We are what we repeatedly do and I firmly believe that our habits are a major component of our character. Certain aspects of our character we are born with and can’t do a lot to change. However, every one of us can establish, hone and perfect good habits. If you aim for excellence in life, cultivating good habits is absolutely essential.
Think of it this way: A good habit is a progressive step on your way to overall excellence. And, if it’s a habit, you don’t need to think about it. It becomes automatic. This means you can reserve your time for more pressing matters and not have to expend excessive energy on things, which have become part of your routine. In establishing good habits, remember that they are divisible. Breaking them down into their constituent parts is key. Doing so will allow focusing on what is finite, concrete and doable, not just some amorphous concept. Then, as each habit becomes a part of your character, they can be taken in turn and you can work on perfecting one after the other.
So, how do you achieve positive habits? First, you need to understand what exactly a habit is.
What’s a habit?
A habit is a tendency or practice that is repeated, often involuntarily. To add to that definition, in The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg introduced the concept of the habit loop, which governs your habits and is comprised of three elements:
• The cue: the trigger that activates the loop
• The routine: an automatic action or response
• The reward: a positive reward that tells your brain the loop is worth repeating
The habit loop is almost completely involuntary. For example, perhaps you have a habit of waiting until the last moment to meet a deadline. Maybe every time you sit down to comply, you wind up surfing the internet instead. The three elements of this habit loop are:
• The cue: seeing the internet browser on your computer’s desktop
• The routine: clicking on the internet browser icon
• The reward: chatting with your friends on different social media channels and/or being well-informed
This behavior is certainly not a productive way to act, and if we repeat it, it’s a bad habit. The challenge is to replace that loop with a positive habit through a concept I call the “excellence attitude loop.”
The “excellence attitude loop” is a process that starts with “excellence” as the final destination and works backward. It helps you identify exactly what steps you need to take for self-improvement. Once you isolate the needed steps, then you can know which habits will support and foster them.
Developing The Excellence Attitude Loop
The first step in replacing a bad habit and adopting the Excellence Attitude Loop is to give the new desired action a name. For example, if you have a bad habit of procrastinating, you might call your desired action “Meet Deadlines” and promise yourself, “I will finish all projects at least one day before the deadline.”
Then, you need to create a new way of acting, complete with new cues, routines or rewards. Just willing yourself to abandon an old, bad habit and replace it with a new, good one is not sufficient. It’s like a golfer trying to improve his swing. She doesn’t just keep on practicing the same old defective swing. She does something new, such as hiring an instructor, to help her replace the old habit loop. You might not need outside help, but like the golfer, if you have bad habits, you certainly need to do something differently.
After you have named your new habit and established its paradigm, you can think about the payoff. Why, exactly, are you doing all this? If nothing immediately comes to mind, think harder. If there’s no reward, you’re probably not going to be successful in establishing better habits.
To put this all together, let’s go back to our procrastination example. Your new habit loop toward excellence might include:
1. Creating a new cue by putting a new icon on your desktop that will take you to your project.
2. Establishing a routine by focusing on clicking on the project icon instead of the internet browser icon even before you turn on your computer.
3. Determining a reward by chatting with your colleagues about the progress you are making on your project and asking them about their progress, all the while feeling proud that you are keeping your commitments and contributing to your overall excellence.
In the above example you can see how the excellence attitude interrupts the old habit loop and becomes a new positive one. The scientific name for this behavior modification is neuroplasticity, which is your brain’s ability to form new and reorganize existing synaptic connections. Neuroplasticity has been extensively studied, and there is much evidence that you are not stuck with your old bad habits. Thus, rest assured that you can eliminate habits that might not have served you well for years and that you can replace them with positive ones that set you up for excellence.
When you are successful in changing your small, simple, negative habits, you will be able to move on to replacing the more pervasive and complicated ones. For example, you can listen instead of interrupting, be empathetic instead of insensitive, implement learning instead of just collecting new information. Remember, the prerequisite for changing a small or big negative habit is being aware of the fact that this habit doesn’t belong to your excellence attitude.
Using excellence attitude loops to achieve overall excellence will bring new awareness and dimension to your personal and professional life and will allow you to thrive like never before. If your final goal is to become the best version of the leader you can be, use your excellence attitude loops daily.
This article was originally published in Forbes.
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