Habits are hard to break. Why? Because you need to rewire your brain to make it focus on a new activity. Your brain has gotten comfortable with the old activities in the same way you’ve gotten comfortable with routine tasks. It takes 21 days of conscious effort for your brain to create neural pathways to support the new behavior and turn it into a habit.
Recently I took part in an internal test where we evaluated a tool designed to help people establish a new habit or overcome a bad one. The 21-Day Challenge was developed to change one small thing we, as managers, do. I wanted to work one single item at a time and not move on until it was completed. Too often the item I’m working on is abandoned when I’m interrupted by a phone call, email or visit from someone who has an issue that I can resolve quickly.
As part of the Challenge, I followed the steps –
- I committed to the item.
- I understood the benefits of making the change.
- I made it a focus at the start of each new day.
- I rated my daily performance toward my new goal.
And then I skipped a day. Somehow that turned into another day. Then another.
What happened? I didn’t change my mind regarding the benefits of the new behavior or make an affirmative choice to abandon my participation in the test. So why didn’t I follow through? How can you and other managers avoid the same fate?
All you have to do is run an internet search on “habit” or “discipline” to find more than enough information on the subject. You can read a blog or buy a book or sign up for a service or even attend a seminar – all designed to teach you to create and sustain a new habit.
There is some agreement on how difficult it is to establish a new habit, but there are many different approaches. Most approaches start with the foundation that individuals know what they should do, but they don’t do it (as was the case for me).
- Tactics like setting aside the same time every day for the new activity or having a reminder system can certainly help incorporate a new habit into your daily routine.
- Using a trigger or association can also help by building upon an existing habit to support the new behavior while you are establishing it.
- If you are more likely to do something when others expect it of you, creating a system of peer pressure can be a helpful support for you.
All those ideas can be helpful once you’ve gotten over the biggest hurdle – changing your thinking or leaving your comfort zone. Most of the habits we wish to change don’t cause us to truly challenge our basic beliefs or reinvent how we approach life, but they may cause us to change our daily routine.
In order to adopt a new behavior, we may need to abandon old ones or replace them with the desired behavior. There is comfort in doing things the same way even when we know they aren’t good for us and creating a new habit requires us to leave that comfort zone. If we aren’t truly committed to the change, it’s too easy to fall back into our past ruts.
In my case, I had committed to participating in the test, but I hadn’t committed to really changing my behavior. The cost of continuing the old behavior wasn’t high enough for me to sustain the effort required to change. Having tools to help me establish my new habit didn’t work for me since I hadn’t completed the first step – determining that I needed to make the change.
Before you invest in any of the multitude of tools, systems or courses designed to help you create or change a habit, be sure you have laid the foundation for the new behavior by understanding your own commitment, so you don’t end up in the situation I did.
Now, armed with my new appreciation for the process, I’m ready to start over with the 21-Day Challenge. I predict better results this time. I’ll let you know how successful I am.
By Nancy Lane, Director of Human Resources, Red Book Solutions