2016 Reframes

Ben Zelinskas

The New Year is a time for many of us to set new goals. Ambition is high in the beginning, however an overwhelming majority of us fall short of achievement. The reason: Accomplishing a goal requires behavior change, and behavior change is hard. 

As part of our first post in 2016, I’d like to offer insight into a helpful practice that can help us all achieve our resolutions. It’s called active questioning. It’s a daily self-monitoring regimen that measures effort, not results. It comes from the book Triggers, by Marshall Goldsmith (renowned executive coach), which I recently read for a research project pertaining to habits. Goldsmith discusses the triggers throughout our environments that produce behavior – and methods, like active questioning, for successfully changing these behaviors. 

Active questioning is one of Goldsmith’s go to tools for his work with top executives around the world. The Method: Ask yourself questions relevant to the behavior you want to change, then score your effort every night on a scale from 1-10. After scoring yourself for the week, calculate a weekly average and benchmark your performance week to week. Goldsmith doesn’t reveal a specific number of days or months for successful change to take root, just until the behavior comes natural. 

While his method seems trivial, the magic is in the way the daily questions are asked. Instead of asking yourself passive questions, “How healthy was my diet today?” ask yourself active questions, “Did I do my best to eat a healthy diet today?” Goldsmith says, “When it comes to self-reflection, asking yourself active questions rather than passive questions changes the focus of your answers – and empowers you to make changes you wouldn’t otherwise consider.” 

Adapted from the book "Triggers"

Adapted from the book "Triggers"


Goldsmith has data to back this up. Having conducted 79 studies, asking the same six standard questions to a total of 2,537 participants, results yield: 37% improvement on all six items, 65% improvement on at least four items and 89% improvement on at least one item.

From a psychology standpoint, Goldsmith’s system of active questioning makes a ton of sense. It’s leveraging a cognitive bias called framing - in which the brain reacts to a particular choice or stimulus (the stimulus here being a question) in different ways depending on how information is presented. By reframing the questions from passive to active, the participant becomes the accountable party for the behavior they want to change, and gains a sense of control and responsibility for their daily actions.  

Goldsmith’s method gives the user a psychological edge for success, but it still takes discipline, planning and realistic expectations from the individual seeking a change. 

Triggers expands beyond just active questioning. Goldsmith’s book elaborates on metrics of change, behavior models and engaging stories from his work with some of the most successful chief executives around the world. As described in the forward, “Goldsmith offers a personal playbook on how to achieve change in our lives, make it stick and become the person we want to be.”