Over the years, I have noticed a real pattern in my behaviour around holidays. The first few days see me collapsing in a heap, having run myself ragged trying to get everything finished before leaving for a break. Then, as I start to recover I become active – visiting places, getting jobs done, catching up with friends, etc. The final stage, the one I am in now – is thinking about what I am going to do differently in the future so that I don’t start my next holiday collapsed in a heap!
Sound familiar? I have also noticed that despite my best efforts, the goals I return to work with are quickly forgotten as the juggle of trying to get everything done takes over. Clearly I am missing something! Based on my conversations with other leaders, I am not alone.
This week I listened to a Brené Brown’s podcast with James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, and I realised that there were two main things I am missing. Firstly, I have been thinking about the changes I want to make in my life as goals, rather than habits. James Clear says, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”
It is not the goals we set that matter the most, but the habits we build around those goals that lead to meaningful change. James also points out that the changes to our habits don’t need to be large ones. They just need to be consistent so that over time they become a habit. Small changes have a compounding effect when seen in the long term. I think we’ve all been where Pooh is in this picture below:
“Checking if that salad I ate last week has worked its magic yet.”
As I listened to the podcast, I thought about how good I used to be about getting exercise everyday. Irrespective of where I was, I would ensure I exercised for an hour. This habit faded when one of my glutes started playing up and walking for an hour on days when I couldn’t make the gym left me crippled. I’ve now figured out how to manage my glute. What I haven’t figured out is how to reinstate my walking habit. I realised I’d become trapped in thinking that I needed to walk for an hour. Turns out, I just need to walk each day! If on some days all I can manage is ten minutes, then that is fine because I am creating the habit of daily exercise.
The second thing I realised I was missing is that if you really want to nail a new habit, then you need to line it up with your identity. James Clear puts it this way: “The real reason that habits matter is that they reinforce the kind of person that you see yourself as being. They cast votes for a certain type of identity.”
So, if we wanted to create a habit of being fully present in meetings, then we would need to start thinking of ourselves as a leader who is fully present. From then on, when we are in a meeting and an email alert floats across our screen, we can mentally ask ourselves, “What would a leader who is fully present do now?” It is such a simple strategy but so powerful.
I often quote Jerry Sternin’s wise observation, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”
I actually want to take Sternin’s quote one step further and ask:
How might we act our way into the person we want to become?
The first step is to be clear about who we want to be. Do we want to be the leader who values people over output? Do we want to be the parent who prioritises their children over their work? Do I want to be the person who doesn’t start holidays collapsed in a heap?
Spending time getting clarity about exactly who we want to be is important. Once we know who it is we want to become, we then need to figure out a first step we could take AND devise a system to ensure we take it. Taking this first step over and over will create a habit which in time we can scale.