We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle
I just finished a series of articles on laying out a framework for effecting change in your life. If you haven’t been following, you might want to start here and read through in order to catch up. Last week we discussed willpower and today I’ll close out this thread with a discussion about the all-important power of habit.
Since assuming my position at Evaero in 2001 I have become very dependent on habits to not only help me do a better job as CEO, but to also help me find happiness and fulfillment.
How habits have helped me professionally
Regardless of your leadership role, whether it be parent, rabbi, coach, manager, or small business owner the amount of decisions one has to make on a continual basis can at times be suffocating and exhausting. To ensure I have the bandwidth I need to make important decisions, I use habits to automate things in my life that aren’t as high a priority.
From the clothing I wear, to the coffee and lunch I make, I intentionally limit the choices I have to make in the morning in order to get ready for work. Although I hugely appreciate the role fashion has in adding texture to our lives and am genuinely passionate about food, during the week, I don’t want to waste my “decision making” bandwidth on what I’m going to wear or eat. Even when I travel on business, so that I don’t have to research and decide between hotel coffee and a cafe, I travel with instant espresso (here is my favorite) and a vacuum coffee container that fits in the side pocket of my computer backpack.
If you’ve spent any time running a business and believe in doing the right thing, you know many of the decisions you make are rarely black and white. Because I don’t want to lose sleep over these types of decisions, I habitually ask myself (and my staff) if a particular course of action I’ve chosen aligns with our mission, values, or quality policy. If I discover it is at odds, I’ll reflect on my decision and modify my decision accordingly. In fact, it’s because I want to empower my staff to think the same way when they are faced with difficult decisions that I ask them to recite our mission, values, and quality policy during each one of our 121s.
People’s lives depend on companies like Evaero to do the right thing all the time. It’s a hard balance to strike as the effects of commoditization, weapons of supply-chain destruction such as reverse auctions, and global competition make it ever more difficult to stay in business. Acquiring effective decision making habits can go a long way to ensure you don’t overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost of doing the wrong thing.
I’ve previously written about ethics, and one doesn’t need to look far (e.g., Massey Energy, General Motors, and Takata) to know when you are faced with the really hard decisions, you shouldn’t also have to worry about what’s for lunch, the color of your tie (or the size of your hands).
How habits have helped me find happiness and fulfillment
Those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile know that, while I’m keenly aware you have to make money to stay in business, money is simply not the focus of my life. Instead, I find happiness in improving, helping others, learning new things, authentic relationships, and being grateful for what I have. Because habits can be helpful with each of these items, there is a direct connection between my habits and my happiness.
A quick example.
Previously, I shared with you my experience of trying to learn how to speak French. Although the tools I recommended in that article contributed to my learning success, the single most important factor was my daily habit of practice. Even if I only had five minutes, was on a business trip or on vacation, every morning before my family would wake up, I’d spend a little time practicing. Although there were setbacks along the way (e.g., my six-year old son laughing at me) the habit I acquired gave me the will to stick with the practice and and in turn brought with it steady and measurable progress and subsequently, happiness and fulfillment.
When I started writing this blog some time ago I substituted my morning French studies with writing. Today, even if I’m short on time or on travel, by no later than 5 AM I sit myself down and try and get some words on paper. Although there continue to be major setbacks (few things are more painful than staring at a blank screen at 5 AM with writer’s block), the new habit has given me the will to stick with it and and in turn, has brought steady and measurable progress. This in fact, is my 80th article and, inspired by some of the emails and feedback I’ve received, I’ll soon be using my early morning time to write a book on some of the subjects we’ve been discussing since January.
Habits have helped me do my job better despite being an introvert. (Maybe it was the Dungeons and Dragon I played when I was a kid.) I’ve intentionally engineered certain habits into my life, and to that end, social interactions are less draining today than they once were. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll never be able to make “sales calls,” but these changes have gone a long way to help me find happiness and fulfillment :
- A daily plant walkthrough encourages a regular habit of engaging with everyone I work with.
- Having a 121 agenda (see here for an example) facilitates a habit of regular 121’s with my staff.
- Reserving a page in my notebook to take note of people who I want to thank has made it easier to get into the habit of being grateful.
- In my own way, doing my best to honor the Sabbath allows me to recharge my social batteries.
- Reserving dinner time for family and friends* makes it easy to keep a habit of making time for people who are important in my life.
The linkage between habits and the power to change
At the end of his excellent book on the subject of habits, Charles Duhigg discusses the revelations of American philosopher and psychologist William James (emphasis my own):
Later, he would famously write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient for creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits….Do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.
In other words, as noted by Duhigg:
If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you chose them to be. Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as James wrote, that bears “us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Or, as noted by Gretchen Rubin in her book Better than Before (H/T Maria Popova):
When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then — and this is the best part — we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits.
There is however a downside to habits for, as noted by Rubin:
Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own existence.
Indeed, reflecting on her own life Rubin writes:
Habit is a good servant but a bad master. Although I wanted the benefits that habits offer, I didn’t want to become a bureaucrat of my own life, trapped in paperwork of my own making. (H/T to Maria Popova)
In fact, it’s with this in mind that the framework I’ve been introducing since January has been designed. With a notebook in hand, a scientific approach, and the availability of a collaborator one can cycle through the steps of plan-do-review-renew and:
- Choose the habits that will lead to success.
- Use willpower to get habits started.
- Let habits take over while still paying attention to your feelings.
- Stop, reflect, and rest while making sure the choices you’ve made are marching you “irresistibly toward your destiny, wherever the latter may be.”
Before saying goodbye, I recently read that Rhino Records is planning an exhibition celebrating the 40 year anniversary of the Ramones’ first album. So cool. Thinking back on my undergraduate engineering days I remember powering through late night Fortran programming sessions with my friend Chuck fueled on caffeine, nicotine, and the Ramones. Although I don’t have fond memories of Fortran and it has been a long time since I’ve listened to the Ramones, it seems appropriate to take a sharp detour on our musical journey (catalogued here) and leave you with a song off of their seminal album.
* I’ll have lunch with just about anyone but, even when I travel for work, I go to great lengths to reserve my evening time for people that are important in my life.
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