I wrote this for Coach.me coaches as an example of how to convert an existing methodology for native digital coaching. I used one of my favorite existing methodologies because it’s simple and it’s awesome: Tiny Habits.
Digital coaching means coaching via text message, chat, or email without the benefit of the synchronous back and forth and non-verbal cues that you get in person or over Skype.
Digital coaching allows for amazing innovations in scale and accessibility — but only if you are willing to adapt to the format.
I’ve chosen Tiny Habits because I understand it relatively well based on what information is available online, although I’m not an expert or a certified Tiny Habits coach. All Tiny Habits IP is owned by BJ Fogg and it’s important for people reading this not to claim they’re a Tiny Habits coach just because you read this piece. (If you want the Tiny Habits label, get certified.)
More than anything, I mean for this to be an example that you can use to translate your own methodology into digital coaching.
Moving from Offline to Digital
What most offline coaches accomplish in an hour of face to face, digital coaches need to accomplish in a few hundred words.
Digital coaching clients tend to be more ready to take action; they’ve already put some thought into what that action is, and they’re eager to jump in and get started.
Here are the major differences in how you should approach digital coaching.
- Move from upfront assessment to ongoing assessment.
- Acknowledge the lack of non-verbal cues.
- Embrace the opportunity for small, regular contacts (daily vs. weekly).
Elements of Digital Coaching
To convert a coaching methodology into a framework you can use for digital coaching, it’s useful to create sample scripts for each element.
Below are the most common elements of a digital coaching methodology.
Default Sequence. Most coaching methodologies have multiple steps and some flexibility about how to sequence those steps. You define a default sequence so that you can talk about the edge cases where you would deviate from that default.
Introduction. This is your chance to build trust and set expectations.
First Assessment. Every client has a back story and a unique context. Your initial assessment allows you to personalize your coaching. But text is not a good format for a full & complete diagnosis. You’ll be adjusting as you go.
Ongoing Assessment. You do a light assessment on day one, but that assessment gets revised throughout the coaching relationship.
Interrogative Strategy. Nearly all methodologies use questions. Sometimes it’s to clarify and crystalize a plan. Other times it’s to draw out deeper understanding or motivation.
Motivational Strategy. How and when will a new behavior be reinforced? What is the role of the coach as a force for accountability or inspiration?
Skill Development Strategy. Does the client develop new skills along the way? What are those skills and how are they taught?
Environmental Strategy. Do external factors help the client achieve their goal? How can the client design and change those factors?
Leveling Strategy. At what point do the expectations of the client increase? Does the client ever graduate?
Tiny Habits has a very firm start. The client needs to pick a habit and then anchor that habit to an existing habit. That’s called the habit recipe.
We’ll get into all the tactics below, but in general the default sequence for Tiny Habits coaching looks like this:
- Choose a habit.
- Anchor that habit to an existing habit. This is called the habit recipe, for example: “After sitting down at my desk (anchor), I will write down my priorities for the day (habit).”
- Evaluate the anchor and switch anchors if the original does not work.
- Begin monitoring the impact of the tiny habit. Normally the habit is the first step. Is that first step leading to larger successes?
- Learn to celebrate each successful practice of the habit.
- Strengthen the ability of the client to achieve the habit through a mixture of environmental design and skill repetition.
- Level up by attaching the original habit to a new anchor (technically considered an additional tiny habit), by picking an adjacent habit that helps achieve the greater goal, or by choosing a new unrelated Tiny Habit.
- Repeat, but with increased emphasis on Tiny Habits as a life skill.
Typically, you send a welcome message before knowing anything about your client. (In Coach.me, you setup a default welcome message for either all of your clients or on a per-goal basis)
This is your introduction to your client and is your first chance to build trust, remove anxiety, and provide value.
It’s also often your only chance.
Clients develop trust when they see that their coach has a plan. Later trust comes from knowing that you are listening and helping your client achieve their goals.
Anxiety about the coaching experience is typically caused by lack of clarity and can be removed quickly by giving clear answers.
Last, you can often provide value by leading with an insightful question or exercise.
Here is what a sample welcome message for a Tiny Habits coach might look like:
Thank you for signing up for Tiny Habits coaching.
You can send me a message at any time and I’ll respond as quickly as I can. I make sure to check in with all my clients by 3pm Pacific Time.
The Tiny Habits process starts with picking a habit and then writing out a habit recipe. Recipes always anchor the new habit to an existing habit. Recipes are written in the form:
AFTER I ________, I will __________
Together we will work on your first habit recipe and turn that into a Tiny Habit. Afterward, you can decide to continue on with a new habit, or simply graduate. I would recommend at least two weeks per habit.
There are a couple of things to note about this intro:
- You build trust by exposing your process.
- You create value by teaching. The concept of a habit recipe is one that the client will carry for the rest of their life.
- The message clarifies when you’ll check-in. Clients report feeling abandoned or ignored (i.e. they take it personally) when they don’t hear from you. This is completely solved by setting clear expectations.
- Last, the message covers length of engagement. Most successful coaching is open ended, and that’s true of Tiny Habits. Succeeding in one habit leads to adopting additional adjacent habits. However, clients crave certainty. You can provide that by picking an early milestone to shoot for.
Many of the top Coach.me coaches start their clients out with a survey. Common questions include Why do you want to achieve this? How will your life be better? What have you already tried?
This first assessment also helps set the tone for the coaching relationship. This is completely anecdotal, but I’ve observed that having a thoughtful and explicit diagnosis achieves the following:
- Creates client trust around the idea that the coach has a plan and that their coaching advice is going to be personalized.
- Gets upfront client investment at a time when they are most motivated. Clients seem more likely to participate in coaching after responding to meaningful questions.
However, in Tiny Habits, the initial goal is simply to adopt a habit recipe. The following questions could be part of your welcome message. As a coach, you need to decide how far away from that recipe to start your coaching. Do you start with the bigger goal? Or trust your client to write their first recipe all by themselves?
To get started, I need you to answer these two questions:
1. What habit will you work on? How will your life be different if you adopt this habit?
2. What are existing habits that you could use as an anchor? Pick one and write it as a habit recipe.
By asking question #1, about the greater goal, you’re setting yourself up to personalize your later coaching. For example, once the original Tiny Habit is adopted, you’ll have the opportunity to suggest related habits.
The whole point of doing a diagnosis is so that you can personalize your coaching.
No matter how your client answers, your response must demonstrate that you have heard them. Repeat the client’s words back to them and then confirm that you’ve heard correctly.
Great first habit recipe. Your anchor of writing down your priorities as soon as you turn on your computer is a good one that fits well with your goal of getting more meaningful work done each day.
In Tiny Habits, the first thing to look out for is a bad habit recipe. You may have to do some coaching on your client’s response.
Coaching could mean asking the client to rewrite the habit recipe. But it could also mean sharing your concerns, but suggesting the habit recipe be put to a real world test by trying it out the next day.
If the test fails, meaning the anchor didn’t trigger the habit, then you can coach the client for a better habit recipe at that point.
Your diagnosis response is also a good place for more expectation setting. This is the first time you can frame your process as something that’s personalized to the client.
Now that you have a habit recipe, your job is to test this tomorrow. We’re going to track your progress in the app. Tracking helps you build this into a long term habit and helps me see your progress.
But remember, this is a test. If your anchor doesn’t trigger your habit, then we need to talk about this and adjust tomorrow. Refining your habit recipe is the first phase of Tiny Habits.
After that we’ll work on how to celebrate the Tiny Habits way, how to design your environment so that this is habit sticks, and trouble shoot anything that comes up. Does this make sense? What questions do you have?
As a client progresses toward their goal, you’re going to see more clearly the challenges they face and the strengths and weaknesses of the early decisions they’ve made about how to achieve their goal.
In TinyHabits the most likely struggles are:
- An inconsistent anchor. It may turn out that the client is failing at their tiny habit because the anchor habit is not truly habitual and consistent.
- Habit is too big. Many clients will resist trivializing their habit. They’ll insist that 30:00 on an exercise bike is a tiny habit, when merely driving toward the gym is a more appropriate habit.
- Wrong habit. People want to know that their effort is going to be rewarded. If a client is succeeding in their habit but not seeing a return on that investment in terms of progress toward a larger goal, then the client will lose motivation.
In most cases, the assessment can be performed by simply putting the tiny habit to a real world test. If the client is struggling with the habit, then you will need to intervene.
There’s an ego in every coach that wants to be the expert who provides perfect answers. But, with humility, we all learn that it’s better when we let the client provide the answers.
This is the domain of interrogative strategies. How much coaching can you do by asking insightful questions?
The main role of interrogation is in clarifying a person’s goal and plan so that edge cases are pre-decided. I believe BJ calls this “crispifying.”
You do this right up front by asking for an anchor. Here are some other clarifying questions:
What days of the week does this happen?
Does this anchor habit occur more than once in the day? Do you mean to perform the habit every time or just on the first occurrence of the anchor?
You can also put the client in charge of making corrections. When habit strategies fail, they often fail because of having the wrong anchor. You can improve the anchor with a good question.
I think there is too much time between your anchor of sitting at your desk and actually putting your priorities into Evernote. What are some anchors that happen reliably every day and are closer to the moment when you want to write down your priorities?
There are a number of other moments in Tiny Habits where the client can be the source of their own solutions:
You’re ready to level up. What are some other anchors we could attach this habit to?
In Tiny Habits, you train the client to celebrate after each win.
After you write down your priorities, raise your arms and say, “Good Job, Johnny!
However, this is an awkward thing to do and your advice usually needs to be paired with some context.
In Tiny Habits, we train people to perform actual celebrations after performing their habit. This helps lock the habit in. Positive reinforcement has a physical effect in the brain, helping build the neurological connections that make this a permanent habit. [Editors note: I’m just guessing on how this gets explained in the Tiny Habit program.]
By default, coaches also play an accountability role. Being accountable to you is part of the client’s motivational strategy. Accountability is a powerful form of motivation, and is why you should continue to follow up with a client even if they don’t seem to be responding. If that happens, try some of our scripts for handling AWOL clients.
Skill Development Strategy
Tiny Habits is a life skill that most people can learn and then apply on their own.
For that reason, you should be sharing the reasons for each step.
- The role of anchors as triggers for new habits.
- The tips and tricks for picking a good anchor.
- How a Tiny Habit can be a first step toward a big accomplishment.
- The impact of celebrations in locking in the new habit.
- Environmental design as a strategy for reducing the need for willpower or effort.
- The philosophical emphasis on tackling ability before motivation.
In this strategy, you look for things in the environment that can work for or against the client. These are one time changes that have permanent impacts.
For example, a “After I leave work, I will go to the gym” strategy requires a steady supply of clean workout clothes and a gym membership. We would consider both of those part of the environmental design of the habit.
The first part of the leveling strategy is simply monitoring the effect of the Tiny Habit. The Tiny Habit is supposed to be the first action which often triggers an optional deeper action.
For example, in floss one tooth, most people will floss more than one tooth.
So start by monitoring as a way to level up the client. For example:
Good job with the “Write down your priorities” Tiny Habit. The habit that we want to build 100% consistency on is writing the priorities down. Following those priorities is optional, but is still something we should monitor. When you check in with me, could you let me know whether you followed the priorities?
The other time to level up is when a client has mastered their Tiny Habit.
If the habit is important to them (hopefully it is), you can either expand it to new anchors or to adjacent habits that are related to their greater goal.
Leveling up to adjacent anchors means expanding the habit to cover travel, multiple occurrences throughout the day, social outings, or weekends. Each habit/anchor pairing would be considered a separate Tiny Habit.
For adjacent habits, look to expand the habit to achieve a greater goal. Imagine a Tiny Habit progression: Write down priorities, block off time for priorities in my calendar, work on priority listed in calendar.
Or course, there’s also the option that the client may want to graduate, use you just for accountability, or try an unrelated habit.