The change of behaviour at the heart of what this book is about is this: a little more asking people questions and a little less telling people what to do. But simple doesn’t mean easy, and theory’s no good if you don’t know how to put it into practice. So before we look at what to change, we need to understand how to change.

You already know it’s hard to change old ways of behaving, however good your intentions. Or is it just me who has:

• sworn not to check email first thing in the morning, and nonetheless found myself in the wee small hours, my face lit by that pale screen glow;
• intended to find inner peace through the discipline of meditation, yet couldn’t find five minutes to just sit and breathe, sit and breathe;
• committed to take a proper lunch break, and somehow found myself shaking the crumbs out of my keyboard, evidence of sandwich spillage; or
• decided to abstain from drinking for a while, and yet had a glass of good Australian shiraz mysteriously appear in my hand at the end of the day?

All that’s less surprising when you realize that a Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behaviour is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.

There’s always been a lot of information out there on how to change the way you behave. Or more accurately, there’s a dense jungle of misinformation that grows particularly lush at the turn of each year, when resolutions are in the air. Have you heard the one that says that if you do something for twenty-one days, you’ll have a new habit? Someone just made that up, and it now stalks the Internet like a zombie, refusing to die.

Happily, there has been an increase of grounded findings, based on neuroscience and behavioural economics, that have helped clear a path over the last few years. To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.

Make a Vow

Why would you bother doing something as difficult as changing the way you work? You need to get clear on the payoff for changing something as familiar and efficient (not the same, of course, as effective) as an old behaviour. Getting clear doesn’t mean imagining success, funnily enough. Research shows that if you spend too much time imagining the outcome, you’re less motivated to actually do the work to get there. Leo Babauta frames a helpful way of connecting to the big picture in his book Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change. He talks about making a vow that’s connected to serving others.

Leo gave up smoking as a commitment to his wife and newborn daughter. So think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about.

Figure Your Trigger

One key insight from reading Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, is this: if you don’t know what triggers the old behaviour, you’ll never change it because you’ll already be doing it before you know it. The more specific you can be when defining your trigger moment, the more useful a piece of data it is. As an example, “At the team meeting” becomes more usable when it’s “When I’m asked to check in at the team meeting” and becomes even more usable when it’s “When Jenny asks me for feedback on her idea in the team meeting.” With that degree of specificity, you have the starting point for building a strong new habit.

Double-S It: Be Short & Specific

If you define your new habit in an abstract and slightly vague way, you won’t get traction. If it takes too long to do, your big brain will find a way to hack your good intentions. B.J. Fogg’s work at suggests that you should define your new habit as a micro-habit that needs to take less than sixty seconds to complete. It’s about getting really clear on the first step or two that might lead to the bigger habit. The Double-S guideline works particularly well for this book, as each one of the Seven Essential Questions fits that bill.

Practice Deeply

For his book The Talent Code, Dan Coyle researched why certain parts of the world were talent “hot spots” for certain skills. Brazil: soccer. Moscow: women’s tennis. New York: music (think the Julliard School). One key factor in each hot spot was knowing how to practice well—Coyle calls it “Deep Practice.”

The three components of Deep Practice are:

• Practicing small chunks of the bigger action (for instance, rather than practice the whole tennis serve, you practice just tossing the ball up).
• Repetition, repetition and repetition . . . and repetition. Do it fast, do it slow, do it differently. But keep repeating the action.
• And finally, being mindful and noticing when it goes well. When it does, celebrate success. You don’t have to go buy the bottle of Möet, although you can if you wish. A small fist pump will do just fine.

Plan How to Get Back on Track

When you stumble—and everyone stumbles—it’s easy to give up. “I may as well eat the rest of the cake, seeing as I’ve now had a slice.” In his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, Jeremy Dean helps us face the reality that we will not achieve perfection in our quest to build the habit. We will miss a moment, miss a day. That’s a given. What you need to know is what to do when that happens. Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down, the next step to recover is obvious. Make your habit a resilient system.

Put It All Together: The New Habit Formula

In the Box of Crayons’ coaching skills workshops, we’ve increasingly focused on helping participants define and commit to specific habits (rather than to the broad and rarely acted upon action list). To help people do that, we’ve drawn from some of the insights above and, after testing it out in the real world, created the New Habit Formula: a simple, straightforward and effective way of articulating and kickstarting the new behaviour you want.

There are three parts to the formula: identifying the trigger, identifying the old habit and defining the new behaviour. Here’s how it works.

Identifying the Trigger: When This Happens . . .

Define the trigger, the moment when you’re at a crossroads and could go down either the well-trod road of the old way of behaving or the Robert Frost path less trodden. If you don’t know what this moment is, you’re going to continually miss it and, with that, the opportunity
to change your behaviour.

The more specific you can make it, the better. Charles Duhigg says that there are just five types of triggers: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. You can see how you might use a number of them to define a very specific trigger. For instance, a trigger might be “When I’m feeling frustrated (emotional state) in my weekly meeting (time) with Bob (people) because he says ‘I haven’t really thought about it (action).’”

Identifying the Old Habit: Instead Of . . .

Articulate the old habit, so you know what you’re trying to stop doing. Again, the more specific you can make it, the more useful it’s going to be. For instance (and to carry on the example above), “I ask Bob, ‘Have you thought about X?’ and hope he’ll get the suggestion that I’ve disguised as a pseudo-question, all the while thinking bad thoughts about Bob.”

Defining the New Behaviour: I Will . . .

Define the new behaviour, one that will take sixty seconds or less to do. We know that the fundamental shift of behaviour you’re looking to accomplish through this book is to give less advice and show more curiosity. And what’s great about the Seven Essential Questions that you’re about to discover is that you can definitely ask each one in sixty seconds or less. So to finish our example, “I will ask Bob, ‘So what ideas do you have now?’”

Author's Bio: 

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. Box of Crayons is best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less.

Download free chapters of Michael's latest book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever here.