024: Michael Bungay Stanier, Conversation 2: How to Create Habits, full transcript

February 14, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael leads a busy schedule and that led his one-month commitment to do a habit turn into a five-month one. So this became a really long-term change. And he wrote a book on long-term change. So you’re going to hear some deep experience descriptions of how to take on habits from someone who’s taken on many habits and in this case inadvertently took on a five-month one when he’s expected to take on a one-month one. So if you care about habits, this will inform your habit formation. I think that’s a big part of leadership. Also, at one point he calls the conventional wisdom on habit formation in his word “bollix”, so internally I cringed when he said that. But actually, when he explained it, it made a lot more sense. And I think of myself as someone who’s pretty good at picking up habits what with the 100000 burpees and the 3000 blog posts and all the cold showers and so forth. So listen on and hear more about habit formation and Michael’s experience with his.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment Podcast. It’s Josh, I’m here with Michael. How are you doing?

Michael: Good, Josh. How are you doing?

Joshua: I’m doing well. And this has been a tease because the last time we spoke was September, October?

Michael: Exactly.

Joshua: And you were talking about the tragedy of the commons. It’s a big challenge that capitalism has not been able to solve. Maybe you’ve gotten it? Maybe you forgot about it?

Michael: No, no. I’ve been busy. I’ve solved the tragedy of the commons over the last three months. No, not really.

Joshua: It’s published. And then there’s also a 100-mile food which I’m really curious. After that I was like, “You’ve thought about this”. You had a term that obviously it made sense as soon as you said it. I’m really curious how things have worked out.

Michael: So I haven’t solved the tragedy of the commons.

Joshua: Oh, well, talk to you later.

Michael: Probably nobody was holding their breath around, maybe he’s figured that went out. So my wife and I have been playing around with how to eat differently and you know as that thing I said in the previous episode that you know first half of you like with the podcast you know we’ve had time to analyze if we were being vegetarian and we were vegetarians for quite a long time and we were pescatarians so we added fish to the diet. Then I had a bacon sandwich and then that’s the gateway drug of course, I was like bacon’s not really a meat. And then a while ago I mean years and years ago we went to a steak house together for the first time, we’ve been a couple for 15 years, maybe longer and we never sat down and even stayed together. We both went, “Oh my God, this is fantastic.” And so we didn’t cook meat at home but when we went out to kind of meat was a consideration on the menu.

And partly inspired by the podcast, partly by the fact that you know the new year came and went and that’s always a moment for what am I doing and what I want to be when I grow up. We’ve not eliminated meat from our diet. We’ve significantly decreased meat from our diet because it moved from being an occasional treat to a pretty regular treat. Now that’s… I failed to follow up on the 100-mile food thing, I mean I think that that is an interesting idea and I admire people who pull that off but I am not able to do that in part, Josh, just because I’m also in the midst of a travel JAG where I’m on the road a lot. So the capacity to stop and go, “Alright. So here I am in Dallas. How do I source 100-mile food while I am in Dallas or wherever?” It’s just too logistically tricky for me to manage.

Joshua: So, OK. So I’m curious about the meat then. When you and your wife started, I just want to get the context here, when you said that you guys were out and getting stake and started having meat out, how long ago was that? I mean how long you’ve been in that pattern?

Michael: So let’s say that we spent the first five years together as a couple as vegetarians and then the next ten years as pescatarians, fish and vegetables. And then the next ten years as meat eaters and increasingly eating more rather than less meat.

Joshua: OK, so that’s a total of twenty-five years?

Michal: Yep.

Joshua: Congratulations! That’s a long time.

Michael: It is a long time. It’s a remarkably long time but both were very, very surprised to have people as young as us could have been in a relationship for 25 years but…

Joshua: Hey, you look like 25.

Michael: Exactly, it’s a combination of voodoo and sacrificing small animals is what allows me to get there.

Joshua: I hope that what’s happened now has augmented and added to it not like led to any strife. I’ll get to that in a minute of how it’s changing interaction if it has. So it’s been 10 years that you guys have been doing it so it’s a big change. I mean it’s a longtime pattern that you’re changing. Were you thinking about that before? Did this prompt new thoughts entirely or was it kind of like, “Oh, maybe, yeah, maybe now’s the time”?

Michael: You know I am going to say it feels less of a big change, just more of a realization of scope creep. You know the concept of scope creep which is you start a project you know “Why don’t we try and achieve this?”, and then a little bit into the project somebody else says, “Why don’t we try and do this as well?” and you go, “Yeah, that’s actually a good idea. We should.” And then you try and do that and before you know it the contain thing you are trying to do is much larger and messier and kind of uncontrollable. Let’s say that over those last ten years we had a bit of scope creep around what our standards were about, how often and when and where we ate meat. So in some ways you could look at that going back to the original [unintelligible] around. You know we eat meat less than once a week, more than once a month and it’s a treat rather than, “Oh, it’s the [unintelligible] whole thing.”

So if we go out to a restaurant rather me going, “I’m in a restaurant. So it’s steak time.” which is you know what it turned into.

Joshua: That was the creep.

Michael: Yeah, that’s the creep. Now it’s, “I’m in a restaurant so what are my fish options? What are my vegetarian options?’ And then occasionally we’ll go, “You know what? I have lamb chops and I love lamb chops because I’m Australian and I grew up on lamb chops so I don’t get to see them that often and of course if we don’t cook them. I’m going to have lamb chops as my monthly meat treat.”

Joshua: So it’s like now you’re returning to it being a conscious choice based on the values that you intend rather than just what’s easiest?

Michael: Exactly.

Joshua: This is a microcosm of this is it, like this is what’s going on.

Michael: Right.

Joshua: Alright. So how did it play out in detail? Are there any stories of how you’re out and you’re like… How did it actually happen?

Michael: Honestly, it was my wife and I were together over the Christmas break and you know I think it was me but it might have been her, I don’t who said, “Hey, how are you feeling about how much meat we’re eating these days?” And she goes, “Yeah, probably I’m eating too much.” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m feeling like that too.” “What should we do about that?” And I’m like, “Do we want to go vegetarian?” and we are both like, “Not really.” “How about pescatarian?” And we’re like, well, we both love fish. She cooks fish beautifully. I cook it okay some of the times. She’s from the east coast of Canada so there’s a kind of fish eating culture there. So we’re like, “That could be good.” And I’m like, “But you know what? There are times where we are just having a lamb chop or piece of steak or sometimes a burger is the thing.” You know that’s the thing that makes you happy in that moment. So we kind of just… It wasn’t really, it didn’t feel like a big deal it was just to your point a kind of mindfulness moment where let’s make an active declaration about what our values would say around how often we want to eat meat and then let’s try and find an agreement around and let’s do it like that.

Joshua: Is it fair to say that this is so… You’re living by your values more?

Michael: So I’m hesitating because I’m like, “Well, what value would I associate this decision with?” And it’s a combination of potentially values, [unintelligible] is much more than I am influenced by animal welfare. It’s also just a health issue. So it’s like one of my values is to try and live a healthy life. You know I work out and I exercise and I play soccer and the like while there’s just plenty of information that says you know if you eat too much red meat, you die earlier. So yeah, so it was kind of influenced by values but also just the practicality of this is how you live a better life, a healthier life. You’re mindful about how you eat.

Joshua: So it’s a healthy and deliberate conscious not mindless but mindful…

Michael: Yes.

Joshua: And it sounds like…You know what? I talked to Dan Pink. He took on a similar thing and one of the things that came out was that the story was that there wasn’t much of a story, it was pretty easy to do. It was not that big of a deal and I feel like maybe that’s your story as well it’s not that big, it’s like “could have done it earlier.”

Michael: I think what you’re saying is Dan Pink and I are both equally underwhelming. Yes. This is fine because he is a cool guy. I think part of it is around… I don’t know what Dan is taking on or what his challenge was but…

Joshua: A lot less meat. It almost went to zero. He didn’t… I think he was going to go to zero but it was close to zero of eating meat.

Michael: Right. Yeah. You know some of it and this is just good habit building science which you know about and lots of your listeners will know about it as well which is don’t try and take on too much at once. You know sometimes you can get to that the same because you know it’s relatively soon after the new year you get to the old, “Right. Amazing. I’m going to give up meat. I’m going to exercise twice a day. I’m going to meditate. I’m going to write to my mother and say I love her every week. Wear a collar every day. I am going to tell my brothers I love them. I’m going to talk to my wife and I don’t have kids but if I had kids I would appreciate them and acknowledge them as the parent I want to be. Like I am going to change everything! Will write another book. I’m going to take up boxing, I’m going to appear and you know everything.” And of course, it just crushes you.

And here in this case rather than trying to change everything, we are trying to change our thing. In the context of exercise, I read once that you know the best exercise regime for you is the one you’ll actually do. And it’s like the intention around you know this podcast in general which is the best process the best commitment to reduce your carbon footprint is in the end the one that you’ll actually do is far better than the bigger impact one that you don’t quite get around to doing.


Joshua: So I feel like this is coming from…So your change here was you are experienced at taking on changes, coaching other people through it, coaching yourself through it, and coaching people to coach others to do it. And I want to ask you something. A lot of people say like to pick up a new habit takes 27 days or something like that. I think that there are skills involved with picking up a habit that the more habits you pick up, the more skilled you are at picking up habits. And so after a while if you’re good at it, you can pick up a habit like right away.

Michael: Yeah… I don’t buy that. I’ve never had it framed like that. And so, but here’s what I know. So take it for what it’s worth. First of all, that whole you build a habit in 21 days is basically a load of all bollix. The origin of that was actually a plastic surgeon who noticed that about three weeks after somebody had a nose job they sort of get used to their new nose. They stopped seeing their noses weird in the mirror and somehow that got twisted to become if you do something for 21 days, it becomes a habit. So no scientific rigor to that. You know the signs that they’ve looked at and of course so much of it depends on who you are, what your habit is and all of that sort of stuff but you had to put a number to the days it takes to make a new habit is posted to 64 something like that, 64 days practice.

I think what’s absolutely true is that if you understand the science of habit building, the [unintelligible] science, it becomes easier for you to set yourself up for success. It becomes easier for you to get back on the path when you stumble and fall off the path and you are like, “I know what’s happening.” Like I know for instance, there’s something called the Hell whatever, What the Hell Effect. It sounds something like this. Like I’m going to eat easily, you know I’m going to eat healthily. So you have a day where you eat healthily, have a glass of water with some lemon juice in it for breakfast, you have a small piece of lean protein over salad for lunch. You have a piece of something around for dinner with steamed vegetables. At 8 o’clock you have just one small spoon of ice cream from the fridge. At 8:15 you have another couple of spoons of ice cream. At 8:30 you go, “Screw it up, had ice cream now. I may as well eat that entire tub of ice cream because the day is lost.”

Let’s go though What the Hell Effect. If you know about it you are like, “Don’t fall for that” because you are, “Okay, I had three spoons of ice cream but stop now.” So I do think you’re right that there there’s a way that if you understand the science of habit building, you can more likely construct the structure, you can more likely arrange the environment that will make it likely you stick to that. But there’s still just some wiring that needs to happen in the brain which is purely a question of time and repetition. Because if your old habits occurred in these neural pathways and connections in the brain they’re very never really go away. Once you’ve got them, you got them. You got to build the new pathway that is stronger so that when you do something a new pathway with a better habit fires and that’s how the brain operates. That is a question of time.

Joshua: And practice, rehearsal…

Michael: Yeah.

Joshua: So in your case you probably you know a lot of the science, you know a lot of the practice, the art and so…

Michael: A little bit. Yeah.

Joshua: OK. I’m also curious. I said I want to come back to the things with your wife. You made this a project together. A lot of times other people are friction and it sounds like you made it not to… You used the relationship to make it a thing together. How did the relationship evolve and change? How did it affect things? Did it or maybe it didn’t?

Michael: It didn’t really. I mean we’ve been a couple for 25 years so we know our patterns, we know how we work together, we know the things that we love about each other, we know the things that wind each other up about each other. There’s still kind of things you find out about your partner after 25 years which you are like, “I did not expect you to say that or do that. Or what the…? Who are you?” But for the most [unintelligible] I know who you are. So there wasn’t any great surprises around that. You know what we’re now trying to do is to not collude with each other to fall off the wagon because there’s a way you can go, “Look, I know we had steak on Tuesday and it’s Friday today. But, gosh, how did you feel about the stake tonight?” And the other one goes, “Wow. I know we shouldn’t but come on, because it’s you and it’s me, let’s just do it.” And then you kind of collude into letting each other off.

Joshua: I think the classic is when the waiter comes and says, “Would you like dessert?” and one says, “Well, I’ll split it with…” Like that. Yeah, yeah. Let’s spread this around.

Michael: Yeah, I did. I didn’t order it, you ordered it so it’s not really calories for me sort of thing.

Joshua: And I really got it for you but I’ll have some of it. Yeah.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. So that’s the thing for us to keep an eye out on is how long do we keep this up before we slip in some way.

Joshua: And it wasn’t an issue that… You and I had a conversation and then she didn’t agree to things. But you knew what she was up for and so forth.

Michael: Yeah, I mean I could have said to her, “Let’s do the 100-day food thing I never did.” And she would have gone, “Ah, that sounds like a lot of logistics. So I’m happy for us to take that on. But you’re in charge of it.” And I’m like, “That’s fair enough.” Gosh, that’s another reason why this may not happen because it’s too hard for me to do.

Joshua: OK. So now what about you… Like we talked about what happened… Emotionally is this like something that made you happy, it made you sad, it made you fulfilled or…

Michael: I’m content. Yeah. I don’t walk around the house fist pumping that I am eating somewhat less meat. But you know I think it’s a decision based on as you said values. I think it’s better for me and better for the world that I eat less meat. Because you know me eating too much red meat is proven to be bad for you and cattle farming is not an environmentally friendly process. And yeah. So I’d say a warm fuzzy glow of contentment is what’s going on.

Joshua: OK. So you know you’re joking about you and Dan Pink and not that big of a deal but I’m trying to get different accurate stories for people who are listening that it’s not all the same. It’s not going to be like fist pumping all the time. Some people didn’t have effects like that. Some people have effects of like, “I didn’t like it.” That’s rare. There’s only one person so far who has had that but it’s been there and I’m not I’m not trying to give you a Disney whitewash here but I think for a lot of people like maybe they’re viewing this as a big deal and maybe seeing that maybe it’s not going to be a big deal.

Michael: You know I think it depends. I think that almost anything is possible if you build the structures around you just to give you the best chance of success. So to what we were talking about earlier on, whatever the challenge’s that you choose to take on because you’ve listened to Joshua’s podcast make sure that challenge you got a good chance of actually completing so you’ve got enough motivation, you’ve got some sort of external reason why you’re doing it, it’s not just for you, you build it into a habit so you know how to structure your day, you create an environment that gives you a better chance of doing it and a better chance of you not falling off the wagon wherever your wagon happens to be. And you know if it matters enough and you help yourself by building some of other disciplines around this helps me build and start and keep and sustain a habit, then you’re in with a chance.

Joshua: You just lay down a lot of solid stuff about habit formation. Should people … Ok, they’re going to go and rewind and listen to that several times. Can they also pick up a book as a resource from you to get that solid?

Michael: Well, so I have a book couple of years old called The Coaching Habit. And so obviously people can pick that up from Amazon for ten bucks or maybe a couple bucks more than that. And the first chapter in fact is kind of my encapsulation of all the latest science around habit building and there are five or six disciplines that help you build better habits so certainly that. If you’re like, “I like Michael but twelve bucks – that just feels outrageous”, if you go to thecoachinghabit.com, so that’s a website dedicated to the book thecoachinghabit.com, if you scroll down a little bit, you’ll see that there’s an invitation to download the first three chapters of the book. It’s like the first 30 percent maybe. So you get that first chapter which is about habit building for free. So if you want to do that, you can do that as well.

Joshua: All right. So everyone should start by rewinding and listening a few times, download the chapters and then read the whole book.

Michael: Perfect.

Joshua: So I’m sensitive to your time and you just gave a message to readers before the book of like how, not readers but listeners, well hopefully readers listen too. Actually, before wrapping up with that, I want to ask since it generally went well, are you thinking about doing something more with that? Is that like if something went well small, maybe it’ll go even better or bigger?

Michael: So I’m going to say not yet. So we’re only a month into this less meat piece and one of the things I know about habit building is don’t try and take on too much at one time, you know I like I said before. So while I’m committed to do this kind of get this into our bones and into our rhythm about how we work and then we might soften reflecting and say, “What’s next the next thing we do that reduces our footprint on this planet?”

Joshua: So I invite you, it’s up to you, but if something like that comes up, I’d love to hear and make that available to listeners. If it’s not, you know keep it private if you want, but if you if you’re up for sharing, let me know.

Michael: OK.

Joshua: And then to wrap up any other messages to the listeners of what worked, what didn’t work or what you want to share or anything like that?

Michael: Well, I think it’s a great question to ask, which is what your podcast provokes in me, Josh, which is around so “What’s the battle that you think is worth fighting for?” I will say, Josh, when you are, “So, what’s the next thing?” one of the things that I’ve got conscience over the holiday break is the issue about disposable plastic. You know just how many water bottles end up in the dumps and then in the waters and they break down and become tiny bits of plastic and that might be something for me. I’m trying to find causes, those things that kind of make me go, I don’t want to just intellectually get that. I want to kind of physically have a reaction to it, I need to [unintelligible] something about it. So I think to the people listening in for whatever this is worth it’s like it’s worth picking a cause, it’s worth making sure you’re picking a cause that actually means something to you.

Joshua: So start with a meaning, start with…

Michael: Yeah.

Joshua: Yeah. Well, thank you. Let’s wrap up there and I look forward to meeting next time we are in the same city or something like that. And then if you have a new challenge that you are up for sharing, I’d love to hear back about.

Michael: Josh, thanks for having me back.

Joshua: Thank you. I’ll talk to you later.


Again, success involved turning the community what often creates problems, a lot of people out there are saying, “If I do X but other people don’t, it doesn’t matter what I do.” Well, he turned his community into a teammate, in this case his wife. And the story again is that it’s not that big of a deal. He could have done this a long time before but he did it and what the result was for him personally he felt warm and fuzzy. So you can probably do this. If you think I should only do big things, it’s hard to do the big things if you haven’t done the small things, if they’re getting in the way. Or from another perspective, doing the small things enables doing the big things. So I want to reiterate. He has great experience on habit building, in editing this I listened to this many, many times and I have to say the part just before where I say, “Well, you just said a whole lot” and I get him to tell about the books, I recommend listening to that part over and over again because it’s got a lot of value in it. Well, you can get the books too. So I recommend taking on a personal challenge to enable you to do the small things and then the big things.

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