“How long does it take to form a habit?” “How long does it take to break a habit?” These two questions recently asked by one of my leadership coachees got me to thinking about the processes of breaking and forming habits.
Before I answer the timing question, though, let’s start with some basics.
Habits are behaviors or actions that you do on a regular basis without consciously thinking about them. Effective habits help each of us to consistently perform in ways that lead to success. Ineffective habits can block each of us from consistently performing in ways that lead to success. Leaders especially must develop effective habits in order to succeed.
Here are a few habits that are helpful to most of us as leaders:
- Planning and preparing adequately for meetings and presentations
- Organizing tasks
- Completing tasks
- Practicing new leadership skills
- Caring for self (getting adequate rest, working out, eating healthfully, etc.)
- Caring for and promoting of our teams and their work
- Speaking up in meetings
- Listening to colleagues
- Thinking positively
- Tending to our relationships (family, friends, social support networks)
These habits sound simple, yet when they are not practiced, they can derail a leader from the path to success.
Here are a few tips to help you develop effective leadership habits.
- Take An Honest Look At Your Current Leadership Habits. Habits are…well, habitual. They are automatic and, like with most automatic activities, we don’t often examine what we do or why we do what we do. This is a good time for you to take a moment to assess your daily leadership patterns. Identify which practices or habits are useful to reaching your goals, and which are not useful. Take a look at the time robbers—those habits that rob you of needed time to complete your leadership tasks. Then think about what daily practices or habits would be more useful to you.
- Develop A Few Routines That Help Support The Habits You Want To Develop. Routines are regular courses of action or procedures that accomplish some goal. According to medical researcher James O. Hill, routines, “generally require more thought than habits do, but once you set them up, you don’t need to think all that hard about them.” They need to be routines that work for you. One of my weekly routines is to review my client and other work obligations for the week on Sunday night. I set reminders on my task app. That’s a process that helps me maintain good habits of organizing and completing project tasks.
- Do Your Research. There are many great books on developing leadership habits. I recently re-read portions of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The latest version is chock full of infographics to make the lessons visual and more interactive. The first of the seven habits struck me as particularly significant. It is “be proactive.” To be proactive we have to cease from being reactive. We have to break auto-pilot leadership practices that do not serve our goals or the aims of our teams, organizations, and institutions.
- Ritualize Activities that Support the Leadership Habits. Rituals are routines that are connected to a habit but most often have a deeper meaning or purpose beyond the habit itself. I have two rituals that help reinforce good leadership habits for me. Nearly every morning, I start my day with prayer and journaling. Journaling helps me to reflect on my projects and how they relate to my overall goal or not. Journaling helps me to clear my mind for the day’s work ahead, and journaling allows me to celebrate the successes that come from my leadership habits (like consistently writing to finish a book by my publisher’s deadline). I also observe a weekly time of sabbath–an intentional block of time away from work! As Peter Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader writes, “In a very real sense, the practice of Sabbath joins heaven and earth, equipping us not merely to rest from our work but also to work from our rest.” This weekly ritual of rest for my spirit, soul and body, enables me to work more effectively when I’m on. But even more, it allows me to carve out the space, place and time to remember the real purpose for my leadership.
- Avoid the Seduction of Success. James Selk, a contributing writer for Forbes defined “the seduction of success” this way in his article “Habit Formation: The 21-Day Myth”:
“An individual begins to focus on positive results and begins to think, ‘I’m the special one. I have finally figured out how to have great results with not so great process.’”
A few years ago, I worked hard at breaking my sugar habit as part of my goal to become a more fit and healthier leader. Leaders are whole people after all! I started the first of the year committing to no desserts at home, while traveling for business and at family gatherings. Then after six months, I decided to eat a little dessert for my wedding anniversary. Then two weeks later for my birthday, I succumbed again. “A little red velvet cake won’t hurt,” I rationalized. And then a week later at my mother’s 85th birthday I ate more cake. It was down hill from there! I had lost the discipline to deny myself sweets. You see I had gotten seduced by my months-long success and no longer felt I had to practice keeping sugar out of my diet. Breaking old habits and establishing new habits takes discipline, courage and consistency. My first bout with breaking the sugar habit has since informed my own coaching.
Successful leaders do not succumb to the seduction of success because they know that effective leadership actions are daily habits that must be practiced and reinforced day by day.
- Get Support. Identify the support group, team or network that can help reinforce your new habits and, in some ways, help bring some accountability to your new habit formation. You will, inevitably, get frustrated as you are learning new skills and habits. You may even want to give up. You need the support of others to cheer you on and remind you of your own purpose. So, share your new habits with trusted colleagues and mentors. Secure a leadership coach. Let family members and close friends know what you are aiming to do and give them permission to give you feedback. And by all means, be open to feedback from those in you support network. Resist getting defensive. They are supporting you, after all.
- Remember to Celebrate. As you acquire your new habit or habits, celebrate…even the small wins. Because in forming new habits every win is big. When you have an exceptional week of following your new schedule, congratulate yourself. When the practice of daily checking in with your team yields positive results on the team, then take a moment to give kudos to your team, and make note of your new actions in your journal or calendar. And when you don’t get it just right, don’t beat yourself up. Learn from what you did or did not do and make the adjustments. You can even celebrate the acquiring of new insight that is gained from a so-called failure.
21-30-40-60 Days and Counting
It turns out the popular belief that it takes 21 days to break a habit stems from some research not really related to breaking habits. Depending on the habit you are trying to break, the days to breaking it and forming a new one varies by individuals. Some psychologists and coaches say work at it for at least a month. Some say two months.
Interestingly, forty is a number that holds sacred significance for changing habits for some faith traditions. In Noah’s day, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, causing the earth to be submerged in flood waters in order to emerge new. The Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years to break the habits and mindsets of their past bondage. And Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights before he started his public ministry. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that I see quite a number of journals and books on helping people develop new spiritual disciplines in forty days.
Still, Signe Dean, in Science Alert, shared a research study in the UK which found the average number of days to form a new habit was 66 days, with a range from 18 to 254 days. That’s quite a range, isn’t it?!
Here’s what I know.
Breaking a habit and forming a new habit is not just about the number of days to completion. It’s about the commitment. It’s about the daily discipline. It’s about the changes occurring inside of you and being manifested on the outside. Like any transformative process, habit formation is a process of change from the inside out.
Forming a new habit takes one day at a time. In our need to control the process of habit formation, we want to put our own boundaries around it. We want to tick off the mark so that we can prove we made it through day 4, 5, 15, and so on. In our compulsion to completion, we want to know when we can expect to be new, to be changed. In reality, it takes one day at a time, repeated over and over, to develop the new mindset that undergirds forming a new leadership habit.
Let this be the day you get started on the process of forming new leadership habits. Let this be your day one, instead of waiting for one day.
In what ways do your current habits support the achievement of your leadership goals? Or Not?
How useful are your current leadership habits?
What are the new practices you need to put in place to realize your leadership success?
What are the routines you can put in place to help reinforce those new habits?
What is one ritual you can start practicing to connect your leadership habits to your deeper purpose and significance?
Who are your support folks with whom you can share your goal and desired new habits and can help you stay on track?
Oh, by the way! I took sweets out of my diet again this past January. But this time I was determined to not be seduced into thinking I don’t have to be diligent, disciplined or dedicated to this lifestyle change. You see, for me, it’s really not just about the sugar per se, but about developing a pattern of healthy self-care that supports my leadership purpose. So, at the end of February I accepted a fitness challenge to support my self-care habit and joined a group of amazing fitness people (I’ll write more about my experience later).
For now, just know, I want to lead well for a long time, and the healthier I am as a leader, the longer I can help others lead on purpose.
What about you?
© 2019 Jeanne Porter King