Changing habits

When we’ve had a habit for a long time, we start to think of it as part of who we are. That its coded into our DNA. That it is something we cannot change “That’s the way I am and that’s all there is to it” we might say. But a habit is not who you are. It’s simply a set of thoughts and beliefs you have bought into as being the truth.

Now, I’ve no idea what behavioural traits, if any, are coded into our DNA, but what I do know is that habits can invariably be changed. People stop smoking, stop drinking, stop being angry, start exercising, start coaching, stop worrying, stop feeling stressed and so on. Some do it in an instant and others take a lot longer. Some do it with ease and grace and others through grinding it out and willpower alone

Of course, not everyone succeeds in changing habits. For example, those using willpower alone often find it incredibly tiring, see no end in sight and eventually ‘fall off the wagon’.

Here are some thoughts to increase your chance of success.

To make it practical, how about you pick a habit you want to change and then answer the following three questions:

When? – What is the trigger for this habit? Really think about this. Identify the person, situation or event that appears/occurs immediately prior to the habitual behaviour you want to change

What? – Now reflect on what the actual behaviour is you want to change. What is it you actually do or say?

Why? – Now think about why you behave in this way? What is the reward you hope to get? What do you hope to achieve or avoid? How do you hope to feel?

Here’s an example.

A client of mine, let’s call him Mark, was suffering from overwhelm. He wasn’t able to get through the mountain of work he had on his plate. One of the habits we identified was that he was taking on other people’s work as well as his own. Despite working incredibly hard, it was affecting his ability to deliver on his own objectives.

Now, the answer seems simple right? Stop taking on other people’s work! The trouble is, us humans like to complicate things. Make them more difficult than they really are.

So his answers to the above were as follows:

WHEN – members of my team or peers come to me for help

WHAT – I take the to identify and tell them what they need to do and how to do it

WHEN – they struggle to implement what we have discussed and come back to me for advice

WHAT – I volunteer to show them and invariably end up doing it for them 

WHY – I have always seen myself as a helpful, involved type of manager. In fact, I really enjoy helping people and don’t want to stop. I really don’t want to be seen as just another, silo’d, self-interested manager.

You can probably see the challenge? 

Until we understand the ‘WHY’ of the habit, then the behaviour change ‘WHAT’, could well be a challenge.

So we discussed what helping someone really means. We talked about the people that had helped Mark most in the past and how they had helped him. Mark had an insight that the people who had helped him most were not the people that did his work for him, but those who challenged him and trusted him to do the right thing (or learn from their mistakes!). Mark said he was not going to let people ‘really screw up’, but he saw that this was only rarely what was at stake. He saw that, despite his best intentions, he was not really being helpful at all. He also saw that ‘getting involved’, could look suspiciously like interfering!

He told me people had been telling him this for some time, but only now did he see the sense of it.

It reminded me of when I stopped smoking. People had been telling me for years that it was bad for me, it didn’t make sense and that I should stop. I had struggled to do so until one day it didn’t make sense to me either and I stopped immediately and easily.

Never under-estimate a change of heart, a new thought. 

Mark was now ready to change his behaviour into one which was truly helpful.

Now he needed to ask himself the question: ‘When people come to me for help what will I do INSTEAD of giving them the answers or doing it for them?’

The answer was obvious to Mark. “I need to coach them” he said. We went on to talk about what that meant, when it would be appropriate and when not. We identified a ten second habit that would help break his old habit. In his case his new automatic reaction would be to ask the question “What have you done about this so far?”. You may not like that question, but he did!

To complete working on your own real life example, ask yourself about the reward/outcome you are getting. Is it still true? Is there a better way? Will it be OK with you and others if you carry on as you are?

If so, I wouldn’t bother trying to change personally.

If you are no longer getting the reward/outcome you want, then you are probably ready to change your old behaviour. Ask yourself ‘What alternative behaviour will deliver the outcome I want?’

And then think of a brief 10-30 second practice that you can implement immediately and easily to break the old habit.

So there you have it.

Give it a go if you feel that way inclined.

And let me know how you get on if you feel that way inclined. 

Simon Berry

The Clear Mind

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