By Gino Blefari
This week my travels find me in Northern California, taking meetings, participating in conference calls and helping our teams achieve their goals faster than they would in my absence. If you’ve been following our Thoughts on Leadership posts, you’ll remember we started off the year with an entire month dedicated to goals and this month, I’d like to talk about another important topic: habits.
If goals are the results you want to accomplish, then habits are the systems and processes that will lead you to those results. The goal will always be there no matter what you do, and the result of a goal is binary; either you achieve the goal, or you don’t. What separates a goal unachieved from one you’ve crushed to completion is the system you put in place to create a positive outcome.
This month—officially deemed Habits Month in our Thoughts on Leadership world—it’s the system for goal-achievement we’ll discuss. We’ll talk about the importance of making continuous, small improvements—small wins—to create positive habits and continuous, small eliminations to rid us of our negative ones.
But let’s start from the beginning: What are habits? To deconstruct the concept, we’ll be learning from the ideas put forth in a book I highly recommend: James Clear’s “Atomic Habits.” Clear is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and has coached huge organizations like the NBA and NFL to define and re-define their habits. In “Atomic Habits” he writes: “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”
Habits begin with a single decision, a solitary choice that takes you down a path of either success or failure. For instance, you decide to go to the gym or not go to the gym. Skipping exercise one time doesn’t mean you’ve formed a bad habit but that decision, compounded over weeks, means you have formed a habit of avoiding the gym. This is when a 1% decline here or there can lead to toxic results.
On the flip side, a small decision to do something positive when compounded over time forms a good habit, and once you’ve turned something into a habit, it enters the non-conscious portion of your brain and becomes automatic. The process is now a positive, automatic part of helping you reach your goal, which in this case might be to become healthier.
Whether it’s getting up early in the morning or spending more time reading books or listening to more podcasts, the small decisions you make bring you closer to turning the things you want to do into the things you automatically and habitually do.
As Clear wrote: “Your outcomes are the lagging measure of your habits … If you want to know where you’ll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line.”
In his book, Clear identifies habits that positively compound. These include productivity (accomplish one new task a day), knowledge (learn one new idea a day), and relationships (perform one small act of kindness per day).
As an example, last week I decided to focus on relationships and wanted to form a habit of doing more random acts of kindness.
I found myself in the Minneapolis airport, early for my flight. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is another habit I’ve formed, and I took the extra time as an opportunity to get in more steps. As I was walking through the terminal, I saw a family walking nearby. The father was carrying a full lunch from McDonald’s. Suddenly, the entire lunch fell from his hands and though the burgers were OK because they were in boxes, the fries scattered everywhere. He kicked the fries in frustration. The mom bent down on the floor to try to salvage what she could of the family’s lunch.
Immediately, as I watched the chips fall where they may, I knew what I had to do. I turned, went back to McDonald’s, quickly purchased fries and went in search of the family. Running through the airport, hot fries in hand, my determination finally paid off; I was able to spot them and said, “Look, you don’t know me, but I saw you dropped your French fries back there, so I bought these for you. Enjoy!”
It was easy. It was a 1% change that made a difference for them and hopefully, helped me form the habit of doing one random act of kindness per day.
So, what’s the message? Habits, both good and bad, compound over time. They’re not the result of some momentous change and instead, the outcome of the tiny decisions we make every day to either move us closer or farther away from our goals. Once a habit is formed, it’s automatic and next week, we’ll talk about simple processes Clear outlines in his book to get from the small decision to the ingrained habit and ultimately, to the achievement of your goals.