Never Too Old for New Habits

Picture by: Sean MacEntee

Editor's note

Examining organizational change is clearly central to the MSLOC program. Through courses like Designing Sustainable Strategic Change and Executing Strategic Change we explore how strategic change gets designed, implemented and sustained in organizations and communities.

Through a series of blog posts about changing habits, Susan Barrett Kelly, a faculty member and alumnae of MSLOC, shares with us a more detailed look at individual change. These three blog posts were originally published on Susan's Development Sherpa blog.

  1. Change Habits, Keep Resolutions
  2. Make Your Habits Your Allies
  3. Never Too Old for New Habits

About Susan Barrett Kelly

Susan has over twenty years of experience in training, human resources and organization development. Prior to founding SBK & Associates, a boutique-consulting firm, in 2010, she was the Senior Director Organization Development for Kraft North America. Susan is an MSLOC alumna and is currently on faculty for the MSLOC program, serving as a coach to students in the Foundations course.


Part 1: Change Habits, Keep Resolutions

I‘m not going to make new resolutions for 2013. There are enough old ones still relevant to dust off and try again.  In fact, if anyone is looking for a resolution, I have enough lying around that I could give you a few.  Lose weight? Got that one. Get a better job?  Several options to chose from. Be Better Organized?  I can set you up. These are just a few of my many past resolutions available to be recycled.

It’s not that I fail to see the value in resolutions. In fact, setting goals (aka resolutions) is a critical part of the change process.  They provide a picture of success, set the boundaries for choices, and allow us to measure success.  Resolutions are so important that I’ll change my focus from making them to keeping them. This year, I’ll keep the same resolutions but change my habits

The Invisible Force

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and asks ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

David Foster Wallace as quoted in The Power of Habit 

The passage above is one of the best descriptions of the power of habits I’ve read.  Our habits, the automatic, subconscious decisions we make routinely, are our water. Frequently unexamined and often invisible to us, habits set the agenda for our behavior and ultimately our results. So, if we want change, start with habits.

How Habits Happen

The first step in changing habits is to understand how we create them in the first place. Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit provides an excellent description in a book that makes very interesting reading.

Habits are created because our brain looks for ways to save effort. When we do things routinely, our brain stores the steps into “chunks.” Try to remember learning something for the first time, like your commute to work. The first few times, you paid great attention to the directions, the traffic patterns or the train schedule. It required attention and energy you didn’t have later for other things. Reflect on how quickly your commute became routine. The next time you go to work, you won’t even think about it. You’ll know the time to leave, the route to take, or where you sit on the train with little conscious thought. Your commute has become your water.

Your brain has turned your commute routine into a habit, without you making a conscious decision about whether you wanted this habit or not. This is a good thing.  Mental energy every day is finite. Once it’s depleted, it’s gone until restored.  Do you want to use it figuring out what roads you take to work or on new challenges once you get there? Probably the latter. So, our brains are wired to help us out by being efficient.  This efficiency becomes a habit.

The paradox about habits is that they are easy to create but hard to change. Old habits won’t get me, or you, to new places, no matter how staunch the resolutions. My 2013 resolution is to start new habits to help me reach old goals. Intrigued? Follow me to see how I do.

Reference:

Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

Part 2: Make Your Habits Your Allies

What would you do if you were unemployed, nearly broke and an emotional wreck? Where would you start to turn your life around? What would you do if you were named as an outsider head of a struggling company with employee upheaval, manager disengagement and on the verge of a stakeholder revolt? In both situations, there is not one thing wrong- there are many things wrong. And all are big things. Any one of these challenges left unattended could lead to your complete unraveling. Where would you start? If you were like people profiled in The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2012), you would start by changing one cornerstone habit.

Your Personal Search Engine

Habits are like our brain’s search engine. Our subconscious doesn’t evaluate whether a habit is good or bad, it just gets the stimulus and offers up the response. Like Google, put in the stimulus and get back your top responses in behavior. This pattern is ubiquitous. Duhigg cites a Duke study that suggests 40% of our actions during a day are a result of habit. If true, it means that nearly half of the things we do each day are not a result of conscious, in the moment decisions, but pre programmed responses to stimulus.

Get Your MoJo Going

Habits also build momentum. Good habits generate behavior that gets positive responses, generating more positive stimulus. This explains what happened to one of the people profiled in The Power of Habit. Duhigg describes a woman at the end of her rope after a very bad patch in life. She was overweight, unemployed and nearly broke. In an attempt to motivate change, she set a goal to make the trip of a lifetime, which required her to be in good physical shape. She targeted one habit to start toward this goal: stop smoking. By focusing on changing one bad habit, she taught herself to reprogram other habits, too. When she stopped smoking, she had more ability to get in shape. She took up jogging. To keep up jogging, she had to positively change her eating, sleeping and time habits. She had more money so she changed her savings habits. The woman not only took her dream trip, but she had the confidence, and ability, to override old bad habits to go back to school and get a new job.

The same principle worked for Paul O’Neill when he was named the new CEO of Alcoa. He walked into a list of changes needed to restore employee relationships, customer relationships and profitability. What did he do? He focused on safety.  He set a goal of zero injuries and instilled one habit: all accidents must be reported within 24 hours with a plan to make sure the injury never happened again. What were the results? The union was encouraged because worker safety had been a critical issue they felt had been ignored. Leaders had to review lines of communication with their facilities.  Floor leaders had to be alert for safety issues and ask workers for ideas on better environments. By changing one habit, O’Neil set in force the mechanism to change a culture. What happened? Injuries declined, but so did costs because people needed to talk to each other about molten metal waste  (a leading cause of injuries) and faulty equipment that broke down and slowed production. Quality improved, along with customer satisfaction.

O’Neil  leveraged the power of habit by picking one thing that required everyone to re program bad habits into good ones. He summarized his strategy in a few words we could all take to heart:

“ I knew I had to change Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could disrupt habits around one thing, it would spread through the entire company.” - Paul O’Neil, former CEO of Alcoa, as quoted in the Power of Habit

Picking The Little Thing That Could Be A Big Thing

I reflected in my last blog post that I was going to keep old resolutions but change habits.  For me, 2013 starts with unmet goals related to my business, my development and my personal life. The one thing they all have in common is the need for more time. So, the cornerstone habit I’m going to focus on changing for 2013 is my use of time. I am going to change a habit to get up one hour earlier each day. That gives me 7 hours per week and 28 hours a month that can be devoted to achieving goals. Who knows what an extra 28 hours a week will do for my momentum?

You may think this is small. But that’s the thing about habits. It’s the small things that set the momentum for bigger things. The woman who stopped smoking found the secret to changing habits that changed her life. Paul O’Neil used a change of habits to convince a bunch of skeptics that they could work together.  The secret strength of habits is going for big outcomes, not big inputs.

What about you? What are the one or two habits you could change that could give you the momentum needed to achieve those dusty resolutions? Think of them and get ready. In the next post, you’ll read how habits can be changed.

References: Duhigg, Charles ( 2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business. New York: Random House.

Click on Read More for Part 3

Part 3: Never Too Old For New Habits

All the pieces are in place. I have goals, some left over from 2012. I know what habits to change to reach them. I selected one keystone habit to change to instill positive momentum. All of this, and two weeks into 2013, I'm stuck.

Easy to Imagine. Hard to Do.

My experience in changing habits may be like yours. We know what we want to change. We know at a conscious level how to do it. But the deeply imprinted routes in our brain that direct our behavior about "what to do when" easily overwhelm our intentions. It's one of many paradoxes about changing habits. It's easy to imagine. It's hard to do.

The good news is that while habits are powerful, they are not our destiny. We often hear habits described as "good" or "bad." In fact, they are neither. Our brains can't tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one. We are just wired to see a clue, automate a response, and get a reward. The outcomes may be good or bad, but that depends on the habits we develop, not the process.

The Key to Changing Old Habits Is Creating New Ones

If we're going to have habits (and we are), and we want good outcomes (and we do), then our challenge is to create new habits if the old ones don't get us what we want. Our habits never go away. Researchers who reprogram mice to run a maze by putting the reward in a different place find that when they remove the reward, the mice run the old pattern. Think you're smarter than the mice? Change the reward of being able to fit into your clothes and see how quickly you'll go back to your version of after school milk and cookies on the couch watching television.

Old habits will always be with us. But for new outcomes, we need new habits.

Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit, describes how we can make them. It's sort of like this:

  1. We experience some triggering event. It reminds us of a previous experience. The alarm is sent.
  2. We retrieve our automated response. To change a habit, change the response.
  3. We get a reward. To reinforce the response, reward it.

My Plan to Get Unstuck

So, if I am going to get my momentum back to reach leftover 2012 goals, I still need to change habits. I need to change them starting with the one key habit that will give me the greatest momentum: getting up one hour earlier.

Starting tomorrow, I'll have the same trigger. Night will turn to day. (And, if that doesn't happen, I have bigger problems.) But I will manage my clue differently. I will force myself to get out of bed to get the coffee I want. (Note to dearest husband: No more whispering Are you ready for coffee yet? as I rest, eyes closed, curled around my pillow. Ignore my pleas. Forgive my reaction when you do.) Reward myself for getting up with a half hour of Italian lessons over cappuccino. (Now that's worth getting out of bed for. Seriously.) The day after tomorrow, I'll do the same. Soon, my new habit will be my old habit. That's how it works.

The Work

Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom - and the responsibility - to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012)

What about you? How will you leverage the power of habits? It's not too late, and you're not too old, to get to work.

Reference

Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and in Business. New York: Random House.

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