Years ago a wise person told me the "problem for most people and organizations isn't not knowing what to do, but figuring out how to change ourselves and how to help others change." Changing your own habits can feel about as futile as climbing Mount Everest, let alone empowering others to change!
But why is it so hard to change our habits? A recent survey on wellness efforts in the workplace showed that the number one challenge companies' face is how to get people to achieve sustainable changes in their lifestyle.
So how do we change habits? Over the last decade a great deal of research has emerged on changing habits. Not surprisingly, it turns out that it all begins with your belief system. Believing you can change your habits is a pretty good predictor of whether you will or not.
Research conducted by Carol Dweck at Stanford University showed that our "mindset" is the key factor that determines whether or not we will change. Your beliefs are often created by your thoughts, and negative self-talk such as, "I am not artistic, not a good speaker, not a people person, not a good (fill in the blank)," has the potential to come true.
If you entertain thoughts like that, it should be no mystery as to why you're having trouble creating change. If we think something won't change we probably won't try very hard or very long to change it. As Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right."
Another crucial thing to remember is that it takes about three to five months before we really replace an old habit with a new one. People give up long before the new habit takes hold. Studies at Harvard by Alvaro Pascual Leone show that the brain maps of people learning new skills revert back to old patterns even with just two days off from learning for about three or four months which means the old habit still dominates.
But after about four months, even with time off, the new habit begins to dominate. We have to be a lot more patient and perseverant.
We are also discovering that some habits are what may be termed "key habits." It turns out that some habits tend to produce broader changes once we implement them. Here are two examples: people who start exercising usually start eating better but not the other way around. People who keep logbooks of what they eat everyday are more likely to lose weight.
Organizations can also use key habits to drive change. For example, in hospitals, implementing the simple habit of leaders doing "daily rounds" (having a defined time every day to go out and talk to patients and staff) often leads to gains of up to fifty per cent in patient satisfaction. University faculties who regularly meet and talk about their research (and talk about how they can collaborate) produce more published research than those faculty teams who don't.
In my book Stepping Up, I tell the story of Don Knauss who took over as the leader of the worst region for Frito-Lay and within a year helped them achieve first place. One of the secrets was instituting a new habit of having route drivers meet every week to benchmark their numbers with each other and share ideas for increasing sales. On the back of that habit, Knauss took his region from worst in the U.S. to the best in less than eight months.
It is important to remember that it takes time and patience to change habits. For example, the average person who quits smoking will have seriously tried to quit eight to 12 times before finally succeeding. The emerging neuroscience suggests that old habits never die, but rather they are simply replaced by new habits. Whether the habit is a personal one or an organizational one, we often stop trying when just on the brink of change. Leaders need to recognize that it may take several significant change efforts before new organizational habits begin to dominate.
There are two final things to know if you want to change habits. The first is that by being connected to others who are trying to make changes, it becomes twice as likely that you will adopt new habits. And second, you can't change anyone else. In fact, research suggests that people may even be less likely to change when someone else is telling them why they should change.
Telling others to change is disempowering. Getting them in touch with their own motivation is the key. Rather than telling someone why they should change, ask them what benefits would come to them if they chose to change and how motivated they are to make the change. Then ask them what step they are willing to take right now to get started.
Here are five tips for changing yourself and empowering others:
1) Change one thing at a time and give it a three to four month period of time. Once you have made real progress then move on to another change.
2) Try to find a "key habit" that will shift things. For example, if you tend to be a leader who focuses on tasks instead of connecting with people, spend the first thirty minutes of every workday connecting with people.
3) Be accountable to another person. Get a change partner and meet each week to talk about progress and ideas.
4) Don't give up if you can't change your habits (or your team's habits) the first time. Falling back into old habits is natural and most people who make a significant change have tried many times before finally succeeding.
5) Never try to change someone else. Instead, help them get in touch with their own motivation for change, identifying what is in it for them to change and choosing a step they are willing to take.