum from very hard to very easy. For example, when it comes to running, a moderately fit person would find it very hard to complete a marathon but could comfortably jog for 10 minutes.

How To Design Behavior: Ability - The Ability Spectrum

When it comes to building any habit, our behavior should always be on the right end of the spectrum. If you find yourself doing something that is on the left side of your ability spectrum, then know you are on the wrong side. 

OK, so nothing at this point has been rocket science, but here is where it starts to get interesting. See, what determines what feels easy or hard depends on how much of our scarce resources we need to use.

To help us understand this better, let’s drill down and look at how we can quantify our ability.

Ability Factors

Stanford professor and perhaps the godfather of behavior design, BJ Fogg, has identified six components of ability [1]; our most valuable resources that we need to live and prosper. Like most resources, these factors are also limited and often in short supply.

How To Design Behavior: Ability - The Ability Factors

The Six Ability Factors

  1. Time: The time it takes to complete the behavior.
  2. Money: The money required to complete the behavior.
  3. Physical Effort: The physical effort required to complete the behavior.
  4. Brain Cycles: The mental effort required to complete the behavior.
  5. Social Deviance: The degree to which the behavior requires you to do something out of the norm.
  6. Non‐routine: The degree to which the behavior requires you to do something outside of your current routine.

We can now see that ability is then a function of a person’s scarcest resources used in each moment. So we can increase our ability to do a behavior by simply identifying which Ability Factors are most scarce, and then find ways to use less of them.

Let’s look at how Joey can alter each factor to make exercising easier.

Example: Exercising

How To Design Behavior: Ability - EXERCISE Example

1. Time:
How much time do I have to exercise?

Joey’s most common excuse is that “he doesn’t have time.” Time is indeed finite, but while we don’t have all the time we want, we often have enough time to do something.

If going to the gym takes too long, then Joey could go for a 30-minute run. Doesn’t even have 30-minutes? He could do a 15-minute workout at home. Something is always better than nothing, and even 15-minute of daily exercise can make a huge difference in the long-run. 

2. Money: Can I afford to sustain the new behavior or habit?

As with time, money is a common constraint and excuse concerning health and fitness. Some training regimes and diets indeed require a “healthy” outlay of funds. Part of why Joey has given up on exercising is because he can no longer afford using his personal trainer (PT). 

If this is the case, then what would be a more affordable alternative? Joey could for now skip the expensive PT and start by taking classes at the gym. If money is tight then start by going for a run or exercising at home.

3. Physical Effort: How much physical effort is required?

When we say something is hard, we often refer to it requiring either heavy physical or mental strain. For physical effort, we can often regulate and plan according to our capabilities. One common mistake Joey made with exercise is that he pushed himself too hard early on.

If you like Joey are, for example, new to running then doing a 15K run will likely take a lot of initial physical effort. Start small instead and as your stamina improves and your body gets used to it you can go for longer runs.

How To Design Behavior: Ability - Gym Example

4. Brain Cycles: How much mental effort is required?

While we associate exercise more with physical rather than mental effort, it can still be important to consider how much brainpower is expanded. Joey often skips the gym since he doesn’t know what exercises to do and because he is not familiar with how to use the equipment.

Joey can reduce his mental effort by outsourcing some it. In this case, he can get someone experienced, maybe a friend, to help him create a workout routine and show him how to use the machines. He could also download an exercise app which provides him with a workout and shows him how to do each exercise.

5. Social Deviance: Are your friends and family supporting or stopping you?

Most are familiar with the idea that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with and this is also true for exercise. If no one you know exercises, then it will naturally become harder than if for example, your partner is already very active.

This is the case for Joey, and he feels like he’s on his own. It could help if he were able to involve the people around him. He could bring his friends to the gym instead of the bar. He can also, for example, join a running group and find support there from other members.

6. Non‐routine: Is exercise part of your current routine?

Are you already routinely doing some physical activity? If not, it is important to consider how you will connect your new exercise regimen to your current routine. When and after what current habit do you plan to exercise?

Joey could put on his running gear first thing after he gets out of bed or he could go for a run right after work. He could make it easier by placing his running gear next to his door and ensure that he has an extra set of running clothes in the car or at work.

What we can learn from Joey

We can now see how by tweaking each of these factors, we can make developing an exercising habit much easier and in turn much more likely to succeed. 

The goal here is to make doing your behavior ridiculously easy. 

Going through these factors can be done for any behavior and can have an incredible effect. Just imagine how easy exercising would be for Joey if he even implemented half of these ideas.


How To Design Behavior: Ability - Simplify

One common mistake in behavior change is making things too difficult. We starve ourselves on extreme diets, we put ourselves through grueling exercise regimes or try to quit all of our bad habits at once.

We go so far beyond our normal ability that we often need to patch up the gap with motivation. Unfortunately, motivation is cruel and will turn on you at the flip of a dime. It will be there one week, but then disappear the next. This is why four out of five dieters not only fail their diets but regain everything they lost (and then some) [2].

We are better off simplifying our approach and starting small. Once we begin with a habit or behavior that we can sustain, we can then incrementally increase difficulty over time.

These are two of the golden rules in behavior change: Make it simple and start small.

We dramatically increase our chances of success if we start with something that is relatively easy, that is, something we can do even on a bad day. Then as we get into the habit of doing it, we can increase the difficulty and make it more challenging as time goes on.


How To Design Behavior: Ability - Takeaway

We can increase our odds of success in creating new habits by starting small and increasing difficulty gradually. Your focus should be on one step at a time and to make sure you are able to take that next step.

That is exactly what Joey did; he made exercising ridiculously easy. He noticed that once he did that, working out became more fun and much of the habit happened by itself. Joey still loves wearing his cowboy hat, but the difference now after developing his exercising habit is that he can pretend he is Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike. 

How To Design Behavior: Ability - Joey happy

So start by asking yourself the simple question: Is it easy or hard to achieve my behavior goal? As you’ve probably guessed by now, you want the answer to be VERY EASY. If you’re not sure or want to make it easier, then download your free checklist below.

Still, keep your cowboy hat on because this series is only getting started. Check out the next entry on motivation to learn whether you need to get pumped up to succeed in your behavior change. 

Until then, happy designing.
– Samuel

The Ability Checklist

Second Link: Download Your Ability Checklist

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  1. B. J. Fogg, B. (2009). A behavior model for persuasive design. 40. 10.1145/1541948.1541999.
    I recommend you also check out BJ Fogg’s behavioral model website here.
  2. Dieting does not work, UCLA researchers report | UCLA (Access Here)

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