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Change and the Power of Habits
By Kevin Eikenberry
In my work coaching leaders and members of my team, I am often reminded of the tremendous role that habits play in our lives and work. Of course that impact can be for positive or not -- the purpose of this article is to help you use habits more effectively to create the results you want as a leader.
Two Kinds of Habits
While all habits are automatic responses, they fall into two basic types: considered and not considered.
Considered habits are probably what you thought about when you read the title of this article -- when (or whether) you exercise, what (or when) you read, if you eat dinner with (or without) your family. "Not considered" habits are the millions of other things that are, well, habitual (for example, how we respond in certain situations, our gestures, how we greet people on the phone, etc.).
Recognizing that habits, by their nature, are largely subconscious is an important part of this article. More important though, is knowing that any individual habit can become conscious, considered and therefore changed.
You wake up and your body moves into motion. How you stretch, what you do before you shower, how you soap up, shampoo and more -- all done in habit. And this isn't just about what happens when you might still be (partly) asleep. A whole myriad of things at work are done habitually too. Let's take a meeting. Where you sit, how you sit, how you greet people, when, how and how often you speak, whether you ask questions or not (and lots more) are all habit.
Habits Are Necessary
Overall, habits are an exceedingly good thing -- without them, we couldn't survive life, let alone create the types of positive outcomes we are able to with them. It might be frightening to think about how much of your life, conversations and decisions run on the autopilot of habit. Frightening perhaps, but completely necessary. Our subconscious mind is so powerful that it can just take care of all this stuff for us. Our relatively feeble conscious mind wouldn't be able to handle all of the input. Our challenge is to know that it all exists (even if we aren't aware of it all as it is happening), and move to our conscious mind those things that are most important to us or may be getting in the way of our potential success.
Habits Are at the Heart of our Results
Author Robert Collier wrote, "Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out." Habits. He could have also written, while less inspirational just as accurately, "Failure is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out." Habits are at the heart of our results. If you aren't getting the results you want in any area of life, a big key is to figure out which habits (considered or not) are getting in your way, then adjust them to create new results.
Moving the change from conscious (a considered habit), which you likely call discipline -- to subconscious (a "not considered" habit), which makes it effortless -- is where the real acceleration will come.
Our Habits Teach Others How to Work With Us
Here is a quick exercise for you. Think about something that someone does (or people in general do) in response to you that bothers, frustrates or upsets you.
Then look in the mirror and ask yourself, what you are doing (consciously or not) that is influencing their actions. Something we are doing is informing and allowing or permitting people to respond or work with us in that way. Rather than focusing on changing them, why not focus on what is more in your control anyway; changing yourself (first)?
Coaching is Really About Habits
When we are coaching others, whether to stretch them to higher levels of performance or to provide correction, we are dealing with people's habits. Everything we've talked about so far has been about our personal habits. Yet all of that insight applies to our understanding of the habits of others, as well.
Perhaps the step you've missed in coaching others has been to help them become aware of a "not considered" habit, because as we have already seen, if we aren't aware of that automatic habit, it will be very difficult to change.
Habits are Change Reminders
Coaching is of course also about change. Once people are aware of their habits, then they can begin to change them.
What has been your personal experience in changing habits? Was it easy or difficult? Since I can safely assume that you likely answered "difficult," that provides a window into our challenges with change.
The next time you are trying to influence change, whether encouraging an employee to turn in their reports on time, explain the virtues of the new work process, or outlining the big organizational change, remember that part of the influencing effort is about these necessary, often hidden, and powerful things called habits.
Remembering and using that insight will make you more influential and more patient.
Remember that when we realize and utilize the power of habits, we are more personally effective, but we can also help others be more effective too.
Kevin Eikenberry is a world-renowned leadership expert, a two-time bestselling author, speaker, consultant, trainer, coach, leader, learner, husband and father (not necessarily in that order). Kevin is the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a leadership and learning consulting company that has been helping organizations, teams and individuals reach their potential since 1993. Kevin's specialties include leadership, teams and teamwork, organizational culture, facilitating change, organizational learning and more.