When it Comes to Habit Changes, Start with Self-Awareness (Habit Series 2/7)
How aware are you of your habits? Which ones are the good ones, which ones are the bad ones? If you could change one habit, which one would it be? What’s been the main obstacle to achieving the change thus far? What do you need to finally succeed? To alter our behavior, it’s helpful to begin with self-awareness.
Many of our performance failures can be attributed to a lack of self-awareness. Once we start tracking our habits and making them apparent, we can take meaningful action. Practicing mindfulness — a consistent and focused awareness will help to identify the initial cue that ignites the habit loop so we are better informed to disrupt the process. Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.” For example, you may be working on not giving unsolicited advice, yet you realize you mostly do it when one direct report asks you what you think. That is your cue. Or maybe you notice that in the late afternoon after completing a big task and feeling a little bored, you go for the dessert in the break room or in your kitchen. Those slower moments can be your trigger for sweets.
Here are some steps to take to be more aware of your habits:
1. Make a list. When you are thinking about creating or breaking habits, it is first helpful to make a list and organize them into two columns — good and bad. It is insufficient to only have the items in your mind, writing them down and seeing your words reflected back to you will help start the process of awareness because we cannot address that which goes unnoticed or is not fully captured. As Peter Drucker would say, “your biggest challenge is defining what your work is.” What is the landscape of your habits, and where is the work that needs to be done? Once you have clarity, you can take the next step.
2. Assess your habits. If you are unsure if a practice is a bad one — for example, you feel like you watch the right amount of tv, you will want to track your behavior for a couple of weeks to gain an accurate picture. You may think it is the right amount because you watch it after dinner for about 1 hour but failed to factor in the 15 mins. in the morning while getting ready, the 15 mins. during lunchtime, and the occasional times you need a break in the late afternoon. Surprise… it is closer to an hour and fifteen minutes a day, which adds up to more than you may want to dedicate. Do you know how many hours you devote to nonessential work like Facebook or reading gossip or trivial news? These numbers are important to know because as Author James Redfield shares, “where intention goes, energy flows.”
3. Decide to add or subtract. You can choose a habit you would like to add to your life, like eating vegetables every day, or you can select a pattern to stop, like giving up candy. Montel Williams followed the Add-In Principle, he says, it’s not what you take out of your diet, it’s what you put in. A simple reframe — “Today, I’m going to have a salad, steamed vegetables, and fresh figs” allows him to keep his attention on the things he can do, instead of focusing on what he has to sacrifice. Some research on neuroplasticity shows that the brain is continuously creating new wiring, so when you lay the trackwork for a new behavior by practicing it, it becomes more robust over time. When we stop giving attention to the bad habit, the connection in our minds becomes much weaker.
Be sure to choose carefully. Most people waste effort on things that are not going to change, they may say they want to work less, but it is clear that their drive for financial success is more potent than their desire for balance. Choose the habits that you are ready to tackle and are eager to move the needle on because we only have scarce resources. When you laser focus on one thing at a time, small changes can equate to giant leaps forward.
4. Make it a part of your identity. According to James Clear, the first step in thinking about habits is to create identity-based habits. He offers a concentric circle with 3 rungs, the inner is your identity, the middle is the process, and the out.
· Outside-In: I want to lose 10 pounds (outcome), so I will exercise a few times per week (process), and then I will be skinny (identity).
· Inside-Out: I want to be an active, fit person (identity), so I will exercise daily (process), and this will lead to weight loss (outcome).
· Outside-In: I want to improve my relationship (outcome), so I’ll say positive things every day (process), and I will be somebody who is in a good relationship (identity).
· Inside-Out: I want to be a great partner (identity), so I’m going to say positive things every day, leading to an improved relationship (outcome).
If you set goals to change habits that do not align with your identity, it can cause tension. In an article in SUCCESS, Daniel Hardy notes, “Psychologists tell us that nothing creates more internal stress and trauma than what you’re doing on the outside (actions & behaviors) is incongruent with your values on the inside.” If you set specific financial goals but that takes you away from your #1 value of family, that will cause strife. The best way to change who you are is to decide the type of person you want to be and then set the behaviors that serve your vision and prove it to yourself with small wins and consistency. That’s living in alignment and it is a freeing experience.
5. Set an implementation intention. To build a new habit, establish an implementation intention or a premeditated plan. For example:
· When I get asked for advice at a meeting, I will get my team involved before I weigh in by saying: “I’d love to hear what the rest of the team thinks before I share my thoughts.”
· When I feel bored, I will get up, move around, drink some water, and then grab carrots instead of dessert to snack on.
· It is a specific plan of action instead of a foggy idea like I want to be better at not giving unsolicited advice or cutting out desserts. If you are going to start a meditation practice, instead of saying, I will meditate more or I will meditate every morning, you can get even more specific by saying I will meditate for three minutes every morning in my living room after I brush my teeth.
6. Habit Stack. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify the habits that you already do and then stack a new behavior on top. For example:
· After my run (current behavior), I will do 5 pushups (new habit).
· After I eat lunch (current behavior), I will have a piece of fruit (new habit).
· After I sit down for dinner, I will say one thing I am grateful for before eating.
· After I get into bed, I will kiss my partner and share words of appreciation.
You can also add the desired behavior to something you already do that will enhance the fun. I discovered this when I started listening to audiobooks several years ago during my boring commute, and suddenly, I started looking forward to the activity because I knew I would have quality learning time. The same is true for when I go for runs, I listen to podcasts and love the time I spend soaking up information.
The journey of behavior change begins with understanding yourself. When you have a clearer picture of your habits, you can decide which ones you would like to change so you can make them a part of your identity. Setting an implementation intention and habit stacking can make that change process easier.
Quote of the day: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Historian Will Durant in distilling Aristotle’s sentiment on the topic.
Q: Who do you want to be? What habits do you want to help you get there? Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you.
[The next blog in this series 3/7 will focus on the role your personality plays in habit formation]
As a leadership development and executive coach, I work with people to cultivate habits that serve them, contact me to explore this topic further.