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Can We Really Change Our Habits?

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

An executive asked me a question at a lunch talk this week: How could she stop speaking too quickly?

Her phrasing was full of doubt. She’d had feedback, she’d tried to slow down, but nothing worked.

Yet as she spoke, she slowed down. She articulated every word clearly. It was a perfect pace for the listener.

Why, I asked, could she do it now? Again with a measured pace, she intoned that she was making a conscious effort to slow down. But in the workplace, when the pressure builds, she can’t do that!

Or can she?

In that moment, she was doing something to slow herself down. She was harnessing mental forces and physical effort, and she was getting her desired result.

The formula for her success was already inside of her.

All that executive needs to do now is to practice this micro-behaviour until it becomes a habit.

Too often, we abandon success when it appears in a micro form because we don’t see how it will ever become a bigger, more permanent part of us. Instead of celebrating the moment, we remind ourselves of all the moments when we didn’t do it.

I’ve seen this habit in so many clients. One impressive marketing director delivered a pitch-perfect introduction at the front of the room, stepped away and said: ‘But I’m usually terrible at this!’ That self-criticism was accompanied by drooping shoulders and a massive sighing gesture.

She had demonstrated success. And then she let her self-doubting streak overtake the moment.

Yes, it’s human – unfortunately, very human. But does it serve her?

In my years of training and coaching, one thing has become clear. Those who observe and celebrate their micro successes show more progress, more quickly, with more staying power.

Sometimes the 'you can't do it' voice shouts so loudly, it drowns out these successful moments. It’s easy to believe the loud voice is the only voice. Or worse, that it’s the right voice. But we all know loud doesn’t equal right. It just equals loud.

Overcoming takes over-talking. When you deliberately remind yourself of your successful moments, you introduce a new script. We call that positive self-talk. Some great examples of positive self-talk are:

  • I know I can do this because I did it last week.

  • I’ve prepared well and I’m going to give it my best.

  • I just did it! I did it well! I’m going to remember this.

You can write a positive self-talk script before an intimidating situation, like a big presentation. Read it aloud a few times, and the words will come back to you before you step on that stage.

Or use positive self-talk as your end-of-day ritual. Ask yourself what went well today, and applaud each micro success. When the loud self-critic tries to butt in, gently over-talk that voice.

If you’d like to turn your micro successes into habits, here’s a simple process to follow:

  • Choose the behavior you’re trying to

  • acquire or change

  • Visualise yourself doing it well

  • Stop and observe when you’ve done it well

  • Celebrate that success – say ‘well done!’ to yourself or tell a friend about it

  • Decide when and how you will do it again

  • Keep celebrating

Celebrated psychologist Daniel Goleman and his wife Tara Bennet-Goleman have authored numerous books that have changed the world’s understanding of neuroscience. As Bennet-Goleman points out in her book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits, the absolute key is to bring your habits into awareness.

As my friends in Solution Focus coaching know, the magic of all this is the evidence the lovely lady in Hanoi demonstrated to me this week. Change is already happening. She demonstrated her formula for success while framing her question. We are amazingly competent at changing our behaviours. We just need to encourage that process along.

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