Want New Habits? Set Up More Reminders.

Change is only possible through the cultivation of new habits. Most of the time these habits grow or fade thanks to tiny, daily reminders.

We are, after all, trying to replace old habits with new ones, and we’re entitled to some help.

Reminders can be people or places, words, smells or feelings. They are formed through promises we make to others and intentions we set for ourselves.

Reminders nudge us to do the things we said we want to do—they push us forward when we feel like ignoring our best-laid plans, and, on the days we forget those plans entirely, reminders put them in front of us, in plain sight, where they’re impossible to ignore.

The reminder distracts us from the delusion that the choice of whether to do this new thing, today, is a big decision. It’s not. We already said this was important to us, and that decision won’t improve if we revisit it. Our job, today, is to start. Once we start, we tend to continue.

So whether it’s making a plan to meet someone for an early morning walk, chopping up the raw vegetables we want to eat instead of chips, a colleague giving us a supportive nod right before we walk on stage, or just whispering our intention to ourselves before a difficult conversation, one of our jobs is to set up reminders everywhere.

They help us turn our plans into habits, our habits into practices, and our practices into the new person we aim to become.

Commitments are a series of choices that we make again and again.

Reminders help make each of those choices a little more straightforward.

One Person

I remind myself that if this post can create a change for just one person, then it’s a good post and a good day.

One person, not hundreds or thousands or millions.

An individual who experiences a small shift and does something different because of it. Someone, somewhere, who takes words and ideas and turns them into positive action.

That shift doesn’t appear in the stats, the likes or the shares.

Those numbers measure something else, and maybe that something matters a bit, but it is poorly correlated with the thing I’d really like to measure: the number of people who are more hopeful today, more committed, more empowered to make a change they seek to make. The number of people who take one more step towards their mission to create positive change.

The measure of success is you and what you do.

Ain’t no stat for that, so why do I keep on checking the numbers?

And why do you?

Defaults

We schedule 60-minute meetings because Microsoft built it that way.

It’s just one of defaults that make up the fabric of our days.

The time we go to bed and wake up.

When show up at work, and when we go home.

What we say when someone asks “how are you?”

How we decide if we’ll stop for conversation.

Who we look in the eye.

What we do in the elevator.

And in the car, the train, the subway.

How, when and what we eat.

The first thing we do when we open our laptops, or when we have a free moment, or after concentrating hard for 15 minutes.

The number of minutes (seconds) we allow ourselves for unstructured time just to think.

Feeling rushed.

Acting rushed.

What counts as “real work.”

How honest we are with our boss, and with ourselves.

These are all defaults we’ve developed. Some are intentional, many are unconscious.

Most of them served us well once and don’t any more.

Want to change your day, your health, your outlook, your productivity?

Start by changing a default.

(Including in Microsoft Office)

Right Thought, Right Action

You’d think they go together nearly all the time.

But when we’re trying to change, especially when someone has asked us to change, they rarely do.

Thankfully, right action is always available to us.

We just start, we do this new thing, once, a second time, over and over again.

We might not understand why. But we can choose to start by acting, and in so doing we show our faith in and respect for the person who suggested the change.

If it helps, you can see this right action as an exploration: once we genuinely engage in right action, we will see its results. Often, at this moment, our blinders come off. The limitations of our arguments defending our prior, not-as-right action, get exposed.

Right thoughts will follow, because the actions and their results speak for themselves.

The other path, the one where we only act after we’re convinced it’s right, is a mirage.

Because our mind has this terrible tendency to believe itself.

Ritual Reflections

At a reception at the Lean Startup conference, where I was speaking last week, I struck up a conversation with a couple as waited on a food line. The three of us had started the day together in the hotel’s small, dark, grey gym, with ESPN blaring.

“How was your workout?” the woman asked, kindly.

“Oh, it was terrible,” I replied. “Truly, every minute was awful. But I finished.”

It was true. I’d had a tiring week, had rushed to catch my 6-hour flight to Las Vegas, wore earplugs all night because the hotel room was so loud, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was feeling sluggish. I didn’t feel at all like running on the treadmill, but hoped that after I started it would get easier or better.

It never did. This is normal.

I exercise a lot, and at least half of the time I don’t really feel like doing it before I go. I mostly ignore that feeling and the accompanying thoughts, because they tell me almost nothing about what will happen once I get going, let alone how great I’ll feel afterwards.

I notice the same pattern with my kids. This weekend I had to wrench my 7-year old daughter from a lazy Sunday afternoon TV show to get her to practice her ukulele. As kids do, she vocalized all the feelings she had at that moment. “I don’t want to!” “I’m too tired!” “Can we do it a little later?”

But this morning, before school, without protest or prodding, she was in her room strumming away, belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It’s made me realize that most of what we do as parents is to try to instill good rituals.

Rituals of saying please and thank you. Rituals of putting dishes away after a meal. Rituals of how we go to bed. Rituals of doing homework early in the day. Rituals of always saying hello when we enter the house and goodbye when we leave. Rituals about using our phones and when we put them down. Rituals of reading before bed. And on and on.

These rituals only stick if they are for all of us.

My days are no different, filled with ritualistic behaviors: on the train into work, how I act when I get into the office, how and what I eat, what I do on a long-haul flight or how I get to sleep in a hotel room in a different time zone.

These rituals can be comforting, helpful and reassuring. They can be positive, well-thought out, and intentional. They can lead, day by day, to big positive changes.

Or, they can work against us: reinforcing the limitations we’re feeling in our lives, distracting us from what’s going on right now, buttressing our limitations…different flavors of short-term relief we trade, moment by moment, for a future we say we want.

Rituals are powerful because they help us push through the protests we’re feeling in our minds and bodies – whether we say them out loud like my 7-year-old, or we voice them silently. Rituals are a pre-determined set of priorities that free us from the decision of whether we should do this or that.

How we use our rituals is up to us. But when we watch someone who is doing something that seems impossible – running on a freezing cold and rainy morning; showing up perfectly pressed for work no matter what’s going on around them; always listening carefully; writing a blog every day — we should remember that what we’re witnessing isn’t a display of willpower, talent or skill.

It’s the result of ritual.

The quantum mechanics of intentions (Part 2)

I’ve been thinking more about my post from last week, trying to figure out why I found myself questioning the value of good intentions. As my friend Greta rightly pointed out on Twitter,

“I believe that our intentions, objectives, or ‘passionate purposes’ make all the difference, Sasha. They guide us internally and have a lasting effect on all those with whom we connect.”

That’s right.

So how to resolve the tension between good intentions that mean little to the person whose life isn’t any better, and knowing in our gut that that if we are serious about making the world a better place then we must take our intentions seriously?

Where I’ve landed up is:

Intentions, if you just take a snapshot, might not matter much.

At a moment in time, the fidelity of that intention, from its genesis in the person deploying capital to the lived experience of the person served by that organization, is not necessarily that high. Intention can get lost in an impact investment just like it can get lost in a game of telephone, an ad campaign or, dare I say, a blog post.

However intention is powerful, maybe even unstoppable, when observed through the lens of time.

True intentions, strong intentions, deeply-held intentions cause those holding them to focus deeply on an outcome.

That focus results in curiosity.

That curiosity results in inquiry.

That inquiry results in examination of what’s really happening all the way down the line.

That examination leads to dissatisfaction if results are not being delivered. It leads to a rise in expectations and a drive to find better answers.

When it comes to creating social impact, that intention may in fact be the only thing that leads to an improvement cycle – because external forces driving to better results are weak (poor feedback loops in terms of the data that typically comes back; huge power imbalance between those providing capital and those, hopefully, benefiting from it).

Intention, then, is the engine of our own cycle of improvement. As builders of new solutions, new companies, new NGOs, new investment funds that are trying to push the frontiers of social change, of business, of markets, of inclusive economies, our intentions are what push us to be dissatisfied with “better than before.” They fuel us through the dips and the bumps and help us turn around when we hit dead ends. Our intentions, held by us and shared by those around us, give us the strength to keep on building.

Old Dog, New Tricks

old dogs, new tricks

It is simply not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yes, you might not be able to teach an old dog to run as fast, or jump as high, or even see as well. Old has its disadvantages, to be sure. But old dogs are actually better than young ones at learning new tricks: they have better attention spans, and are less easily distracted.

No, the old dog’s problem is the old tricks: having spent a lifetime getting positive reinforcement for those old tricks, she just can’t seem to let them go.

If you are one of my many non-dog readers, think about it for a minute: isn’t what got us here all our old tricks? And aren’t we quite well-trained to seek the praise get when we do them?

Couple the power of that lifetime of reinforcement with our recommended daily allowance of pride, fear, unwillingness to admit fallibility and surrender authority. Then top that with a cherry of the smidge of shame we anticipate if we try something new and unproven in front of other dogs. After all of that, we may not even know if we’re any good at new tricks, because there’s so much underbrush to clear away before we even let ourselves get started.

Perhaps we can motivate ourselves by another adage, this one less famous but more useful: if we fight for our limitations and win, our prize is that we get to keep them.

The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Symptoms and causes

You tweak your knee and start limping a little, only to find that your lower back on the other side starts to ache.

Your job has gotten overwhelming, you are working too many hours, and now, no matter what kind of day you had, you’re finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Two colleagues have misaligned expectations for who will do what, the deliverables get botched, and, going into the next client presentation, they are reticent to work together.

We’re all told to work on the root cause, and not just the symptoms. But often the symptoms become just as real as the thing that caused them – whether pain in your back, learned anxiety, or another deliverable that’s not up to snuff.

If the thing you can work on today is the symptom, and you know how to do that work, then that’s the right place to start.

Often, we behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

 

Perseverate

Perseverate: to repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.

Put more simply, it’s continuing to react in the same way even though the situation is different.

It’s the narrative that says:

“We need this in order to…”

“I know I’m the kind of person who…”

“I always…”

Not always.

Maybe not even today.