A couple of years ago I turned 40. Running a mile made me feel like I was likely to have a heart attack - it was more than wheezing, it was painful. I realized that I was at a precipice. I could either get in shape or spend the rest of my life couch surfing. That was not the kind of mother I wanted to be. It was not the kind of human I wanted to be.
Professionally, it was also clear that people and organizations had to change and adapt to our new connected and technology-enabled world. To effectively help my clients, I needed to really dig in and understand how to create a complex habit change.
So I started to run. On my 40th birthday. Painfully. Slowly. Incrementally.
These days I'm running 4-6 miles at a clip. That astounds me. It's one of the hardest things I've ever done that I have choosen to do. There are plenty of both silly and legitimate "excuses" to not run on a daily basis. The weather. A crazy tough schedule between running a business and my daughter's daycare schedule. The pile of laundry. Travel. The feeling of selfishness that I get every time I leave my challenging toddler with my husband yet again for a long weekend run. The stack of client work left to do. I have had to re-commit to running every time I lace up.
I've learned some things along the way about behavior change:
- Before you can change, you need people around you who think you are awesome. Instead of looking at everything you do critically, they see and encourage your potential. I happened upon this - I found a boss, Susan Feldman at IDC, and my husband, Ted, about the same time. Before I met them, I didn't think there was any reason someone would think I was exceptional so I didn't object to being treated poorly. It turns out everyone is exceptional - and everyone deserves to be surrounded by at least a few people who understand that and encourage it. It is so critical that you find those people or be that person for someone else. Our organizations do a crap job of doing this for us - you must seek those people out yourself. By being with people who support you, you will start to belief that maybe you can change for the better - and you want to because they think it's possible.
- Reading The Power of Habit clarified some fundamentals needed for habit change: the mechanics of the change (what you will do differently), the belief that you can change and a community that supports and reinforces the change. This is one of the reasons I post my running to Facebook - to create positive social reinforcement from my community and make myself accountable to them. Find people who have made the same change you are looking to make - it is incredibly powerful.
- Micro changes (fractals again!) is what ultimately leads to big change. B.J. Fogg's Tiny Habits initiative got me started down this path but Beth Dunn gave this awesome presentation on Writing Like a God this year at Inbound13. You have to practice the change, in little bits, every day and you have to lower your expectations in order to do so. For me, I ran like sh*t for a long, long time. And that enabled me to run OK now.
- New research has discovered that willpower is a lot like a muscle. What that means is that learning to change one complex behavior makes it easier to change other behaviors. When we practice committing to a small change every day, over time we can increase the commitment. Related, Duhigg talks about keystone habits in The Power of Habit that then leads to secondary habit changes. For me, being a successful runner has reinforced the fact that I can choose my own destiny. I've let a lot of life happen to me. It hasn't been all bad but it has made me very reactive. The practice of setting a hard and very individual goal reinforced the belief that I can do the same thing in other areas of my life - and that belief is a large contributor to successful behavior change in the future.
- You need a trigger. For me, my 40th birthday was a milestone that caused me to wake up and decide that my current behavior was no longer acceptable. Your triggers will be different but ultimately it is as simple and as complex as making the decision to do something different.
- It is a long-term investment. Forget the 21 day rule of thumb that says if you do something for 21 days it becomes habitual. That was not the case for me. Over the last two years I've fallen off the wagon and got back on a few different times. I still don't feel like the change is so entrenched that it will automatically persist. I still have to make a commitment every time I go out, although it has gotten easier.
Reflecting on this at an organizational level, I also have a few thoughts:
- Our hiring and professional development structures are horrid. Supportive, not judgement-based mechanisms, are what we need for optimal achievement. That means the way we think about measuring education and training is all wrong too.
- The idea of the executive is outmoded. We need to think more in terms of coaches, not owners. Still incredibly powerful because they enable others, not because they amass riches themselves.
- The myth of the individual star is also wrong. I achieve because of the people around me - and hopefully vise versa - and my success is also their success. There should be acknowledgement and attribution of that. Instead because we are judged critically and individually, we are set up to compete against each other. In a competitive environment, we claim as much attribution as possible, which creates toxic cultures and arrests the very behavior that will make the organization or group radically more successful.
- Organizations need to accept people practicing and doing certain things like crap for awhile. This may be even harder to accept than failure. With behavior change you cannot fail fast because there is no failure, there is just crappy attempts until you become better.
My personal journey has been revealing, thought provoking and incredibly rewarding because I know now that I CAN do it - whatever it is. And that is worth much more than a few more hours of sleep... although I could use those too. I'm also starting to see much of what makes our organizational cultures toxic - and I hope my insight helps others see it too.
Have you changed a complex habit? What did you learn about yourself and your environment? I would love to hear!