Albert Einstein supposedly said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
I say that kind of thing to my clients all the time. Most of my coaching work includes helping leaders grow and develop in some area of knowledge, skill, attitude, or behavior. Although most people hire me for strategy, this topic of leadership growth eventually comes up.
Now, I’ve got to be honest with you. I toggle between being an optimist believing that people can change and being a pessimist thinking that most adults never change. The reality is we know people can change but it is not easy or automatic.
I’ve been thinking about this idea more because of some reading I’ve done recently—Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (you can also get the article version of the book here) and Leo Babuata’s The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…In Business and In Life.
Both books are, of course, about limiting our ambitions and activities on a personal level and on an organizational level. More than limiting, however, the point is about intentionality.
If you want to change your life, it requires intentionality. Changing your life requires a willingness to focus on the priorities, even if that means less important things need to fall by the wayside—and it usually does. It’s buying into the “less is more” mentality.
Three Tips to Changing Behavior
Here is a three-part framework to help us with changing our behavior. These tips are essentially anecdotal observation that comes from my work with thousands of leaders over the last three decades.
- Construct healthy appetites.
What’s the problem with these folks and their New Year’s Resolutions?
In many cases, it’s that they seek an external change without any internal appetite change. All our behaviors are visible outputs of something going on internally, and it doesn’t matter how many acronyms or project management systems you try, external change won’t be sustainable unless your internal appetite has changed.
I’m not trying to go all Sigmund Freud on you, but in my experience, that’s how it goes. If your appetite is only for work, then telling yourself “I must spend more time at home” won’t stop you from thinking about work and being distracted and distant while you’re at home. You’ll still be a workaholic.
In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath write, “Trying to fight inertia and indifference with analytical arguments is like tossing a fire extinguisher to someone who is drowning. The solution doesn’t match the problem.”
John Kotter put it less metaphorically, “Changing behavior is less a matter of giving people analysis to influence their thoughts than helping them to see a truth to influence their feelings.”
In other words, you’ve got to reach yourself at a heart level. And this usually means asking the “why” question—why are you behaving this way in the first place? Only by deconstructing the appetite system that is fueling a behavior can we begin to make sustainable changes.
- Set up structures and habits.
Structures are like a road through the woods. They can sound enslaving, but by and large, they’re our friends. Structures are assets that make things easier.
I love the way Max Anderson writes about this. If the first question to ask is “Why?” the second one must be “How?”
How can you bring about the change you seek? Charles Duhigg wrote a book on this topic titled The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business.
A good friend coined the phrase, “It takes more than an epiphany to change behavior.” I could not agree with him more. Sure, it helps to have an epiphany—I need to lose weight, I must stop getting so angry, I must learn to not micro manage, I need to not let the little things overwhelm me, etc.
But here is the reality. Following the epiphany, I need a process and a structure that guides my mind, will, and emotion to the right outcome.
- Take Baby Steps
In the area of change, we hate baby steps. We’d rather run because we are so addicted to things that work fast. We want the diet that promises we’ll lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks instead of 2 pounds for 20 straight weeks. Do the math, though, and see which one is better in the long run.
Most of us go through change like Calvin.
Instead, we should approach change like Leo and Bob. It doesn’t go great for them, but at least it goes.
If you want to change in the area of reading, for example, don’t come up with a list of 100 books to read. Start reading 15 minutes a day. If you want to eat healthy, change the way you eat breakfast on weekdays. If you want board meetings to be more productive, commit to starting on time and make it stick.
In short, start with something. Starting with something is better than starting with nothing. And it’s usually better than starting with everything.
I began this post with Einstein and I’ll end it with Aristotle, who said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Can we change as people? Sure. Is it easy and automatic? No! Is it important to flourishing in life and work? You bet!
Steve is an organizational strategist, social innovator, pragmatic theologian, executive coach, and mentor. Over the past 25 years Steve has helped hundreds of organizations launch and scale, while authoring over 15 books aimed at showing business people how to flourish in their life and work.