At the beginning of the year many of us are committed to building new habits or changing something in their lives. How are you keeping up with it so far?
The chances are, you’ve already dropped your new habit and moved on with your life or you are beating yourself up for not being able to stay with it. Probably, you also looked into some of the tons of resources out there that help us keep up with your New Year’s resolution. However, instead of wondering how to make new life-changing habit stick, I would suggest that you find the reasons why you wanted to build it in the first place and to consider whether or not this is what you need to make the changes in your life that you seek for. In this article I discuss how to make conscious choice what to work on in order to create lasting change in your life and make a distinction between habits, resolutions and practices in order to support that choice.
As someone who has been exploring the way people learn for almost a decade, I am convinced that in order to change anything in the long term in our organisations, work, and life, we need to build a practice instead of just a bunch of habits. This is even more true for organisations, where we tend to think that a training about time management is all we need in order to start delivering results on time. Learning how to do something is not enough to start doing it regularly.
I’ve made resolutions that I will arrive always on time in the past. A friend told me the “trick” is to just add 10 extra minutes to the traveling time I think I need. Let me tell you, it works for two weeks, then I fail. Only when I realised that I needed to build new mindsets about time and its value, and to develop a set of practices that will help me be on time and prioritise my tasks, I was able to arrive on time more regularly and definitely not always. My point is, “being on time” might be a goal but practice is what is necessary to achieve it consistently.
The difference between habits, resolutions, and practice is like drawing while on the phone, drawing every day, and being an artist. It’s a matter of scale.
For example, a resolution is “From now on I will always be on time” or the more realistic one “I will always leave the house 10 minutes earlier.” However, a resolution is much more about building discipline, rather than establishing a new way of doing things. Fasting is a great example of that – we make a sacrifice for a while to show our devotion to something, to build our character and humbleness, or to learn to resist temptation and build our personal resilience. It doesn’t matter so much what you give up, but why you give it up. You only need to break a resolution once and you failed. This is great if you want to practice your stamina but horrible if you want to accomplish lasting change in some other domain – change requires trial and error just as much as commitment. Resolutions may help us start or try out a new behaviour but what will make it stick is our ability to move on and stay with it after we fall back to old patterns.
Now, while a resolution is the type of thing that we need to consciously think about in order to do or not to do it, a habit is the default response we have to certain stimuli in our environment. Once it is established, we don’t think about it and execute it without any effort every time the context triggers us to do so. Habits exist because they simplify the work of our brains and help them focus on the things that are new and require our full attention, that’s why most habits appear without intention or awareness. Building new habits or losing ones that don’t serve us anymore requires clear intention, strong motivation, some discipline, support systems and consistency. However, once they are established, we don’t have to think about them anymore unless we choose to change them.
Even though habits and resolutions are important aspects of building a practice, they just teach us how to be consistent with simple actions. If we want to master a complex behaviour and apply it in various unpredictable contexts, we need to start building a practice. That means that we intentionally create a change in our behaviour. We commit to it, we build some new habits, and we learn how to grow, develop and innovate within the practice. For example, creating art with the intention to get better at it is a practice, drawing something every time we talk on the phone is a habit and it doesn’t necessarily lead to better drawings. Practices are also things like having quality conversations in a new language, maintaining a relationship or being innovative in your work.
A practice is commitment to learning and development
Why am I talking about building a practice, rather than keeping your resolutions or habits? Because, often, as we set out to make a resolution, we actually want to change something about the way we live our lives. And often, that thing is more than just a commitment, for example, to start every day with fresh fruit and water – the intention behind such habit is most likely living a healthier life, and even though it helps, it is not sufficient. So, practices are for those of us who have made resolutions like “I want to be a better father”, “I will become more authentic leader”, “I will have more meaningful conversations”, “I will create more”, “I will focus on finding love” and so on.
These kind of commitments require us to learn more complex behaviour, to respond to specific situations, to be outside of our comfort zone, to question our commitment, to be responsive and flexible, and to let go of some old habits or barriers. When we develop a practice we commit to learning all of those things over time. Being a better father or a healthier person is the same kind of choice as being a doctor or a musician – we don’t always know if this is what we want unless we try it and learn enough about it. And there is no ending point like “Now I am a musician” or “Now I am healthy” and after that we can stop working on it. I call this an artful practice because there are many ways to do the right thing and many things that are right for the context. In a practice there is just expression, response to the environment, experimentation, sense making, and lots of learning.
A practice is something that supports our growth and development if we are intentional and conscious about it. Sometimes we need to commit to a practice, but we end up developing just a habit. For example, I have built a habit to start my day with meditation and a short workout and I have been doing it almost every day for the last two years. However, I am still doing the same meditation, it’s almost as long as it was in the beginning, I have no clue if I am improving. Now that I have a habit of meditation every day I don’t question what I start my day with anymore but if I want to turn it into a practice I have to consider HOW am I doing it and what am I learning about it. Also, perhaps I need to revisit why I’ve started doing it in the first place and make sure that my practice and my intentions are aligned.
This leads me to the next topic I am writing about – how to choose a practice that is meaningful for us and how to build it. Stay tuned to read about them!
As a trainer and host I create spaces for learning and developing practices related to leadership, organisational development, innovation, and co-creation. One of the next workshops I will host is about Scaling Up your business in a purposeful way. Read all about it here!