Changing habits is hard, yet a lot of my work involves people changing habits. Often, it is habitual behavior that is standing between them and their aspirations.
Every day I see individuals, teams, and sometimes very large groups of people experience this challenge. But despite their best intentions, they can easily fail unless they make sure they understand the five principles of behavior change.
If you want to make progress with changing a behavior or a habit, keep these five principles in mind.
1. Make it specific: Broad generalized behavioural change goals like “be a better leader” or “communicate more with my team” don't work. For two reasons: first they are too vague and imprecise to know what you should be doing differently. Second, they are too easy to excuse yourself for not doing them or even worse, delude yourself that you did when in fact you didn’t!
Rather than stating “I’m going to communicate more with my team” make a more precise statement like “I am going to meet with my team at least once a week for half an hour”. This provides a much more concrete goal that you can action.
The other benefit of making your behavioral goal more specific is that this will make it more measurable. Why this matters is explained in principle 4 – measure it.
2. Identify the triggers: Most of our habitual behaviours are triggered by situations or environmental signals. So, use them; program an alert into the calendar on your iPhone to remind you to do that new thing. Or write a keyword boldly in a visible place.
For example, I work with an executive team that decided that they wanted to “ask more questions, listen more generously and debate more fiercely”. Rather than trusting that they would all naturally remember to do these new things in their weekly meetings, they agreed to splash these statements in bold across the top of their meeting agendas, place large poster-sized copies of these words on the four walls of their usual meeting place, and program a reminder alert that would appear on their iPhones whenever they were in their team meeting location. Because of this they are staying diligently focused on their behaviours and making progress.
3. Hang out with supporters: Alcoholics anonymous is one of most successful behavior change programs in the world. One of the key ideas is for members to regularly spend time with others who share the same behavior change goal by attending weekly or monthly meetings.
You can do something similar with your behavior change by finding and spending time with others who have already mastered your target behavior or are working on it too.
I’ve seen recently a great example of this. I have an executive coaching client who wanted to work on her mindfulness. So she implemented weekly lunchtime mindfulness sessions at her office and invited all her colleagues to attend. The first week it was just her. The second week two more people turned up. The third week there were nine people in the room. These sessions are now so popular that they have moved them a conference room to accommodate all the people. My client tells me that these mindful gatherings of like-minded people have been incredibly encouraging and motivating to her and she attributes much of her personal progress to them.
4. Measure your progress: There’s an old saying in management – “that which gets measured gets done”. We can borrow from this principle in effecting behavior change. There is loads of scientific literature that shows that if you track your current behaviour, you are much more likely to make the necessary small and incremental changes in your daily life that add up to significant change over time.
This is the principle behind much of the efficacy of fit bits and other motion monitoring devices.
Finding a way to measure the behavior you want to adopt isn’t always easy but it can make a huge difference. One of my big clients is a great example of doing this in different ways.
When this leadership group decided to adopt a set of leadership behaviours they had to find a way of measuring whether they were living them – or not! So they implemented a simple ritual at the end of every monthly town hall meeting. Every person at the meeting – which numbered in the hundreds - could rate them on their behaviours using a anonymous polling app on their smartphone. That meant that the leaders got feedback on a monthly basis from those that most directly experienced their leadership. In addition, every three months each leader had to sit with one of their colleague’s team and ask them to share their observations of that managers behavior. They had to then go back and share the observations with their colleague. Finally, they really beefed up the measurement piece when they updated their annual engagement survey to ask questions about the leadership teams behavior as well. Imagine that – getting measurement every month, quarterly and annually in three different ways.
Obviously this leadership group are making great progress in staying focused on living their leadership behaviours.
5. Implement consequences: Finally but perhaps most importantly, there must be positive and negative consequences related to making progress with the behavior change. Without this it is too easy for people give up or avoid doing the at times hard work of behavior change.
Both the carrot and the stick are useful here. Don't listen to the rubbish that rewards should be used and punishments avoided. That doesn't make sense when you consider that your brain is designed to motivate actions that maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
A friend of mine experienced this recently. He was highly motivated to lose weight so he committed to exercise regularly (three times a week) and eat out less (no more than twice a week). He set himself a weight loss target for three months out and then did something really interesting. Because he had made similar commitments before (and failed) he used an app called Kik to put in place a really unpleasurable outcome if he failed to meet his goal. You see, he entered his weight loss goal and timeframe into the program, entered his credit card details and then committed to pay several thousand dollars to an organisation that he greatly despises should he fail to meet his weight loss goal. Once he made the commitment, he couldn’t reverse it. The only way that could avoid paying the money was if he was able to verify that the weight loss goal had been met. I won’t go into the detail of the verification process but let me say it was very robust. Needless to say that my friend worked hard over those three months to hit his target!
Keep these 5 principles in mind the next time you commit to do something differently. They can have a huge impact on your success.