When you hear the word “habit,” what comes to mind? Something negative that you need to “break,” perhaps? That tends to be the general consensus. This is often the time of year when we set resolutions and goals, usually to do away with our bad habits or form new good ones.
As you think about your own habits, I’d like to offer some food for thought.
Habits are often subconscious
Habits generally fall into two basic types. Not good or bad, but rather “considered” and “not considered.”
Considered habits are probably what you thought about when you read the title of this article. Habits that are intentional, such as when (or whether) you exercise, what (or when) you read, if you eat dinner with (or without) your family.
“Not considered” habits are the millions of other things that are … habitual … for example, how you respond in certain situations, your gestures, how you greet people on the phone, and other behaviors you do without really thinking about them. For example, you wake up and your body moves into motion. How you stretch, what you do before you shower, how you soap up, shampoo and more, are all done in habit.
I’m not just talking about what you do when you are still (partly) asleep or on autopilot at home. You do a whole myriad of things at work habitually too. Consider when you attend a meeting. Where you sit; how you greet people; when, how, and how often you speak; and whether you ask questions. All are habits. Think about it: Do you grab the same seat during every meeting?
Recognizing that habits, by their nature, are largely subconscious is an important. More important though, is knowing that any single habit can become conscious, considered and, therefore, changed.
Habits are necessary
Overall, habits are good. Without them, we couldn’t survive life, let alone create the types of positive outcomes we experience. It might be frightening to think about how much of your life, conversations and decisions run on the autopilot of habit. Frightening perhaps, but completely necessary.
Our subconscious mind is so powerful that it can just take care of all this stuff for us. Our conscious minds wouldn’t be able to handle all the input. Our challenge is to know that it all exists (even if we aren’t aware of it as it is happening), and move to our conscious mind those things that are most important to us or may be getting in the way of our potential success.
Habits drive results
Author Robert Collier wrote, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” In other words, habits. He could have also written, “Failure is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Less inspirational, but accurate. Habits are at the heart of our results. If you aren’t getting the results you want in any area of life, a big key is to figure out which habits (considered or not) are getting in your way, then adjust them to create new results.
Moving the change from conscious (a considered habit), which you likely call discipline, to subconscious (a “not considered” habit), which makes it effortless, is where the real acceleration will come.
Our habits teach others how to work with us
Here is a quick exercise for you. Think about something that someone does (or people in general do) in response to you that bothers, frustrates or upsets you.
Then look in the mirror and ask yourself, “What am I doing (consciously or not) that is influencing their actions?” Something we are doing is informing and allowing or permitting people to respond or work with us in that way. Rather than focusing on changing them, focus on what is more in your control and change yourself.
Coaching is really about habits
When we are coaching others, whether to stretch them to higher levels of performance or to provide correction, we are dealing with people’s habits. Everything we’ve talked about so far has been about our personal habits. Yet all of that insight applies to our understanding of the habits of others as well. Perhaps the step you’ve missed in coaching others has been to help them become aware of a “not considered” habit, because as we have already seen, if we aren’t aware of that automatic habit, it will be very difficult to change.
Habits are change reminders
Coaching is of course also about change. Once people are aware of their habits, then they can begin to change them. What has been your personal experience in changing habits? Was it easy or difficult? Since I can safely assume that you likely answered “difficult”, that provides a window into our challenges with change.
The next time you are trying to influence change, whether encouraging an employee to turn in reports on time, explaining the virtues of a new work process, or outlining the big organizational change, remember that part of the influencing effort is about these necessary, often hidden, and powerful things called habits.
Remembering, and using that insight will make you more influential and more patient. Plus, when we realize and utilize the power of habits, we are more personally effective, but we can also help others be more effective too.