How to change a habit

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

“What you do every day creates a culture.”

These are a couple of truths that really resonated with me at a leadership conference this weekend.

It doesn’t matter how great your strategy is, if it goes against culture, culture will always win.

And I’ve certainly seen that a lot lately, with groups I’ve worked with who have felt at the mercy of their organisational culture – non-stop culture, last minute culture, email 24/7 culture, immediate response culture, crazy deadline culture…

Let’s take that down to a personal level for a minute. We can have great plans, brilliant strategy and the best of intentions, but it is the things we do on a daily basis that have the biggest bearing on where we end up and how fast we get there. The little things we do every day. Our habits.

I’ve been working on one of my habits this week – trying to change my “just in time” habit into a “in plenty of time” habit.

You see I’ve always been a last minute girl, and most the time I do that pretty well. But “just in time” is risky business for a Productivity Ninja – let’s face it, it just wouldn’t look good if I turned up late to my own session would it? And it’s also exhausting, all that worrying and panicking, and rushing and running. And there’s the fact that trains and planes, unlike friends, won’t wait for you.

So how do you change a habit of a lifetime? Here are four key steps:

1. Understand the pay off

Habits form for a reason. And they stick for a reason. If you find a habit hard to shift, the chances are, there’s still a pay-off somewhere – however annoying or useless you think it is. And the more that reason stays in your subconscious, the more you’ll find yourself subconsciously sabotaging your efforts to change.

For me, it’s the adrenaline. The buzz of meeting a deadline just in time. And my impatience at having to wait if I get somewhere early, thinking I could have done ‘just one more thing’ if I had left a little later.

What’s your pay-off? If there’s a habit you’re trying to kick, what might you potentially be giving up or letting go of, if you did kick it? Be honest with yourself.

2. Raise the stakes

We often stick with habits even when we know they don’t serve us because, well quite frankly, it’s not hurting enough. I hate running last minute for a train and worrying if I’ll get there on time. I hate the difference 10 minutes can make between calm and serene vs stressed and sweaty. But most the time I get away with it. It’s ok. The world doesn’t end, therefore I don’t really have to change. I’d like to, but I don’t have to.

Inertia is a powerful force. If you want to change a habit, you need to have a big enough reason. You need to be bothered enough – or as a friend of mine has as her mantra “Be arsed!”

This week the stakes were higher. I was flying to Geneva to speak at a conference. The client had paid for my air fare and was meeting me at the gate. If I was late, not only would I look a complete muppet, but goodness knows how much it would have cost – if it was even possible – to book myself last minute on the next flight. There was no Plan B. So I couldn’t run the risk of running late.

How could you raise the stakes? Take away plan B. Or play the movie forwards. If you continued with your current habit day in, day out, what culture would you create? What reality would you create for yourself and those around you?

3. Sweeten the deal

Make the new path more irresistible.

Feedback and reward are key to changing habits. If I’m going to let go of my adrenaline rush and deal with my impatience, I need a good incentive.

This week, my reward for arriving in plenty of time to London Heathrow was pancakes for breakfast at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant 🙂

I’m a sucker for bribery. It works just as well on me as it does on my kids.

pancakes

4. Forget perfection

So I managed to do “ahead of time” beautifully in my trip to Geneva this week, but there have still been plenty of other “oops better hurry up” moments in the week.

And that’s ok. That’s absolutely fine.

You see, if we expect our habits to change completely and instantly, perfection will have us giving up before we’ve barely gotten started. It takes time to change habits, and the key is to keep reinforcing progress, not dismissing it.

And who says I want to go completely the other way anyway? It’s up to you to decide how you want to change your habits. Don’t let perfection tell you otherwise.

Over to you. What habits have you successfully shifted before? What worked for you? What habit are you trying to change right now? Let me know in the comments below…

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