Make it happen

Olympic gold medalists are not born stars. The best leaders do not wake up one day knowing what to do to succeed. Change and improvement take time, awareness and consistent effort, and there are certain tools and tips that can help you adopt a new habit or change your routines (whether or not they are related to focus) and make these changes last. In other words, if you find yourself asking “what can help me adopt a new, beneficial behaviour and then turn it into a sustainable habit?”, – then read on.

Strengthen your ‘why’

The very first step in wanting to change anything is having a clear vision of the goal and being fully aware of why it matters to you. This intrinsic ‘Why?’ comes from within you. It is something you want and choose to do, not because you feel obliged to do it; rather because you realize that such a change or new habit will deliver added value.

To identify your intrinsic motivation, it helps to ask yourself the three Why’s. For example, if you want to keep your morning hours to do some serious work that requires your full attention, but end up answering random emails only to find out the morning has passed, ask yourself:

(1) Why do I want to use my focus muscle in the morning hours?
What is in it for me? Answer (for example) – because then I can get the heavy stuff out of the way.

(2) Ask again – why would I want that?
Answer: because I’ll feel relieved that the most demanding job was completed by midday.

(3) Ask yourself one more time – why would I want to feel relieved?
Answer: because I will feel less stressed, be in a better mood and have a sense of achievement in my working day.

This exercise may sound simple, but it pays off to dig in and find the real reason behind your wish. Knowing what we are likely to get out of our actions gives us that extra incentive to actually take them.

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    An intrinsic ‘Why’ is an internal conviction that originates from your own free choice. By nature it is therefore a stronger motivator than external pressure or demand from others to make such a change. An internal conviction drives your motivation and give value to your actions. It will help you keep your eyes on your goal, support you progress towards it and remind you why you’re doing what you set out to do.

    As an example, if you choose to stop drinking alcohol during the working week because you want to enjoy better sleep, be sharper during working hours and be all together more pleasant towards your colleagues, you are more likely to achieve your goal than if you were told by your spouse or even doctor that your weekday drinking should stop. An intrinsic conviction carries with it the sense of choice – ‘I choose to make this change’, whereas extrinsic pressure from outside (whether active or passive) feels like ‘I have to make this change’ when at the back of your mind you’re likely to be thinking – “I don’t really want to change at all”.

    When you have a more profound awareness of how you will benefit meaningfully from specific actions, both in the short and in the long-term, your motivation is more likely to be fired up. For example, when you realize how much more focused and effective you become by leaving the mobile phone in another room, and how this makes you more content and relaxed when sitting down to the family dinner at the end of the day, the chance that you will stick to this new morning routine will increase.

    Knowing why you want to clear the morning for effective work, knowing what deeply drives the need for calm, concentrated work time and what your true purpose is behind it (e.g. being a more relaxed and enjoyable part of the team or the family), is more likely to motivate you to stick with the new habit even when temptation calls to sneak in just a couple of short morning calls…

Reward the experience, create a new habit

As humans are reward-driven, just like Pavlovian animals, in fact. This may be disappointing to read if you consider yourself an entirely rational person, but the fact remains that we are more likely to change or perform when we know or feel that our effort will be rewarded. Rewards, too, can be intrinsic – something you desire and decide to give to yourself once you achieve a certain goal; or extrinsic – rewards that result from the very habit you decided to adopt.

Intrinsic rewards in particular are powerful tools, because they strengthen your motivation to repeat the behavior in the future. As an example, say you decide to reward yourself with a 10-minute break over your favorite, aromatic coffee at the end of a focused block of work. Experiencing this immediate, much desired reward helps create a powerful ‘habit-loop’.

In his best-selling book “The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shows that habits generally follow this cycle

This cycle is rooted in our physiology: receiving a reward triggers the pleasure hormone dopamine. Pleasure feels good, so we seek to experience it again. Result? We repeat the behaviour in anticipation of the reward. So powerful does dopamine appear to be, that even the very thought that you’re about to receive a reward can trigger intense feelings of pleasure, thereby reinforcing your motivation to repeat the reward-awarding behavior. This is called the “Motivation feedback loop”.

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    Habits are automatic cue-routine-reward loops that save time and effort. The moment the new changes you decided to introduce become automatic and require little thought or effort, is the moment your new changes turn into routine habits that are more likely to endure. Habits stick because they create a craving for the reward(s) that accompanies them. For example, answering emails as soon as they come in can give the pleasurable (and rather addictive) feeling of ‘items ticked off the to-do list’.

    Up to 50% of your daily actions are governed by habits. The more you can rely on your routines, the less brainpower you need to execute your behavior, eliminating unnecessary decision-making processes and depending much less on your willpower and motivation. Many high performers rely heavily on their habits as an energy management strategy – it frees up thinking and action power for those areas where thought and action are truly needed.

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