Building Habit That Matters

5 essential components to hacking new habits

I am thrilled to bring you Michael Bungay Stanier’s guest article. He is the author of The Coaching Habit, a book that has added great value to my coaching practice. Michael is also the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work.

Did you know that you may not be in charge of your waking up this morning? Your behavior is driven more by habit than your conscious mind!

Building Habit That Matters

It is less surprising when you realize that a Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of your waking is habitual.

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 misinformation that grows particularly lush at the turn of each year, when resolutions are in the air.

Fortunately, there has been an increase in grounded findings, based on neuroscience and behavioral economics. These have helped establish a better, clear 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.

Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy would explain. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.” ~ Charles Duhigg

1. 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 the old behavior. Getting cleat doesn’t mean 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 the big picture in his book Zen Habit: 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 new-born daughter. So think less about what your habit can do for you. Think more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about.

2. 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 behavior, 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.

For example, a trigger like “At the team meeting” becomes more usable when it’s “When I’m asked to check in at the team meeting”. It 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.

3. A Micro-Habit: 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 ling to do, your big brain will find a way to hack your good intentions. B. J. Fogg’s work suggests that you should define your new habit as a micro-habit. This should require 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.

4. 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 the success. A small fist pump will do just fine.

5. Plan How To Get Back On Track

When you stumble – and everyone stumbles – its 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.

What you need to know us 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 habit a resilient system.

We are creatures of habit, and from our habits we create ourselves, our lives and the world around us.” ~ Michele Milan

Q: What habit do you need to hack to make your living more fruitful? Have your say by clicking here.

Photo: Tom Beetz

Certified Professional Coach, Communication Specialist & Author

I help motivated but overwhelmed individuals and organizations regain their purpose to lead so they can focus on what matters most to build a transformational legacy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sandra Allen Lovelace

    I need to add physical exercise to my daily routine, but the computer seems to have me chained to my chair. Gotta ponder these steps to break that tether. Thank you!

    • You are most welcome @disqus_pELTK5glFs:disqus! First, make your vow and have someone hold you accountable for it. Then on to “Step 2″… All the best!