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How leaders create good habits to replace bad ones

January 26, 2021

By Randy Hall


Pretty often I get to work with leaders who feel like they should stop doing something that is getting in the way of their best leadership.  They might want to stop reacting impulsively, they might want to stop focusing on mistakes or weaknesses in others so much, they might want to stop procrastinating, or maybe even stop feeling stressed or stop heading toward burnout.

Sometimes, their world has gotten to a place where the desire to stop is pretty strong.  It becomes an urgent need to change something in their life or to remove an obstacle that is keeping them from being at their best.  There isn’t a lack of motivation. Stopping something that they are doing or thinking has gotten to the point, often, where it is accompanied by some real urgency.

And yet, most of the time, they don’t stop.

Sometimes they stop for a day, or a week, or even a few weeks, but they don’t really stop.  They just resist for a little while and then resume their previous pattern.

Sometimes that makes them feel even worse because they tried and failed, in their mind at least, to tackle a challenge, change a behavior, or solve a problem.  Ultimately, people who try and fail at behavior change like that begin to feel like it’s just who they are. And they stop trying to change whatever it is and just consider it part of their DNA.  As if it’s actually genetic.

They are simply applying all of that effort, energy, and willpower in the wrong direction. It feels correct to focus on what we want to stop doing or what’s in our way.  But our brain is not geared toward stopping habits, patterns, or behaviors.  In fact, it is organized to keep us in our same behavioral patterns because they feel safe, at least relative to actual survival.  If we did them yesterday, and didn’t die, then they are probably safe to do. And if we have been doing them for years and it hasn't killed us, then the brain figures that it is exceptionally safe and so we should keep doing it.

Our brain is built to help us survive, not to help us thrive.

But it is exceptional at building new patterns too, without regard to whether they are good or bad for us.  Repeat anything enough, and the brain will build a habit so we can do it with less effort.  This is the power we want to harness.  Instead of focusing on what we want to stop doing, we need to point our brain toward what we want to start doing in its place.

Don't focus on stopping the emphasis on mistakes, focus on noticing progress or achievement.

Don’t focus on stopping the impulsive reactions, focus on asking a good question or a statement like “tell me more about that,” to give yourself time to think, and also more context.

Don’t focus on stopping the stress, focus on consistently incorporating stress reducing activities in your day.

Our brain is a machine that is built to replicate the activities that we do repeatedly over time.  It assumes we are picking positive things to repeat, even when it is wrong.  We build bad habits by repeating things over, and over, and over.  Even if they don’t represent us at our best. The brain doesn’t sit in judgement of our actions, it simply works to automate the things we do over and over.

It then builds neural pathways that are always there for us when we are in a situation where that habit can run its course.  It’s why we can always ride a bike.  We spent probably hundreds of hours repeating the mechanics of it.  It’s why when we think of a moment in our past, we always have the same thoughts and feelings about it. Habits work for thoughts, just like they do for activities.

The tools we use to change our lives are choice and practice.  Choose the thoughts, behaviors, and actions that we want, connected to the future we want, and then just practice the heck out of them.

Do you think you could “practice” feeling a negative impulse to what someone says and then, saying “tell me more about your thoughts on that,” hundreds of times and then not always have that impulse to say it when the moment strikes?  It will be there when we need it because we actually built a neural pathway in our brain that looks for that cue to begin.  No different than the cue that’s there for time to brush your teeth every morning.

Do you think you could practice finding something that someone on your team made progress on hundreds of times, and then not have it be a much more consistent thing for you, forever?

The more we repeat it, the more the brain looks to repeat it. And it will find the right places to insert that idea, that thought, that action, anywhere it’s needed.

Decide where you want to go as a leader and who you want to be.  Isolate the behaviors that you think would help you get there. Then just practice.  You don’t have to do it well at first. In fact, don’t expect to. Just keep doing it enough for your brain to get the cues to install it as a habit.  Then we can continue to perfect it, reinforce it and connect other supporting habits to it.

Let’s not try to stop being ineffective, it’s a waste of time.  Start being exceptional.  And candidly, the world needs more exceptional people and more exceptional leaders.  We all get to be part of making that happen, if we just practice.

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