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The Power of Habits

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in Remarkable Leadership with Kevin Eikenberry

I am often reminded of the power of habits in my personal life, and today I want to explore that with you and make some important connections to our role as leaders, why it can be difficult, and how to improve our success.

Two Kinds of Habits

While all habits are automatic responses, they fall into two basic types: considered and not considered. “Considered” habits are probably what you thought about when you read the title of this article—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, well, habitual, like how we respond in certain situations, our gestures, on which side of our mouth we start brushing our teeth, how we greet people on the phone and more.

Recognizing that habits, by their nature, are largely subconscious is an important part of this article. More important though is knowing that any individual habit can become conscious, considered and therefore changed.

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—all done in habit. And this isn’t just about what happens when you might still be (partly) asleep. A whole myriad of things are done habitually at work too. Let’s take a meeting. Where you sit, how you sit, how you greet people, when, how and how often you speak, whether you ask questions or not (and lots more): all habit.

Habits are Necessary

Overall, habits are an exceedingly good thing—without them, we couldn’t survive life as we know it. It might be frightening to think about how much of your life (conversations and decisions, for example) runs on the autopilot of habit. Frightening perhaps, but completely needed. Our subconscious mind is so powerful that it can just take care of all this stuff for us. Our relatively feeble conscious mind wouldn’t be able to handle all of the input. Our challenge is to be aware that it all exists (even if we aren’t aware of it all 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 are at the Heart of our Results

Author Robert Collier wrote, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Habits. He could have also written—while less inspirational but just as accurately—“Failure is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”  

Here’s the fact: 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 adjusting them to create new results.  

Moving the change from conscious (a considered habit)—also known as discipline—to subconscious (read not considered)—effortless—is where the real acceleration will come.

Our Habits Teach Others How to Work With Us

Here is a quick exercise. 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 you are doing is informing and allowing or permitting people to respond or work with you in that way. Rather than focusing on changing them, why not focus on what is more in your control anyway: changing yourself (first)?

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 someone to turn in their reports on time, explaining the virtues of the new work process, or outlining a 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 patient, influential, and successful.

Remarkable Principle: Remarkable leaders know the power of their habits goes beyond themselves to everyone they lead.

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