Make it happen

In the previous behavior change piece we talked about strengthening your motivation and rewarding your achievements as you go along. Noble as they may be, motivation and willpower will not always be your most reliable partners, however enthusiastic you were initially about your goals. When it comes to behavior change, your execution power will be tested time and again as daily life, endless distractions and multiple temptations intervene. Add a drop of tiredness, stress or a lackluster mood, and motivation and willpower weaken even further.

Easy does it, again and again

In today’s piece we will look at two additional strategies to make your desired changes more likely to stick. This time, we adopt two approaches that build on the human tendency to ‘have it easy’. We make change easy by breaking the planned change into really small and easy steps, so easy and doable, in fact, that they require no effort at all. This is sometimes known as the Kaizen Method. Kaizen (Japanese for “good change”) is an approach to creating continuous improvement based on the idea that small, ongoing positive changes can reap significant improvements.

The second strategy is repetition – and yet more repetition. Our brain loves repetition. That’s how it learns and that’s how it turns new, attention-demanding and energy-consuming actions into automatic functions (i.e. habits). Once we’ve mastered a skill, it goes onto the backburner of our mind, allowing us to perform it at ease. Think of some of the things you learned when you were a child: tying your shoes, learning multiplication, brushing your teeth. You repeated these behaviors so many times, that they became automatic. Repetition leads to automaticity, and automaticity makes new habits stick.

Easy does it

An effective way to make your changes less dependent on your ability to execute is to make the steps you decided to take smaller; in fact, preferably ridiculously easy. In the scientific study of habit formation, any obstacle that stands between you and your goal is called ‘friction’. Reducing friction means reducing or removing such obstacles, thereby reducing the effort and making the creation of a new habit easier to achieve. Ask yourself, ”what would make it easier for me to do this? So easy, in fact, that I won’t have to think twice about it?”

Here are a few examples, suitable for the current times.

  • Send one short text message a day (WhatsApp or sms) to a teammate as a way of connecting on an informal basis. The current digital environment often means calls and online meetings go ‘straight into business’, and many miss the office chitchat as you pass by a colleague’s desk or meet them by the coffee machine. You may find yourself wanting to say a quick ”Hi, how are you?” but dislike the idea of sitting through yet another online, on-screen chat, however brief. A spontaneous short WhatsApp or text message creates a moment of friendly connection, yet takes only a few seconds to write, with minimal effort on your part. Easy.
  • Or send one to a client – clients are human, too! They are also sitting at home, feeling disconnected from their teams and experiencing loneliness as much as anyone else. Surprise one client a day with an informal message, kindly inquiring how they are, with no hidden agendas. It’s the equivalent of a warm handshake or hug and will take less than a minute of your time.
  • Plan one minute of movement per hour to get the blood circulating and the muscles working a bit. We all know of course that going out for a daily walk or doing a daily work-out is best, but pandemic necessities and limitations mean that for many, such daily habits are nearly impossible. The kids may be home-schooling, the gym is closed, you may need to stay home. Make it simple! Set your alarm to XX:59 and sprint as fast as you can, on the spot, for one minute only. You’re guaranteed to increase your heart rate, feel lighter and warmer and maybe even have a big grin on your face.
  • Write ‘Three Good Things’ – With colleagues now being less accessible and a feeling of isolation affecting many of us, any negative events or disappointments at work may weigh on you heavier than they would in normal times, when you could spontaneously discuss the issue with your colleagues and hopefully get the necessary support. To give yourself the  necessary support, take two minutes at the end of each day and write down in a journal three things you did well during the day, however small. Make sure you list three different things every day. The inner critic in us tends to list all the things we did not do, or did not do well enough, during the day. Spend just a couple of minutes a day reinforcing what went right by way of self-support. If you prefer an app to help you do that, check out Three Good Things (iOS or Android).
  • Start every call/online meeting with a couple of relaxed, informal questions to your teammates – people miss the informal chatting that happens spontaneously in an office setting, while the coffee is brewing or the photocopier is busy doing its job. Make a conscious attempt to create such moments before delving right into business talk. Think of an original question or two to pose at the start of an online meeting (”give me an original idea for a quick dinner!”; ”anyone surprised their partner in a fun way?” ; ”can anyone recommend a seriously good film?” ; ”where shall we go dining when this is all over?”) and create a more friendly feel with minimum effort. Lost for ideas? Google up ‘ice-breaker questions’ (such as these) for extra inspiration.
  • Accept imperfection. The perfectionist in you may resent the simplicity and ease in forming a new habit, demanding instead that you do it longer, harder, better. Given the abundant challenges and restrictions we all face now, tune your mindset to ‘not perfect is good enough’. At other, more comfortable times you may want to push harder. Right now, reassure yourself that any improvement you can achieve, however tiny, is better than none.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

When it comes to execution, frequency is king. Two thousand years ago Aristotle already noted, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”. Doing a little, many times over beats one big burst once in a while.

The amount of time it takes for a repeated task to become automatic (a habit) changes greatly between people: in one British study it ranged from 18 to 254 days, with the median being 66 days. However much time repetition takes to become a habit, there is no question that it cements the new way we have chosen to do things. Repetition builds familiarity and familiarity grows into automation.

When building a new habit is important to you, optimize for what will actually make you succeed—repetition and momentum. Remove all obstacles so as to minimize the excuses you can give yourself for not performing your new habit. Focus on execution and repeat the execution again and again.

It may help to ask yourself the following question: “what is the critical action I need to repeat, in order to build a habit that’s important to me?” The answer will make it easier to identify and cut out the obstacles—usually prep work—that keep you from actually getting started and maintaining momentum.

Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Want to build better connections?
    Instead of tidying up your contacts list, start sending one contact email (not work related) a day, simply reaching out to someone. Do it as the first email of the day, when you’re already sitting at your desk, by your computer, Outlook open and keyboard ready.  
  • Care to make someone’s day?
    Send one email or WhatsApp message a day complimenting a teammate, colleague or client or thanking them for the pleasure of working with them. Hook this small act of kindness to your first cup of coffee or tea of the day, or, better still, every cup of coffee during the day. Make coffee (or tea) synonymous with kindness. The more coffee (or tea), the more kindness.
  • Want to become a better listener?
    In a meeting or discussion allow yourself three to four sentences to bring up a theme, discuss or respond to it, and then consciously stop talking. This prevents you from being a one-way sender and leaves space for another to respond and for you to listen. When it’s your turn to answer, repeat the action: limit yourself to a few sentences, then deliberately stop and take a deep breath. By consciously and repeatedly limiting your own talk, you train yourself to be more tuned to what others have to say.

    Every new habit requires focus, and in the ‘Focus’ block we mentioned some rituals that create a task-oriented mindset. By their very nature, repetitive rituals are mini habits, and they further help anchoring the new habit we wish to establish.
  • Interested in creating a dedicated focused-work time block?
    Apart from constant incoming emails, the mobile phone is the biggest distractor during a working day. Mark the start of a task-dedicated time block by leaving your phone (turned to silent) in another room, and close the door to that room. Repeat the action every time you want to have an un- or less interrupted time. Since we tend to be glued to our mobile phone, you may forget this simple action the first few times. Practice makes perfect! Hook the repetitive act of leaving the phone physically away to the conscious act of ‘full attention to the task at hand’ time. With enough repetitions, a new connection will be made in your brain between phone away equals focus.

How to help people change their behaviour is a tricky science, affected by many factors. Although it is challenging to come up with a steel-cut formula that ensures the successful creation of new habits, some common strategies – such as making the change extremely easy and repeating the new behaviour over and over again – appear to work well across the range. Whether you wish to improve your focus or create more meaningful connections, give these strategies a try. We hope they will help you on the path to better mental and emotional wellbeing.

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