One way to think about human beings is that we are a collection and expression of our habits – habits in our thinking and habits in our behaviors and actions. Operating from our habits helps us do many things on auto-pilot and keep up with the demands of our complex and fast-paced lives. However, acting out of our habits and being on autopilot also has a shadow side. Our habitual ways of seeing and doing things can get in the way of new results we are trying to create. We can be blind to how our habits might be keeping us stuck. And, as we know from experience (as well as neuroscience), habits are hard to change.
And yet every year, around this time, we are encouraged to make resolutions to change something about ourselves that we think needs fixing or improving – our health, our weight, our financial situation, our work, our relationships, etc. And sadly, in a few months, statistics will show what we are already know, that most of us weren’t successful at sticking to whatever resolutions we made.
So, why is that? In large part it’s because our well-intentioned resolutions are no match for our well-entrenched habits and automatic ways of doing things. Good intentions without consistent action backing them up just lead to frustration and negative self assessments. Change requires both new thinking AND new practices.
What I mean by practice is something you repeatedly do, consciously, over time, for the sake of taking better care of a future that matters to you. Think of a practice as a choice that you keep choosing. Practice is what will have your resolutions stick. Practice is what can change the habits that are no longer serving you. Here’s a brief example of what I mean.
I was working with an executive who wanted to change his behavior of barking orders at his kids when he got home from work. We explored what it was costing him and what future he might create if he changed this habit. His awareness and desire to make a change was a great start – but it would have been insufficient to produce the change he wanted if we stopped there. He also needed to start practicing a new way of being in the relationship with his kids so we created some practices that would help him embed a new habit.
His first practice was writing down all his stories and beliefs that he had to justify his behaviors towards them (ie. how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed for his family, how the kids these days didn’t respect their elders, his fears that they wouldn’t be successful, his ineptitude at how to be a parent differently from how he was raised, etc.) Every morning, for three weeks, he jotted down every single belief he had about this and brought it to coaching for deeper exploration.
With deeper awareness of the habit, the costs and the related stories and emotions that kept his habit in place, he then created two more practices that were structured and small enough that he thought he could be successful at. Instead of talking on the phone and continuing his work while driving home, he listened to something that brought him joy (music, comedians, blog talks on interesting topics). This helped him shift the mood that he typically walked into his home with. The second practice he came up with was that once he walked in the door, he was only allowed to give his kids (and spouse) compliments and acknowledgements. He wasn’t allowed any other kinds of comments or conversations. If he couldn’t say something positive, he didn’t say anything. As you can imagine, this was harder for him to do but he stuck with it for several weeks and started noticing a positive shift in his relationship with his kids and spouse.
Of course, there were challenges and course corrections along the way – he was changing deeply held beliefs that informed his behavior. But the point is that without new practices to help him change the ineffective habit he’d become aware of, he would have just done more of the same and gotten the same results.
Change requires new awareness, for sure! BUT, what is also needed are new behaviors and actions to embed, embody and express that new awareness. That’s where the amazing and exponential power of practice comes in! And you can create new practices for supporting every area of your life – for creating a healthier relationship with money, for becoming a more collaborative leader, for awakening creative energy when it’s time to innovate in your organization, for leading others through uncertainty in a mood of peace, for taking better care of ourselves, for connecting more deeply with our children, for bringing more fun and play into our life, for forgiving others, for dealing with difficult co-workers, for holding complexity and uncertainty in a mood of curiosity and ambition.
So go ahead and make your New Year’s resolution but just don’t stop there! Design new practices so you’re successful at them.