May, 2013 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
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Breaking News - Storytelling for Leaders Workshop - London 17th June, 2013
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Making Habits, Breaking Habits
- by Jeremy Dean
Former lawyer, and now psychologist Jeremy Dean is the founder and author of the popular website PsyBlog, which is viewed by upwards of 1 million readers monthly, including us. The site analyses psychological studies that are relevant to everyday life, but in a really interesting, practical and often humourous way.
'Making Habits, Breaking Habits' looks at how habits work, why they are so hard to change, and how to break bad old cycles and develop new healthy habits. He argues that about 50% of our everyday lives are habitual. While we're awake, then, about half the time we are repeating the same actions or thoughts in the same contexts: automatically, without thinking. It's part of the reason change is so hard.
It's clear from this that how habits form, operate and change is a vital component of how we experience life.
'Making Habits, Breaking Habits' distils the results of hundreds of studies containing thousands of participants, to give you a blueprint for how to create a new habit and tackle bad ones, whatever they are, and how to make it automatic so that willpower is no longer an issue.
The book is divided into three sections:
Part One: Anatomy of a Habit
The first part of this book looks at how 'good' and 'bad' habits are formed. The first four chapters examine where habits come from, how they feel to perform, how much of life they take up as well as the roots of our ambivalence towards them. This section answers the question of why we can find ourselves powerless to control our habits.
Part Two: Everyday Habits
In the book’s second section, Dean begins by explaining how habits exert their all-pervading influence in daily life - from work, to travel, eating, and shopping. He then shifts to the darker side of habits, examining personal habit as reflected in OCD and depression. He argues that habits aren't just repetitive actions, they can also be repetitive thoughts. When repetitive negative thoughts get out of hand, then we have the basis for depression and other psychological problems.
He wraps up this section with a strong survey of online habits, incorporating the latest psychological studies into an analysis of web multi-tasking, email and Twitter. Synthesising a wide range of research, Dean examines online behaviour through the lens of Skinnerian pleasure reinforcement and through Csíkszentmihályi’s famous concept of “flow”. Fascinating.
Part Three: Habit Change
Part three looks at what the research can tell us about how to make new habits and how to break bad old habits. The conclusions are cautious because habit change is difficult, but the science does point to some effective techniques that can help us reach our goals for change. Dean concludes with a guide to practical habit formation and 'de-formation' techniques relating to health, creativity, and happiness. He examines smoking, exercise, art, and work.
What I like about the book is that, like Timothy D. Wilson's Redirect, this book is based on research and science. His academic overview of habit changing techniques and mechanisms is solid and substantial and, for me, is more scientifically grounded than Charles Duhigg’s 2012 bestseller The Power of Habit. If you want to see the science behind behaviour change, these are the kind of books to be reading.
If you want to create personal change or are leading behaviour or culture change across an organisation I would highly recommend 'Making Habits, Breaking Habits'. If you already have a pile of books waiting to be read, at least sign up for his blog - it's one of the highlights of my week when it appears in my inbox.
One of the principles we encourage here at Anecdote when creating any kind of behaviour change is "Small things make a big difference". Significant, lasting change can come about by taking small steps in the right direction, rather than only through big, transformational 'leaps'.
Tied into this concept is the belief that you have to start from where you are. Too often we talk to clients about the changes they want to introduce and they start talking about Google, Zappos, W.L. Gore or Apple as examples of the changes they want to make.
Now it's great to be looking at the best in the world and seeing what they do and what you could use, but you also need to be conscious of where you are starting from, and the culture, capabilities and constraints that you face, and taking small steps from there.
Let me give you an example to illustrate this point.
The New Zealand Heart Foundation launched a campaign at the start of the school year called "loading up the lunchbox". In it they suggested to low-income parents that they send their kids off to school each morning with cottage cheese pita pockets, celery and hummus, sushi, couscous, leftover chop suey, and chickpea curry.
These suggestions are based on what food have the best nutritional value for growing kids to eat at lunchtime. You can't argue with the intent of wanting to give parents the best advice of what would be a "world class lunchbox" (think of it as the 'Google/Zappos/Apple lunchbox).
One problem. For low-income parents these suggestions are completely unrealistic.
The principal of Cannons Creek primary school (a lower socio economic suburb just outside Wellington) Ruth O'Neill said many families needed help with healthy eating, but health organisations were not coming at it the right way by recommending food that was either unaffordable - or unrecognisable.
"Hummus and cottage cheese is like a completely different world for some parents. A lot of the suggestions are either beyond our parents' financial means or aren't products they would normally buy."
A local paper, The Dominion Post went shopping to cost a standard lunchbox, as suggested by parents and principals, against foods from the healthy lunchbox list of the Heart Foundation. The standard lunchbox cost NZ$1.56 compared with NZ$3.35 for the "healthier" options, which over the school week is the difference between NZ$7.80 and NZ$16.75.
A different approach to improving children's lunchboxes, rather than the best lunchbox in the world (aka the 'Google/Zappos/Apple lunchbox') approach is to make small changes, starting from where people are today.
Cannons Creek school principal, Ruth O'Neill again; "We say if you can manage a sandwich with a bit of meat or a spread on it, and some fruit, then that's a great start. It's more about getting something in the lunchbox than coming up with something fancy."
When you look at your change initiatives and how you are introducing them, are you trying to introduce cottage cheese, hummus and couscous or are you just trying to take small steps in the right direction by adding a piece of fruit, putting some vegemite on a sandwich and taking out the packet of potato chips?
Last week I flew to Vienna to help a pharmaceutical company develop their strategy. It was a two day event. We used the first day to explore their current situation and past by, among other things, creating a massive visual history across one wall. We delved into the important events that have shaped them and the lessons they've learned so far. We looked at the challenges they faced and told stories of how these challenges were really impacting their work. For me this is the foundation for any strategy. The executives need to know and share the problems and opportunities they want to tackle. They need to get talking and make some real choices.
On the second day we focussed on the future. I stepped them through a visualisation to get them out of their heads and then we shared stories of where the future was already happening in their business. We call these Gibson stories inspired by William Gibson who is reported to have said: "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed." This idea of finding things that work and then work out ways to do more of it certainly appeals as it avoids the dreaded problem spiral (if you look for problems you will find them) which can drain the energy from even the most upbeat group.
Towards the end of the second day we had things on every wall: purpose statement, goals, illustrations of a desired future, strategic themes. You can imagine that the participants might feel a little punch drunk by this stage as each new idea smacks them about the head. Then we finally pulled it all together with a strategic story. I'm always amazed by the effect. All of a sudden everything falls into place for them. It has meaning. It's something they can now explain to others.
I like to finish a workshop by getting everyone in a circle and just asking, "so how do you feel right now? Not what you think, but how do you feel?" For many they felt energised and a sense of accomplishment. They all admitted to feeling a little confused half way through and wondered how it would come together. I warned them they would. For others they wanted to get to the next step and work out the plan. For me I wanted them to keep their strategic conversation going because no matter how good a two day event might be it's often the beginning of the decisions they have to make. Executives need time to let the possibilities sink in. But it's far better to make some real decisions, put them into action, learn from experience and adjust moving forward.