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The excellence of habits

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 23 October 2019
"We are what we repeatedly do," said Aristotle. "Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

In the past two newsletters I've highlighted the issues of strengths and confidence. Each of these has been a significant theme in workshops and coaching this year. Another significant theme has been the power of habit - for both good and bad. Let's focus on the good in the spirit of both building on strengths and building and sustaining confidence as we pursue "excellence".

Aristotle's wise words remind us that while we all carry around intentions, aspirations, stories about ourselves, and espoused values and priorities, the reality is that what we're actually doing, how we actually behave, what we actually achieve, and what we actually believe in and prioritise is demonstrated by the things we repeatedly do. Repeated actions, it's true, speak louder than repeated words.

Habits are the mental and behavioural processes we develop to save energy. They're apparently convenient ways to navigate our days and tasks. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit (2014) explains that habits form as the brain looks for a cue which then triggers a routine which is rewarded. Habits are so influential that they shape about 45% of our everyday behaviours.

Samuel Johnson (the 18th century English writer, not the Australian actor and author) observed that "the chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken", which suggests it makes sense to develop greater consciousness about our habits.

Positive habits, like washing our hands, regular exercise, mindfulness routines, taking a break for lunch, and asking questions to clarify before offering advice tend to produce healthier lives, more productive work and better relationships. Each of these makes sense, but of course that doesn't mean they're actually habits. In fact, often the opposite behaviours are the habitual ones. (Even something as apparently obvious, simple and beneficial as hand washing is frequently not habitual in health care settings.)

Not all habits are effective, productive or desirable. Think of the "small" but widespread workplace habit of mentally "checking out" of a "boring" part of a meeting to "check in" with your phone. That "small" habit (which is probably the number one example people bring up about poor meeting behaviour) communicates distraction, disinterest, disconnection, and yes, disrespect. Not great for relationships, communication or teamwork. So a big non-excellent impact from an apparently small habit.

And if you're the leader then your habits communicate more loudly, implicitly endorsing, encouraging or at least permitting the things you do or don't do. And of course it's pretty hard to credibly espouse "excellence" through "respect" and "teamwork" if you're not expressing one and not participating in the other. It's hard to credibly encourage "everyone's voice" if there's no evident and consistent commitment to listening respectfully to those voices.

"We are (as individuals, colleagues, leaders, teams, and organisations) what we repeatedly do."

So, if we want to pursue excellence and improve who we are then it's worth taking a look at what we repeatedly do. Think of it as a quick "habit audit".

First, the good habits. What are three to five things you "repeatedly do" that positively shape who you are? What are your habits that create "excellence". Don't take them for granted - these are important assets contributing to who you are, what you achieve and how sustainably you are able to perform. Be mindful of each of your positive habits in the next day or so, consciously acknowledge yourself "doing that thing", and reflect on the benefits it brings.

Second, the not-so-useful habits. These are things that "get in our way" (or in others' way) and can be liabilities to presenting and contributing our best self, to achieving our priorities, and to sustaining our wellbeing. What are two or three things you "repeatedly do" that are getting in the way of "excellence"? Consciously acknowledge yourself "doing that thing" in the moment (or right after it, because the habitual action will probably be completed by the time you notice). The aim is to create more mindful attention about the habit. The habits experts (there are some recommended sources below) urge us to notice what "triggers" habitual behaviours (e.g., place, time, feeling, reaction). Because until we are aware of what's happening we can't begin to manage it.

Third, identify just one habit that you would benefit from changing. What is it? What's the benefit of changing it - why does it matter to you or someone you care about? What you could change it to? (It's important to have a new behaviour to focus on.) Michael Bungay Stanier, in The Coaching Habit, suggests this formula: When this happens (the trigger) ... Instead of (the current behavioural response) ... I will (the new behaviour something desirable and productive) ... And of course, then you're going to practise the new habit, because "you are what you repeatedly do".

Changing a habit is not easy. But it is high-value. It will take some investment of time and attention, and maybe the support of others.

So, fourth: resource yourself with some deeper insight into habits. I recommend the following:
Triggers: Creating behaviour that lasts; Becoming the person you want to be (2015), by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter. (I can send you a summary to get you started - just email me).
The Coaching Habit (2016), by Michael Bungay Stanier. You can get Michael's short, informative and free ebook, 6.5 Habit Gurus at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/book-the-coaching-habit/materials/6.5HABITGURUS.pdf
Atomic Habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones (2018), by James Clear. Find out more here: https://jamesclear.com/habits
The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business (2014), by Charles Duhigg. Find out more here: https://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

What we do matters. What we repeatedly do shapes who we are and what we achieve. So our habits are powerful forces for us to manage.

"Excellence is not an act, but a habit." Which habits are influencing your excellence?

Aubrey Warren

Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies

References & Resources

See above for recommended resources.

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2019

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