THE ANGELS & DEMONS OF HABIT FORMATION

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 Gabrielle Bill 0 Comments



Habits are all the rage right now. Authors are writing about them, people are singing their praises and there's massive conversation around their power in life. I'm not here to critique this concept entirely, because I too believe in the power of habits, but a conversation I had this morning with a coaching colleague helped me realize there's another side to this habit story that isn't as widely discussed.

Before we get there, let's start with some background.

A few months ago as I was preparing to launch my full-time coaching business, I read Gretchen Rubin's book on habits called "Better than Before." I loved it, and in fact, I took copious notes and started becoming fundamentally more aware of the habits I had created, the habits I wanted to create and the strategies I could use to build them. I realized that because I place my daily medications and supplements next to my coffee maker that I never forget to take my pills. I used, as Gretchen would call it, the strategy of pairing. I also realized that if I track my time over the course of a day, I can more thoroughly evaluate how I'm spending my hours, and once again thanks to Gretchen's strategy of "monitoring," I can check in and see if my actions line up with my values.

You see, the power of habits is activated by their ability to remove your need to make a decision. You don't think, you just do. And that means your brain no longer needs to process the task, leaving that extra mental energy to be applied in another area of your life.

On the up side, habits can help you achieve any number of goals you set out for yourself, but they can also be dangerous guardrails that end up confining you to decisions you made at a single point in time. And that's what really got me thinking. 

What happens when we've created a habit for ourselves and stuck to it so religiously that the habit actually begins to get in the way of us welcoming a new experience, understanding a different perspective or pushing our boundaries to achieve growth?

The coaching colleague that I mentioned earlier talked about how her ears always perk up when she's working with a client and they start throwing around the words "always" and "never." They say things like, "I always research options before I make a decision," or "I never buy this product at the grocery store." 

On their own, these may seem harmless or like words we've haphazardly selected to describe a tendency, but I believe that, even if it's sub-conscious, the words we use reveal a lot about how we're truly feeling, thinking about or evaluating a situation around us. 

That's when it clicked for me -- in many ways you could say that "habit" and "rule" are synonymous. Sure, habits are typically behaviors we choose to engage in, whereas rules are often placed upon us by others, but over time, I think the line between the two can become increasingly blurred.

If you always arrive at work at 8am because you want to cultivate the habit of having a silent hour before your colleagues arrive, does this arrival time become a rule after a while? Do people become accustomed to your early arrival, perhaps try to schedule you for early meetings or question why you're not around at your typical time?

Maybe you've always worked in large corporations because you value the brand names on your resume. Maybe you've never considered working for a non-profit because you've assumed you couldn't make a decent income. Perhaps you've created a habit of coming home after work and logging on for a few hours at night to churn through emails. 

I'm not actually placing judgment on any of these things, rather I'm using them as examples of habits you might create for yourself in the moment, but that later -- whether that's tomorrow or ten years from now -- may transform into rules that no longer serve you. The problem here is that the vast majority of us never take the time to sit down and ask ourselves if our rules or habits still make sense because we don't even notice them anymore.

One of the exercises I work on with my clients is called the Rule Book, and it involves sitting down and writing out all of the "rules" you've created for yourself. You're then required to look at each rule carefully and decide if it's something you still want to follow (note: this is different from a rule you SHOULD follow because someone else told you to). If you still feel good about a particular rule, great. But if something about it irks you, it's time to re-write it so it fits your current state of mind.

Maybe getting to work at 8am was a habit that helped you accomplish a task in your job five years ago. But now that you've got young children at home, this habit actually makes it hard for you to take them to school in the morning. Or maybe your new boss is much more of a night owl, so your early morning habit makes communication challenging. Perhaps there's a totally new position that would require you to work afternoon hours, but because you always get to work at 8am, you close yourself off to exploring that possibility.

I'm not saying that we should stop developing habits, because I still believe they're powerful change agents, but rather I'm pressing you to not allow habits to funnel you into a world of black and white, where everything is always or never done a certain way because that's just how I do things. Sometimes breaking a habit, or re-evaluating whether one still continues to serve you, can actually be the key to unlocking powerful revelations and new opportunities in your life and career.

Chew on that one for a minute, then let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


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Gabrielle "Gabby" Bill is a career coach and consultant who believes everyone should be working in a job that leaves them feeling fulfilled. She coaches groups and individuals through a reflection process, uncovering often hidden motivations, values, goals and skills as they relate to their career. These reflections are then parlayed into concrete action plans to guide clients through the process of finding, creating and landing their dream jobs. You can learn more about her services by visiting www.gabriellebill.com

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