The Secret to Behavior Change

My wife’s grandfather, Roger Johnson, could build or repair anything. He built, plumbed, and wired his own house.

But, he had trouble hanging up his cap.

For decades Roger hung his cap on the same nail in the same place. Then, one summer the nail fell out. There was nothing to hang his cap on.

But, he still had the habit.
Every morning, Roger would walk into the workshop and try to hang up his cap. But, no nail. And the cap hit the ground.

What makes habits so hard to change?

There’s a lot of momentum behind your habitual behaviors.
Like Roger, you’ve been hanging your cap on the same nail for a long time.
Okay. Maybe you don’t wear a cap.
But, your habits of action – of communicating, making decisions, and doing things – have a lot of momentum behind them.

The momentum moves you along.
And for the most part it works fine. Much of what you do well runs on autopilot. This allows you to move along at a brisk pace. And without the need thinking.
This works fine . . . until it doesn’t.

Then being on autopilot is a liability.
The cap hits the ground. The project unravels. The meeting turns south.
And you need to change direction. You need to change your behavior.
Changing behavior requires getting out of autopilot mode.
The problem is changing feels uncomfortable and unnatural.

Familiar autopilot behaviors feel natural.
Doing things differently feels awkward.
And in the beginning, you’re clumsy.
Nobody likes being clumsy
Clumsy just doesn’t seem professional.
It can be frustrating to feel like you’re a beginner again.
Particularly, if your well-oiled pattern of behavior is what allowed you to succeed in the past.

It’s just that what worked in the past – isn’t working anymore
Here are two examples of what it feels like to change behavior and overcome the momentum of the past:

Example #1: A client of mine, Sam, is a master at facilitating group consensus. For many years, he successfully relied on this skill. He rarely had to assert himself. He always facilitated common ground.

But, now he’s the CEO of an organization with many divisions – each competing for scarce resources. It’s like herding cats. He needs to make tough choices. Assert his opinion. And disappoint some people.

This is new ground for him. He knows it’s necessary – but that doesn’t stop him from feeling uncomfortable.

Example #2: Another client, Blair, has advanced through the ranks by being outspoken critic of the “status quo” and challenging authority.
But, now he’s been promoted to general manager. He can’t act like an outspoken critic. He is the authority. He needs to articulate a vision that engages and unites people in a common direction.

And as excited as he is by the new role – changing his behavior isn’t easy.

The momentum of the past keeps pushing you in the direction of your habits.
Whatever habits of action, speech, and thinking have helped you succeed – will tend to persist even after those habits have clearly outlived their usefulness.
It’s easy to keep doing what’s “natural” even when it stops working. And even if you logically know better.

Logic isn’t powerful enough to overcome the force of momentum.
Even when you “know” that you need to change – the momentum will push you into repeating the patterns of the past.
And that can be frustrating. Particularly, when logic and “knowing” has helped you solve so many other problems in your work.

When logic doesn’t work – most of us try harder and use our will power to force the change.

Will power isn’t powerful enough, either.
Relying on will power to change is like trying to hold your breath – forever.
You can hold your breath for a while. But, not for long. While you’re holding your breath, the pressure builds. Until it bursts.
It’s the same with will power.

Will power can keep things under control for the short term – but will not establish you in a new pattern of behavior.
Let’s say you have the habit of talking a lot in meetings. And you realize your talking is dominating the conversation. So, you decide to keep quiet and let others talk.
You go to the next meeting. Sit down and using will power – bite your tongue. People start talking. You disagree but keep quiet. You bite your tongue a little harder.

But, soon you’ll feel the tension building.
And you’ll either bite through your tongue or (and this is more likely) resume your old habit of talking and dominating the conversation again.
Will power can’t change behavior.
So, what works?

What works is using the same force that is keeping us trapped in the old pattern.

The key to change is to build momentum – in a new direction.
The difference is that we need to build this momentum – basically from scratch.
And that takes three things:
1.    Motivation.
2.    Know-how.
3.    Practice.

New momentum starts with motivation.
We have to be motivated to change. We’ve got to want it.
Not just think it’s a nice idea. But, really want it.

How do you increase your motivation?
There are two ways.
One is to create a compelling sense of what it will be like to fully adopt the new behavior.
Ask yourself –
“If I fully adopt this new behavior:
Where will I end up?
What kind of experiences will I have?
How will others respond to me?
How will I feel about myself?

The other is to reflect on the consequences of letting the momentum of your past habits continue to push you along the same old path.
Ask yourself –
“If I keep doing this old habit behavior:
Where will I end up?
What kind of experiences will I have?
How will others respond to me?
How will I feel about myself?

Some people prefer one reflection over the other. I’m recommending you use both.
Get excited about the change you want. And get clear about what it will mean to continue your old habits.

Reflect on the implications of your behavior .
Whether you change or stay with the old momentum has massive implications for you, your family, your colleagues, your life. Get motivated to change.

Along with motivation you need know-how
Motivation gets your attention.
Now, you need know-how. Methods. Techniques. The nuts-and-bolts of how to do what you want.

If you want to be a better listener – you need know-how.
If you want to coach your team – you need know-how.
If you want to bake a lemon meringue pie – you need know-how.

Because, no matter what you want to do differently – you need to know-how in order to do it.

How do you get know-how?
Get a coach. A mentor.
Find someone who is great at the behavior you want – and learn from them.
Read a book. Go to a class.
Get a clear and compelling understanding of what you want to be able to do differently.
Once you have know-how, you’re ready for the most important part of the change process.

You need to practice.
What do I mean by practice?
I mean to deliberately take time everyday to exercise the new behavior.
If the behavior is listening – take time every day to practice listening (i.e. do the behavior).

It’s like any kind of learning. It takes conscious, deliberate practice. Nothing substitutes for consciously doing the new behavior.

Practice means that you don’t plan on doing the new behavior all day long.
You just designate short, specific, practice times.
So, again, if the new behavior is to listen more than you speak. Don’t think that you’re going to be listening all day. You won’t. The old momentum still has some force behind it.
Just carve out short, specific periods of time for engaging in the new pattern.
Be intentional.
Practice the new behavior.

By consciously practicing the new behavior on a daily basis – you will build momentum in a new direction.
It will take, normally, a couple of months to build the new momentum. But, as you do, the energy that had been driving the old habit will naturally diminish.
And soon, you’ll find that what once required conscious, deliberate practice, is now a new (and more constructive) pattern of behavior.
And you won’t be dropping your cap on the floor anymore.

Questions for Reflection & Action
•    What is a pattern of behavior you want to change?
•    What are the consequences of continuing with this pattern?
•    What is the new pattern you want to master?
•    Who do you know that is skilled in this behavior?
•    When can you talk with them – and learn from them?
•    How can you establish a deliberate schedule for practicing the new behavior?