10.11.2021: In today’s fast-paced world, it is important that we are able to adapt quickly and flexibly and learn new behaviors – both privately and professionally.
But as we all know: Change is difficult!
This also applies to my focus topic “Optimizing Productivity”. Here, too, it is ultimately a matter of changing existing behaviors. It is easy to convince participants of the benefits of new productivity strategies, processes and tools in my training/coaching sessions. But more difficult – and more important – is the subsequent practical transfer and successful application in everyday life.
Good habits are the key to success!
You are what you do! And more than 50% of what you do are habits.
Behavioral changes are also mostly changes in habits. This also applies, among other things, to optimizing productivity – e.g. – how I plan, organize myself, what software I use, etc.
« Good habits make time your friend and bad ones your enemy.
Or as James Clear, a leading expert on behavior change puts it in his inspiring book “Atomic Habits“: «Success is the result of consistent, daily implementation of good habits.»
So to become more successful/happy/productive, all we really need to do is encourage good habits and avoid bad ones.
But why is that so difficult? And what can be concretely done better? To answer this, one must first better understand habits.
What are habits and how do they work?
Habits are automated, reliable solutions for recurring tasks. They determine to a large extent what we do throughout the day. They can be good or bad for us.
We like to use habits regularly because we know from our own experience and multiple use that they work for us. And because they are mostly automatic, they help us save energy for more important tasks.
Habits always run in the same way and pass through the so-called Habit loop four steps:
- Trigger stimulus: A habit always starts with a trigger stimulus. This is usually – but not only – of a visual nature (e.g. I see my cell phone on the desk). Sounds, smells, etc. can also be triggers. Important: Without a trigger stimulus, the habit is not executed!
- Desire: The trigger stimulus arouses a desire (“I want to look at my social media accounts”). The desire is an emotion that we have because we know from experience the reward that awaits us at the end of the habit (e.g., stress reduction, distraction, etc.). This is what we want and this is why the habit is performed.
- Reaction / Action: This is actually the habit. In our example, I stop my work, take my phone and check my accounts.
- Reward: The action leads to the reward, which is the actual reason for the habit. Important: Without a positively perceived reward at the end of the habit loop, I will not repeat the habit..
What makes change so difficult?
There are a variety of reasons, here are the main ones:
- Habits are deep within us
Our habits – good or bad – we have learned ourselves, implemented thousands of times and we usually value them. Even if we know that there are better behaviors for specific situations, we shy away from change because we know the effort it takes to change automated habits.
- We underestimate the benefits of habit change
What is particularly difficult is that when you want to learn a new habit, the considerable effort has to be made immediately, but the benefit comes much later. For example, when learning a new work methodology, sports training, diet, etc. As a consequence, we capitulate over time to the daily effort that a change would require because, from our point of view, progress is too slow and because we are no longer sufficiently motivated or convinced by the future benefits.
Unfortunately, with bad habits, it’s usually the other way around. Here the “benefit” is immediate (e.g. eating candy bars equals pleasure, stress reduction, etc.), the effort is often small (buy, eat) and the negative consequences occur much later (obesity, illness, etc.). The same is true for smoking, lounging, internet browsing, etc. That is why we often remain faithful to bad habits. In summary, we underestimate both the potential benefits of good, new habits and the harm of existing, bad habits. And change less than would be good for us.
- Habit changes are effortful
Humans are evolutionarily trimmed to save energy and like to be lazy! The elaborate habit changes are therefore actually contrary to our nature. Sure, we all want to get ahead and develop. But when we have to decide whether or not to make an effort now for some vague future benefit, the lazy “today me” often gets the upper hand, preferring, for example, to keep lying down and watching social media. The loser is our “future self” who actually wants to be smarter, more productive and fitter. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that people give greater weight to today’s benefits than to future benefits.
- Our identity resists
We are, respectively our identity is, what we do. So if we want to change behaviors that are important to us, this can create an identity conflict. For example, a person who says he/she needs disorder to perform will subconsciously resist any changes that create more order. Even if the person is actually seeking that change. This is because in the subconscious, the person protects his/her identity. Even if one really wants something and no matter how much it makes sense, if the new habit is not compatible with the identity, we will fail, unless we have the rare gift of being able to flexibly evolve our identity.
We now know how behavior change works and why it is difficult. To end this post, I wanted to give my Top 7 tips, how you can successfully change your habbits:
Tip 1: Focus on a few behavioral changes that bring success!
Because habit change is challenging, you need to focus on a few, important behaviors at a time. And think carefully about what you want to do.
The important thing is to be honest with yourself in the process and not to learn a behavior that neither suits you nor is consistent with your identity. These behavioral changes are often doomed to failure in advance and the effort is basically not worth it.
Good criteria for selection are, for example, how important the behavior is for one or also how often one would benefit from an improved behavior. For example, behavioral changes in the area of work productivity have a high “return on investment” because one uses them frequently and because they are important for personal and professional success.
Tip 2: Set modest goals!
Many habit changes fail because people set goals that are too high, then regularly miss them and give up, demotivated. Therefore, it is better to set modest, realistic goals. James Clear even suggests that the effort for a new habit change should not take more than 2 minutes per day in the beginning, so that you can have success in the long run.
Tip 3: Focus on the process, not the goal!
Generally speaking, too much importance is attached to the goals.
Winners and losers often have the same goal. Both tennis players want to win the match. Or they all want to become more productive. So it can’t be the goal that determines success.
Of course you have to set goals if you want to successfully change your habits. But more important is the process, the regular doing.
We all have good days and bad days. If I focus on the process, i.e. the regular execution of the new behavior, and not on my daily goal, then it’s also OK if I only do 15 push-ups on one day, for example, instead of the targeted 100. After all, I’ve still implemented my good habit (regular exersize). Tomorrow then hopefully again 100.
You can also skip a new behavior change once. But never 2x in a row. Otherwise, “doing nothing” becomes the new habit. In other words, focus specifically on the day after you skip the good habit and pick it up again!
Tip 4: Optimize your environment!
With regard to behavioral changes, motivation and will are generally overestimated as success factors and the effect of the environment is underestimated. It is said that the environment is the invisible hand that determines our actions. Kurt Lewin, the famous social psychologist, expressed it this way in his seminal behavioral formula: B = f (P/E). A person’s behavior is a function of his personality traits and his environment.
The consequence is: behavioral changes can either be promoted or prevented depending on the design of the immediate environment. As we know, every habit is started by a trigger stimulus. For good habits, make the trigger stimuli visible and the execution as simple as possible. For example, put water and fruit on your desk in the morning, put your cell phone away from the office, find a gym that is easy to get to, and so on.
The reverse is true for bad habits: Make the triggers invisible and the implementation as difficult as possible!
Tip 5: Know your existing habits and couple something new to them!
A very simple, promising way change can work is by coupling a good, new habit with existing habits.
For example, we all go to the kitchen first thing in the morning (existing habit). The coupling could be, for example, “Whenever I go to the kitchen for the first time in the morning, I first drink 2 glasses of water.” And then attached to that, “Whenever I drink 2 glasses of water, I take a fruit from the refrigerator.” And then…
To become more aware of your existing habits, you can observe yourself for some time during the day and write them down.
Tip 6: Track your progress!
People are motivated when they make progress. Measuring this and keeping it in front of them on a regular basis is one of the most important approaches to feeling a sense of accomplishment, even with difficult behavioral changes where the big benefit doesn’t come until much later.
There are many ways to do this, depending on your preference. For example, using one of the many smart apps that not only provide progress tracking, but often send reminders throughout the day for good habits (e.g., Drink water! Stretch! Finish work! etc.). Examples include Daliy Planner, Habit Tracker, or Streaks.
Some like it “offline” and very visibly hang a tally sheet in the office. Personally, a task in Microsoft To Do is enough for me. However and wherever: people like to make progress and visualizing it motivates more!
Tip 7: Move forward throughout your life by taking small steps!
Clear’s approach is that it is more beneficial to improve 100 things 1% than to learn one thing completely from scratch. This is also the basic idea of Kaizen. Kaizen means “change for the better.” The Japanese philosophy wants you to optimize yourself professionally and personally throughout your life via consistent improvements by small steps.
Often such small, positive changes are not immediately noticeable in life. But if you keep at it and make small progress over and over again, the positive effect increases and changes your life for the better.
One way to achieve a fuller life and more success is to encourage good habits and avoid bad ones. This is not easy and takes time. By choosing a few significant habits to change at a time, setting modest goals, and focusing on the journey rather than 100% goal achievement, it can work.
By analogy with James Clear, the best way to promote good habits is by making them visible, easy, and attractive/desirable. You can get rid of bad habits by making them invisible, difficult, and unattractive/punishing. Particularly promising to successfuly change you habits is to actively optimize your environment, to tag your habits and to track progress.
When you tweak your behavior/habits in small steps over time, you develop into the person you want to be.
These insights apply to all behavioral changes – but also when you focus on improving your personal productivity.