The new year is here, and for many of us, that means new year’s resolutions. And many of us make resolutions related to our work lives.
Now Questioners, I know you object to the arbitrariness of the January 1 date; Obligers, I know you may have given up making resolutions because you’ve struggled in the past; and Rebels, I know you may not want to bind yourself in advance. But some people do want to make resolutions. (Don’t know where you fit in the “Four Tendencies” framework, i.e., if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Look here.)
For instance, some common work-related resolutions include “I want to broaden my horizons,” “I want to do a better job with record-keeping,” “I want to network,” “I want to find a mentor,” and “I want to expand my skills.”
One key to consistent progress is to make a behavior into a habit. Habits are freeing and energizing, because they save us from the difficult, draining business of making decisions and exercising our self-control.
Habits matter, because research shows that about 40% of everyday life is shaped by habits. If we have habits that work for us, we’re far more likely to be happier, healthier, and more productive.
In my book Better Than Before, I discuss the twenty-one different strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. I know, twenty-one sounds like a lot to manage — but it’s helpful that there are so many, because some of these strategies work for some people, and not others. But we all have a big menu from which to pick.
So how might you make a habit of actions that will help you succeed at work? Consider these strategies:
1. Use the Strategy of Clarity, and be specific about what you’re asking of yourself.
Resolutions like “network more” or “research new opportunities” are too vague. Put your resolution into the form of a concrete, measurable, manageable action, such as “Every month, go to at least two events with networking opportunities” or “Spend one hour every Friday afternoon updating my time sheets and expenses.” Being specific helps you figure out what to do, and it also makes it possible to…
2. Use the Strategy of Monitoring, and monitor your habit.
Monitoring is almost uncanny in its power. Research shows that simply by monitoring a behavior, we tend to do a much better job of it, whether that’s how fast we’re driving, how much we’re eating, how many cold calls we’re making, or how many instructional videos we’re watching. Keep track, and you’ll push yourself in the right direction.
3. Use the Strategy of Scheduling, and schedule time for your habit.
Something like “Research that company this week” is a goal that can keep getting pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. Even if it’s important, it’s just not urgent. So schedule a specific time for research, for learning, for following up, and give it a slot on your calendar. But it’s crucial to remember that…
4. Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
When you schedule time to do certain work, you should do that work, and nothing else. No filing, no cleaning, no research, no checking emails. Do that work, or stare at the ceiling. Otherwise, you may work and work and work, and never get around to doing the very thing you set out to do.
5. Use the Strategy of Distinctions, and take time to think big.
In the rigors of everyday life, it can be hard to step back and see what matters most. Where do you want to be in two years? How could you develop your skills to make your work more interesting and yourself more valuable? Some people prefer to do this kind of thinking alone, with just a pad of paper; others prefer to talk it out, with a few trusted co-workers or an old friend; others might hire a coach. Or…
6. Use the Strategy of Distinctions, and take time to think small.
Sometimes people get overwhelmed when they try to make grand plans or ask huge questions; it’s also useful to focus on small, manageable steps that you can incorporate into your life immediately.
7. Use the Strategy of Clarity, and ask yourself: Whom do you envy?
Envy is an uncomfortable emotion, but it’s instructive. If you envy someone, that person has something you wish you had. Do you envy your friend who gets to travel all the time—or the friend who never has to travel? Do you envy your co-worker who’s taking night class toward getting an MBA, or who gets to make lots of presentations? Envy can help show us how we want to grow and change.
8. Use the Strategy of Other People, and spend time with people who have the habits that you want to emulate.
Studies show that we tend to pick up habits from the people around us, so choose your company wisely. If you know that some of your co-workers cultivate habits that help them succeed at work, go out of your way to spend time with them, and you’ll more easily pick up those habits, yourself.
9. Use the Strategy of the Four Tendencies and the Strategy of Accountability, if it works for you.
If you’re an Obliger — that is, if you readily meet other people’s expectations, but struggle to meet your expectations for yourself — the answer, the solution, the key element is external accountability. Rebels, on the other hand, often do worse when they’re being held accountable. Figure out your Tendency and plug in accountability as necessary.
The most important thing to remember about habit change? We must shape our habits to suit ourselves—our own nature, our own interests, our own strengths. When we understand ourselves, we can apply the twenty-one strategies with the greatest success, and we can also help other people to change their habits.
It’s not hard to change your habits, when you know what to do. And it matters. When we change our habits, we change our lives.