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On habits (and leadership)

“Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits.

A significant chunk of our waking time is spent on autopilot, up to 45% according to Duke University research. In this state we are barely aware of the many, minute behaviours that make up each day.

There is good reason for this habitual repetition. Our brain, the ultra-efficient processor, is adept at saving energy. It would be impossible for the brain to plan, guide and monitor every action of every day. Rather, it focuses selectively (remember the selective attention test where you had to count the number of times players pass a ball? Watch a version of it here), defaulting to preferred and established pathways where possible, saving power for other needs. Default responses are activated by cues in the environment, initiated without intention and run to completion with minimal conscious control. We call them habits. They take around 90 days to establish and are notoriously difficult to shift.

Habits built on past experience may have been useful at some point, but not all of them are necessarily desirable. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg spent 120 weeks on various New York Times bestseller lists, suggesting that there is fair appetite for changing our less wanted habits.

Changing our habits

Habits work in a 3-step loop: cue, routine, reward. We can change our habits by changing the ‘routine’ part of the loop. Experimenting with identifying the cues, changing the routine and ascertaining whether we are still experiencing the same reward is the method proposed by Duhigg for changing a habit.

To give an example, Duhigg explains how he was in the habit of eating a chocolate biscuit each afternoon at around 3 o clock. He tried going for a walk instead of heading to the restaurant for the biscuit – changing the routine – but his craving for the sweet treat persisted. A little more experimentation with alternative routines led him to discover that a 5-10 minute chat with colleagues seemed to produce the same reward, that is, he had forgotten all about the chocolate biscuit. The ‘social interaction’ routine is replacing the ‘biscuit-eating’ routine. Over time this change of habit will stem a steady weight gain and leave a few more pennies in the pocket.

Getting started 

If you are struggling to get started, the trick according to habits expert James Clear is to start small, aim to improve one thing by one percent, do it in less than two minutes and do it again tomorrow.

The most critical habit to build, perhaps we can see it as a super-habit, is the habit of willpower. Willpower spills over into all aspects of life. It is strengthened by making conscious efforts: factor one activity into each day that requires a lot of discipline, delay gratification in small amounts.

Willpower is also positively impacted through preserving a degree of autonomy, where you have latitude to decide on and complete your own tasks. A lack of autonomy can be a profound stressor, as noted by Richard Sutton in his work “The Stress Code” (the likely topic of a future blog).

The sum of our autopilots

We hope for complex organizational challenges to be solved through a revised strategy, a new leadership mandate, a restructuring or the digital transformation. And yet it is the sum of all the little habits, the organisational autopilot, that makes the organisation what it is and directs what it achieves.

In a world where trust is reported as low – a condition negatively impacting relationships, engagement, voluntary effort, innovation, organisational alignment, stakeholder confidence and overall business results – raising our awareness of the autopilot, all those minute actions that build trust or deplete it, is a useful undertaking.

As leaders, we can go way beyond just ‘doing what we say we will do’. We can build the habits that build trust, and aim to change the ones that diminish it.

I have selected two (of a total of nine) habits that build trust, outlined by John Blakely:

  1. Go beyond the profit motive to deliver random acts of kindness to your stakeholders.
  2. Help others to deliver on their promises, through coaching and mentoring.

What do you repeatedly do, that makes you the leader you are? What can you do right now to establish habits that build trust?

Follow Gaylin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GaylinJee

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