How often have you been heard someone claim to have “the magic answer” about how to break a bad habit? You know, how to stop drinking all those sugary sodas, or eating all that other junk food? Or sleeping late, or chewing your fingernails, or smoking, or, or, or…
At the same time we’re also admonished daily to “start exercising regularly,” or to write a blog post every day, no matter what, or to “work on that next book for an hour every morning, before you look at your email.” We know we should do the important things first, and put aside the stuff that doesn’t matter, even when the boss is making noises like “get that report on my desk by Noon today.” It always seems so much easier said than done.
But all too often we become the victims of others’ demands, and in spite of the best intentions when we sit down at the workstation first thing in the morning, we so often lose control of those well-intended plans. The reality of responding to others’ requests for our time, our ideas, and our efforts always seems to take over. Sir Robert Burns was right: "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley" ("go often awry").
Obviously, if there were an easy solution to this never-ending problem of time management, we would all be doing it, and we’d all be a whole lot more effective (but of course it's not about time managements skills, it's about self-management).
As I sit here in a hotel room on a Monday morning I certainly don’t have that easy answer for you (or for me). But I am ramping up the intensity of my own efforts to break bad habits and start new ones. I am newly determined to take better advantage of the one aspect of my work that I do have some control of: the way I use time.
But I don’t expect to transform myself or my habits overnight. I’ve been thinking a whole lot lately about the weakness, and even total irrelevance, of good intentions. No matter what I say about what I want to on a given day, if I don’t actually do it, that’s another day gone by that hasn’t seen any meaningful change in my actions, or my results. At this point in my life I think I know what I need to do - what I need to change if I want do get different results.
As that old saying goes, “If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always gotten.”
But one of my new guiding principles (perhaps the most important one) is not trying to do the whole makeover at once: I'm focusing on one small step for me every day.
The longest journey begins with a single step (to re-state another familiar truism).
Far too many of us get caught up with the excessive enthusiasm that a new insight or new role model inevitably produces. Then we rush to get to the “new place” that we see so clearly. And we trip over our lack of skills, or lack of understanding, or lack of the right tools to accomplish the goal we can now imagine.
In the absence of a massive crisis – like a heart attack – don’t take on a bigger or more rapid change than you can handle. Rather, once you are clear about your ultimate goal, take one small step in the right direction today, and another one tomorrow. And don’t beat yourself up if you slip off the path once in a while. After a week or two you just might be surprised at how far you’ve come – and at how close that new behavior is to becoming the new habit you need it to be.
I am convinced the most important aspect of achieving personal transformation or, to put it much, much more simply, of building new habits, is that it has to feel good to you, almost every step of the way. If you do something you like doing that produces an outcome that makes you feel good about yourself, I guarantee you’ll do it again.
At one level, it’s that simple: do what you like, and you’ll like what you do – and you’ll keep on doing it.
That’s the first step on the pathway to taking charge of the future.
What experiences have you had in building new habits, or dropping bad ones? Does “creeping incrementalism” make sense as a strategy for change?