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New habits require a fundamental change in ourselves

How can we build better habits and create the change we want to see?

6 min read


Habits and resolutions


“Somebody should do something about that.”

We’re all guilty of this. We are unhappy with something and demand it change, but we don’t get up and do anything about it. Instead, we hope things will magically change on their own or that some mysterious outsider will save the day.

For instance, do you want to change some aspect of your personality? You could wish it so, or you could devise a plan and take concrete steps to do so. I know — the second choice is obviously the better one. I also realize I’ve drastically overstated how easy that is to do.

Fortunately, there’s research that backs up this assertion, at least in a 15-week study of almost 400 psychology students. As the researchers said:

“The single largest implication of our study is that actively engaging in behaviours designed to change one’s personality traits does, in fact, predict greater amounts of trait growth across time.”

Supporting evidence can be found at a number of levels, even if these examples don’t necessarily apply everywhere. At the municipal government level, we have Valencia, Spain. The city spent time, money and effort on large-scale infrastructure projects That type of investment matters. But, as researchers found, the buildout succeeded when it was supported by more mundane and ongoing actions.

“It wasn’t about building a super new fancy bike park, but checking how it was working, making some small corrections, closing some squares to traffic and creating a metropolitan transit authority,” said Ramon Marrades, chief strategy officer for the city waterfront. (Bear in mind that the article on Valencia’s efforts is a sponsored article)

Such changes also needed to consider the larger picture and remember that there might be some costs to go along with the benefits — and these needed to be communicated. As Marrades said:

“Policy making is an art of managing preferences that don’t agree with each other. Any change, from the smallest thing like a new bench on a street to the biggest thing like building a new Metro line, has winners and losers. It’s important to acknowledge that: we’re managing different preferences.”

At the managerial level, there’s been a somewhat successful push to call out micromanaging. This is good! People can’t learn by trial and error when they are micromanaged; they can’t develop better habits and systems without some measure of autonomy. That said, undermanagement also discourages the development of good habits.

If we want to deliberately steer our habits, it helps to have a goal in mind. Management trainer Victor Lipman discusses this in the context of undermanagement:

“Most managers don’t spend nearly enough time on goal setting; too often we approach it as a nettlesome bureaucratic exercise (why is Human Resources torturing me this way, making me fill out these endless forms?). But thoughtful goals that are agreed to by employees can be a manager’s best friend because you can manage to them: they become a roadmap to guide your work with your team all year.”

Does that sound too bureaucratic? Think of it this way, as William James wrote more than a century ago (emphasis is from the original):

“The first [maxim] is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible.”

This is both a big leap and a small step. The actual actions we’re taking are usually minor and relatively easy to do once. The leap is in a mindset that helps us stick to those new actions. A goal, with actionable steps, can help teams stick together and support each other on the journey.

On a personal level, our brains are always active, which is great except when there is endless stimulation to distract us. We’re also emotional creatures, so if something is enjoyable or brings us satisfaction, we’ll probably pursue (and if it’s not, we’ll want to avoid it). What does this lead to? A difficult time sticking to new, difficult habits and a tendency to beat ourselves up for falling off the pace. This is especially likely in January as we declare our resolutions and then realize, like Michael Scott, that a declaration is a lot easier than the work required.

James Clear, the author of “Atomic Habits” and a long-running writer on habits and productivity, can help us get more organized while also being forgiving of ourselves. As he writes in a post about changing our habits:

Whenever you want to change your behavior, you can simply ask yourself:

  1. How can I make it obvious?
  2. How can I make it attractive?
  3. How can I make it easy?
  4. How can I make it satisfying?

And, while I just talked about goal-setting at the managerial/team level, let’s look back at the municipal governance level to help us as individuals. Building big infrastructure is a goal — but making it a living part of the community, checking up on its effectiveness and making improvements over time are all habits that can literally alter the identity of a community and its citizens.

That sense of identity is what Clear touched on this past weekend in a post for the newsletter The Profile:

“New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And a lifestyle is not an outcome, it is a process. It is a series of habits. For this reason, it is often more effective to pour your energy into the habits that precede your desired results rather than focusing on the results themselves.”

In a similar way, breaking addiction is not a matter of declaring oneself free. It takes time, and an ongoing recommitment. As Drew Dudley told me last year:

“Day One has an inherent commitment, humility and forgiveness to it. Meaning that if you screw up on Day One, you can forgive yourself and recommit, but if you manage to do something successful for 25 years in a row, it doesn’t matter — you still have to recommit to those behaviors.”

At every turn, we see a similar theme — big declarations and undertakings receive more attention, but small steps, diligence and changes in mindset ultimately make those larger achievements possible. And don’t forget: No one makes changes in a vacuum, and there are usually tradeoffs when one habit gives way to another.

We each have a unique path to building new habits. But whatever you’re working on this year, be kind to yourself even as you push beyond your preconceived limits.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other fields. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.