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Eight Steps to Take When Habits Become Hurdles

I have discovered two truths about myself in my career. First, like most humans, I am a creature of habit. Second, some of my habits are good and some, not so good.

At times, my routines can become ruts. And the thing I need most is to get out of the “rut” and into the “groove” again. When I’ve practiced some of my habits for years and years, they can become addictions. And that’s when I must treat them severely, like an addiction. Whether it’s a bad leadership practice, or a poor, antiquated teaching pedagogy, I need a game plan to break the old habit and start a new one.

Let me suggest the following strategy:

photo credit: dpup Typical Weeknight via photopin (license)

photo credit: dpup Typical Weeknight via photopin (license)

1. Identify the specific habit you want to change.

We don’t change by simply desiring change. Desire must be accompanied by specific targets to hit. Our first step in improving ourselves is to recognize one or two clear habits or attitudes we need to improve. I suggest you even write them down. The more specific you are, the better your odds are of changing your behavior. Once you jot it down, try writing out the specific reason why it needs to change.

2. Replace the old habit with a new one.

Because we are creatures of habit, we usually cannot rid ourselves of a bad habit without replacing it with a new and better one. The key is not to focus on rejecting the bad habit. (If that’s all we think about, we’re destined to repeat it.) We must discover new behaviors or approaches to our goal and immediately initiate those to replace the previous ones. For example, if my usual approach to instruction is to ask students to open their textbooks to page such and such, and begin lecturing, I must create a new approach—perhaps with an activity, or video, or competition, or panel discussion, or interview or social media interaction or insightful question.

3. Re-arrange your environment.

According to research, most of us are visual learners. Consequently, re-arranging our classroom, workroom, practice room or environment can go a long way in fostering our desired change. Changing the look of the environment sparks innovative atmospheres and cultures—which ignite and sustain new thoughts and attitudes. If you feel you’re not creative enough to know how to transform the look and feel of your environment, find a friend who is and ask for help. Communicate your goal and together alter your space to design a fresh, new look. Retailers and vendors know their customers respond to state-of-the-art marketing plans. So it is with us.

4. Station the new habit next to a current healthy one.

Let me explain by an example. Decades ago I tried to begin the new habit of reading every night before I went to sleep. As you know, it takes a while to establish a new habit, and I wasn’t being very successful. Eventually I came up with the idea to place the current book I was reading next to my toothbrush. I already had a habit of brushing my teeth, and now I had a reminder of the new habit I desired. This visual reminder helped me to launch a new lifestyle—and the habit continues.

5. Use new language to accompany the new habit.

The late Dr. Hans Selye popularized the discovery that every human being has a “reticular activating system” inside of them. One of the outcomes of this small membrane in the back of our cranial area is to cause us to move in the direction of the dominant thought of the moment. What we think about and talk about, tends to push us toward aligning action. This is why our thoughts and words are so critical to our habits and attitudes. My question is—why not use this reality to our advantage? Why not identify vocabulary and terminology that will guide our conduct and habits? I mentioned earlier, we’ve leveraged terms at our organization, Growing Leaders, like “pracademic,” and “edutainment” and “humbitious.” They are combined words that spark a feeling and approach to our work.

6. Give it time. It’s a process.

We’ve all heard for years that creating new habits takes somewhere between two and three weeks of daily practice. New practices happen over time—not overnight. Don’t give up. Don’t grow weary. If you’ve been using a particular pedagogy for decades, you can expect it won’t go away quickly. Stay intentional, consistent and conscious of your new habit for 14-21 days, and you’ll likely see the positive improvement you desire. To use one of our Habitudes®, remember, you’re in a “crock pot” not a “microwave oven.” Give yourself the time, and you’re going to love the results.

7. Invite accountability.

Positive change is accelerated when I invite other people to hold me accountable for the changes I wish to make. When I know I am going to be asked whether I followed through on what I committed to do—I am much more likely to actually do it. The principle in short is simple: “people do better when they are watched.” Right now, I have two good friends (peers that I respect) who I meet with monthly for friendly accountability. We grab coffee and ask each other about the plans and goals we’ve set and encourage each other to sustain our progress.

8. Make it fun.

When humans connect actions with amusement (meaning we like it and perceive it as pleasurable), we experience a dopamine spike inside of us. Dopamine flows when we sense anything likable and it nudges in that direction. For instance, many students and adults feel the effects of dopamine when their phone pings with a text message or other social media communication. Consequently, our best chance for change is to find a way to make our new habit feel “fun.” The dopamine will help you stick to your new ways. In the words of Mary Poppins, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”

Question: What is a change you want to personally make? When will you start?

This piece is a small excerpt from my new book, Marching Off the Map, to be released in the Spring of 2017. You can pre-order copies January 1st for your entire staff.


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Eight Steps to Take When Habits Become Hurdles