4 Secrets to Making New Habits Stick

Oh, springtime you fickle beast. Thanks to some late season snow, I lost my electricity for about 20 hours last week.

You’d think that by now I’d know how to be an adult about these things. But no. I was completely disoriented. 

After a healthy amount of first-world-problem whining, I managed to get ahold of myself. I actually found a working flashlight. And lit a fire in my gas fireplace with a match. (No small task, finding those matches.)

Then I sat down in my favorite chair, reached over, and … turned the light switch. Bahaha! It was funny the first time but, by the 20th time, I began to question my sanity. 

Which got me thinking about our habituated behaviors. How ingrained they are. And how hard it is to create new habits that last. Even when we’re aware that our behavior needs to change, those pesky old habits are so strong. Just knowing what we should do simply isn’t enough.

Every day, we’re working to help ourselves and those around us build skills and create new habits. My recent dark night experience demonstrated exactly how frustrating that process can be.

The old analogy I always think of refers to babies. As cute little tykes, we didn’t decide to break the crawling habit. We simply replaced it with the new habit of walking.

And most of us didn’t go from prone to walking in an instant. We stood up, fell down, giggled. Stood up, fell again. Stood up, took a step, clapped, fell down. Giggled. On repeat until walking became just another thing we do. 

And, all the while, an adult was there not criticizing us for falling down, but cheering us on for each incremental success. This is why one-and-done training alone isn’t enough to create new habits. Learning to do something new is a process. We have to practice before we get good. And the more rewarding that practice is, the more likely our success.

As leaders, we need to provide a steady, proactive drumbeat of coaching, reinforcement, and encouragement. This drumbeat is the fastest way to override old behaviors with the new skills and habits that move our teams and organizations forward.

So next time you’re working with a team member on creating a new habit or skill, consider these four steps to make sure that new habit sticks. 

Start with a habit that’s specific, bite-sized, and winnable. 

As leaders, it’s our job to break complicated, multi-faceted skills down into small, winnable behaviors. Taking on something huge like “improving communication skills” is too much to handle all at once. 

We’re more likely to succeed if we start with something small … like the importance of eye contact and open body language. 

Once a team member is consistently executing those small skills, we can layer proactive listening on top of that. And so on, and so on. Bit by bit, those micro-behaviors add up to the macro-behavior of improved communication skills. Et voila!

Focus on the new habit, not the one being replaced.

As leaders, it’s easy to think our job is to provide critical feedback. To point out where people go wrong so they can correct their behavior and get it right the next time. No brainer, right? Not so fast.

The truth is, the majority of our time should be spent observing and being specific about what went well. If we’re focused on what didn’t work (or the old behavior) the team member is constantly looking at the past and their failures, rather than reveling in the thrill of their successes.

The secret is discovering how it feels when we’re consistently performing the new habit. That feeling gives us the confidence and momentum to keep going. To laugh at and brush off the mistakes and stumbles. To feel excited and energized about trying again and again.

Encourage a spirit of discovery, not striving for perfection.

Let’s say a team member gets stage fright the first time he makes a presentation. We wouldn’t say, “No more presenting for you!” And yet, too often, we do. He sucks at presenting. She can’t do math. They’re not good at writing. She’s clueless when it comes to electricity. (D’oh!)

Just as I learned while switch-flipping in the dark, few of us get it right the first time. Or the second, or third. 

As courageous leaders, we can build the skills of those around us to take our own success to scale. That job is about discovery and reinforcement, not correcting mistakes. We need to let folks explore the feeling of doing the new habit. Let them power through the process so the learning can stick. 

At The Courageous Leadership Institute we have a neat, 4-step process that helps leaders build new habits in their team members like pros. With this technique, every attempt is an opportunity for improvement. It’s about trying, reflecting on what worked, and trying again.

Building new habits can be exciting and rewarding.

Listen, I get it. I kicked myself every time I flipped another dead switch on that dark, cold night. Augh! Why didn’t my hand remember that the electricity was out?! 

It wasn’t until I changed my focus to the exciting challenge of finding things without my eyesight that I started to have fun. The next time the electricity went out (a few days later) instead of dread, I felt a little thrill.

Successful, courageous people know how to find joy in trying and conquering new habits. That old “fear of failure” is replaced with an excitement for the new habit to come. 

In other words, focusing on the spirit of the attempt is essential to success. That’s what all the social media influencers mean when they say “progress, not perfection.” By celebrating the progress we are making and not fixating on the lack of perfection, we all move closer to our goals.

Okay, I told my story of turning darkness into light. Your turn to spill. What new habit are you considering? How will you break the big skill down into micro-behaviors? Can you remember a time when exploration and discovery helped you master a new skill? Share with me in the comments below. 

Signature of Cindy Solomon, Courageous Leadership expert and keynote speaker

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