Approaching the halfway point of the year, has prompted me to reflect on the many commitments leaders make at the beginning of the calendar year – fresh from holidays and the festive season and brimming with new year spirit and change-orientated resolutions.
“I will be more strategic; I will spend more time with my team members one on one; I will deliver difficult feedback to help people grow; et al”. Yet as time passes our well intentioned commitments often slip away into our automatic habits.
“The chains of habit are too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken” Warren Buffet
Why is it so difficult to hold true to these commitments, to create the changes, to make new habits? This question drove me to pick up as many books and articles on the topic of habits as I could find (please feel free to share any that you have come across), and it’s opened up a whole new perspective on my own habits and human behaviour.
As I pull myself out from pages upon pages of reading, I thought I’d share some of the key points as well as some advice on how to actually create new habits… and stick with them.
First and foremost, there is a pervasive belief that if we ‘just do it’, hold our self-control and exert our willpower it will be enough to change our behaviour. The science tells us that this isn’t true! The way we can really change is to embed habits into our daily routines, so we act in automatic ways rather than grit our teeth and hope to resist or sustain a particular behaviour. The challenge is we often don’t realise how powerful the invisible forces of our daily habits are on our day-to-day choices and activity. For example, it has become the norm for many of us to passively react to looking and responding to emails but it sucks up so much of our time and mental capacity to switch in and out of this task. An alternative is to manage email/message notifications and respond in dedicated time windows which would allow you to focus on deep work that will take much less of your cognitive load if you do it without interruptions!
Where to start?
So, to start, there are three things to note that are vital set up points:
- Forgive yourself if you’ve not changed a behaviour when you’ve wanted – It’s normal and totally human. Willpower is a diminishing resource for all of us.
- Our brains love to conserve energy so wherever possible they create habits quickly which are often hard to shake…think old dog new tricks, old habits die hard…this stuff is all true. It’s true because our pre-frontal cortex has limited capacity to sustain a new behaviour but our basil ganglia (the habit-forming part of our brain) is happy to kick into gear and do things the way we’ve always done them.
- All those people who seem super disciplined do not have a magic power that you don’t have! Let me repeat this one, the people you think of as super disciplined don’t have anything special that you don’t have except that they have built behaviours into their routine that look hard to you. The research tells us they have created the conditions in their brain so that they seek out and feel rewarded by that seemingly ‘hard’ behaviour. Their brain is making positive rather than negative associations when they anticipate it. Essentially, they have created a different automatic habit loop in their brains that mean that they don’t experience the temptation (to eat the chocolate, not exercise etc) at all!
If not willpower, then what?
Ok, that’s step one, but if willpower isn’t the key, then what is your best bet to build new habits? Here are 10 tips which have been sourced from all the latest research on the topic that you could try.
Start by picking a habit you want to adopt, quit, or change and find ways to embed some of the following ideas into your efforts, I’ve used the example of creating a habit of doing strategic thinking twice a week to bring these tips to life:
1. MAKE IT FUN
Consider: A small thing you do to make it fun?
Logic: As the wisest of the wise (Mary Poppins) once said “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun and *SNAP* the job’s a game!” If the thing is fun, our reward centres light up and we will be drawn to the activity next time. Even the anticipation of fun will release dopamine in our brains. It’s the anticipation of the reward, not the fulfilment of it that drives us to action.
Think ‘want’ not ‘should’ – remember language matters!
Example: Allow myself to splurge on the most delicious Japanese takeaway once a week when I do some uninterrupted strategic thinking work. This means I will look forward to it!
2. MAKE IT EASY
Consider: How can you remove obstacles to this behaviour?
Logic: Find a way to make the path of least resistance the one you want to take. Remove temptations as resisting them takes a lot of energy. Think about what gets in your way of doing your desired behaviour – maybe you could do exercise first thing in the morning or remove temping food from the cupboard. It’s human nature to follow the ‘Law of Least Effort’ – just as in science, the path followed between two points will always be the path requiring the least energy. Fit your desired activity into the current flow of your life – remove the points of friction.
Example: Block my diary and write ‘no meetings please’ so others don’t hijack the time
3. TAKE BITE SIZES
Consider: What small, achievable step can you take to move you towards this behaviour?
Logic: We are more likely to stick to a new behaviour if it is small and sticking to it is the key. Small changes practised consistently punch above their weight in impact. Start by incorporating the 2 minute rule – when you start a new habit it should take less than 2 minutes to do.
Example: Start with 30 minutes once a week
4. START ON A MEANINGFUL DATE
Consider: When could you start – draw a line in the sand – before and after?
Logic: Starting a change at a milestone moment can help. Katy Milkman from Wharton calls this ‘The Fresh Start Effect’. New Years, 1st Day of the month/season, your birthday creates a mind shift. You can see the ‘old me’ and the ‘new me’ That’s why ‘Feb Fast’ and ‘Dry July’ are so successful.
Example: Set it up in my diary at the beginning of the month – as a fresh start!
5. FIND WAYS TO FEEL SUCCESSFUL. INSTANTANEOUS GRATIFICATION WORKS!
Consider: What can you do to mark progress and success in the moment?
Logic: Create real time feedback loops that measure and celebrate progress and success. This provides us with a hit of dopamine that motivates us to stay on the path. What is immediately rewarded is usually repeated. What is punished is usually avoided. If you receive immediate gratification, you are much more likely to lock in and repeat the behaviour.
Example: Share my thinking (even half baked) with my boss and a trusted colleague each week to get their ideas, feedback and validation.
6. STACK AND BUNDLE
Consider: Is there a current ‘cue’ (think time, people, place) you can use to trigger the behaviour?
Logic: Use a current ‘cue’ that consistently triggers a behaviour to also trigger the new behaviour – this means you are more likely to notice and act on the cue.
Example: Always my ‘strategic thinking’ work directly before our regular team meeting which is Thurs 2pm. This will mean I have some good ideas to share with the team if they ask.
7. REPLACE, DON’T QUIT
Consider: What can you do instead of the behaviour you want to stop?
Logic: Doing nothing is hard because there is no satisfaction or fun in just ‘quitting’ something (not in the moment anyway). So, it is easier to replace a bad habit with something else. Ice cream with a cup of sweet tea for example.
Example: The thing I will be ‘stopping’ to make time for strategic thinking is checking email – I’m going to turn off notifications for this time window and tell my team I’m doing so.
8. REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT, THEN REPEAT!
Consider: How often will you repeat the behaviour? When exactly?
Logic: Repetition can help change our neural pathways and locks in a new behaviour as automatic. Remember Hebbs law – ‘The cells that wire together, fire together’ – the more you repeat something the more that your brain knows what to do without effort or energy. After enough repeats it becomes the path requiring the least effort.
Example: I’ll do it every Thursday 12 noon.
9. AUTOMATION ELIMINATES TEMTATION
Consider: Is there a single change you can make to eliminate temptation or lock in the behaviour?
Logic: Where you can automate through one-off choices, do it! This means you don’t have to resist temptation as often. This applies to all sorts of habits such as locking in savings plans, pre-ordering groceries or meals, using smaller dinner plates, unsubscribing from time consuming emails, deleting apps & games or removing phones from the bedroom to name a few!
Example: This is a hard one – most likely the best tool is to pre-set the turning off of notifications. Also closing Microsoft Teams, Email and putting my phone out of reach!
10. THE ANTICIPATION NOT THE FULFILMENT OF REWARDS DRIVES ACTION
Consider: What can make you desire to do the behaviour more?
Logic: Habits are a dopamine driven feedback loop. Every behaviour that is habit forming is associated with a dopamine release BUT dopamine is not only released when we do the behaviour, it is released when we anticipate the behaviour.
The big insight here is that you control whether something is rewarding based on how you think about it. This is why oysters are so rewarding to one person but repulsive to another. Find a way to ‘frame’ the behaviour you want as positive and it will be. For example, If you want to lose weight – associate hunger pains as positive progress that means you are on track to your goal!
Example: Keep a file of my work so I can see it accumulate overtime- review it, share it and give myself a little ‘pat on the back’. Remind myself that everytime I have learnt something new, it’s keeping my brain young.
Have you been successful in breaking a habit or creating a new one? Has this improved your working and leadership style? We’d love to hear from you, please pop over to our LinkedIn page to join the conversation.