I write for Time Management for iPad, an authority on Time Management. A new issue is produced every month featuring a collection of writers and experts. To review their latest issue and to download, please visit them at the iTunes Store here. This article was originally published in September 2013.
Old habits are hard to break. New habits are hard to keep. This is because habits are conditioned actions that are worn into a person’s physiology after a great many repetitions. Think, for example, when you are driving your car and you have an experienced driver riding with you in the passenger seat. This person will involuntarily move their right foot in a braking reflex at the moment he/she determines a need to brake, even though, consciously this person knows that you are the one actually in control of the car.
In addition to repetition, a habit also needs a reason to exist; something has to make it worthwhile. If you noticed one day that there was a fifty dollar bill taped to the streetlamp pole near your house, you would probably think it was your lucky day. If it happened a second time, you would think it strange, but pleasant. After third and fourth time, your habit of walking would change in terms of route or timing in anticipation of seeing a daily financial bonus attached to the post. The day it stops happening, you will feel disappointment, but the urge to continue walking this route will last for a long time afterwards, because in addition to repetition, habits are supported through positive reinforcement.
This is why it is so hard to change the way things are done, both personally and team-wide. A new habit must have a reward in order to fuel the physical repetition needed. Music practice and language lessons, for example, are tedious and seldom effective because they hold no great interest. However total immersion, such as living in a foreign city, generate language learning faster in part because of the immediate reward in being able to eat and survive there.
Military boot camp is a classic demonstration of the strength of habit. When a new recruit joins the army, he/she is sent off to boot camp, where the haircuts are short, the clothes do not fit right, privacy is minimal and tasks and chores are assigned and reassigned over and over again. The primary reason for this is to ensure that new recruits “unlearn” all the habits they had developed over the first two or three decades of their lives. Habits are hard to break, so the army has to be even harder in order to remove them and implant new ones.
So when an individual seeks to develop new, time-efficient habits, there is a great deal of opposition to overcome: the mind may want to do it, but the body sees no reason, and the community around is either resistant or is experiencing the same challenges.
Thus to develop a positive change either individually or team-wide the following steps must be taken:
1. Identify the change needed: write out what you plan to achieve and how you plan to do it.
2. Explain and promote: if the change is personal, explain it to a mentor or friend. If the change is team-wide, schedule a meeting to describe it in full.
3. Hear and address opposition: fears about change are natural. Make sure to address any fears or reservations – your own or from others. Provide solutions and explanations. Give people real facts to replace vague fears.
4. Develop a timeline and benchmarks: change does not happen overnight. It takes weeks for new habits to develop and become the norm. Develop a realistic implementation plan. Set up a benchmark of “how things are right now,” so that you have something to compare against.
5. Offer a way out: package your “change plan” as a pilot project. People react much better to change if they see a safety feature such as a way out. “Let’s try this for a month,” is far more appealing to people fearful of change than is “this is how it is going to be from now on.”
6. Plan for nurturing and mid-course correction: Implementation of any plan requires flexibility and agility. Allow time to receive feedback, to tweak and improve the plan in accordance with the realities of life, and to communicate the changes back to those who need to know.
7. Plan for reward and acknowledgement: people thrive on reward, so ensure that they are acknowledged for their hard work. Small rewards along the way are far more effective than only offering a big reward at the end.
8. Communicate and publicize: let people (or yourself) know how well things are going. Announce positive developments wherever is appropriate, through internal communication, social media, or to your mentor.
9. Observe changes and improvements against the benchmark: make sure to track progress against the original benchmark, and communicate these as needed.
10. Anticipate problems, drop-offs and reversion. Nothing ever works perfectly to plan. Anticipate potential roadblocks, and understand more about the fact that humans will always revert to the easiest method of doing anything (thus another obstacle to effective habit change). This will help you plan and structure accordingly.
Changing habits is not easy. By default it goes against human nature. Therefore your best odds for success lie in effective planning and effective communication so that positive reward is experienced by all involved, from beginning to end.