Much of what happens to us in a day is the result of old behavior patterns that worked for us in the past -- of habit versus choice; of reaction versus conscious thought; of intuition versus intention. Think of the thousands of choices you make over the course of a day:
- Your actions when you get to your desk in the morning.
- How you respond when you pass a colleague in the hall.
- How you prepare for and show up to meetings.
What percentage of the choices you make each day do you make consciously? How carefully do you think about the goals and intentions each choice is supporting?
There is nothing wrong with habits. Without habits, we’d barely make it through the day. Try spending an entire day thinking intentionally about each choice you’re making. You’ll be mentally exhausted. The skill lies in discerning which patterns no longer serve your current needs and which new behaviors will bring the greatest benefit.
I once worked with a new company president who had the makings of a great leader. She set high standards for herself and her team. Her intention was to foster an environment of innovation but she operated in ways that made others fearful of being anything but perfect.
She told her team that she valued out-of-the-box thinking, but when new ideas were raised, she would dive into the details and highlight obstacles. How her thought process worked stifled her team’s creativity and created a more formal atmosphere. When she realized that she became more intentional about how her behavior and how it impacted the environment. Within six months the organization shifted. The result: multiple innovative ideas made it to the consumer and moved the company forward.
The ability to behave in a new way is a matter of discipline and attention. Anyone seeking to change will typically go through three layers of growth:
1. Awareness is the foundation of any change. Before you can change, you must have a cognitive understanding of what you’re trying to change and why. Examine your goals and be specific. Honestly consider your behavior. Ask for feedback and be a good listener. Then consciously choose which changes will have the greatest return on your investment and go after those first.
2. Integration turns cognition into behavior. This leap is hard to make and causes the most frustration. Think, for example, about going on a diet. While your brain may fire up picturing the weight loss goal, you may still reach for a bag of M&M’s before realizing, behaviorally, that you just ran counter to what your brain said is your goal.
Especially under stress, we will go quickly back to old patterns because they provide a measure of comfort. The good news is that, according to a 2010 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, messing up occasionally doesn’t seem to impact the formation of a new habit. You don’t need to start at square one every time you lapse. Be persistent.
3. Embodiment is about consistency over time. Growth is a process, not an event. According to the study above, it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic, but can take as long as eight months. Consistency has a compounding effect. The more you behave in a specific way, the more likely the behavior will continue. Be patient.
As the model shows, successful change is a matter of choice and consistency: recognizing a challenge or opportunity, deciding to act differently, and resolving to be persistent. It’s not easy; however, it is within your power. Ask yourself: What do I want to achieve? Who do I want to be as a leader? What will it take to get there? Recognize that everything you do reinforces or detracts from those goals. Every moment is a choice.