We Don’t Extinguish Bad Habits

How many times have you started a sentence with the words, “I’ve got to stop . . . ”? Whether it’s checking social media ten times per hour, eating a big lunch that drains the afternoon’s energy, or binging on Game of Thrones until 2AM, those four words are a sure sign of a bad habit. People spend millions every year learning how to extinguish the behaviors that steal our time, money and health. But here’s a secret – no one ever extinguishes a habit, good or bad. You substitute one habit for another.

Here’s the reason why – Once your brain has developed a routine for doing something, it can never be erased. These “schemas” become a part of your long-term memory. When you are placed in circumstances that stimulate recall of these memories, your brain brings them to your attention. If you’ve had a good time playing softball with friends, you will recall those memories the next time you head out to play softball. If you’ve gotten into the habit of walking a couple of miles first thing every morning, your brain will remind you to do so every time you get out of bed. Musicians don’t think about how to play a particular chord. Their fingerings are the result of muscle memory.

The same is true for habits you’d like to overcome. To do so, you have to establish a more dominant schema or routine that overrides the cues for the established one. But this can be especially difficult if the habit is something you’ve enjoyed in the past, feel pressured to do so, or are living/working in an environment where you are constantly reminded of it.

Here’s an example. A while back, I got into a habit of snacking just before going to sleep. Over time, this had two impacts — I gained weight and slept restlessly. Perhaps you’ve been there. Part of the problem was environment. I couldn’t just remove reminders like the fridge, the pantry full of cereals and that favorite chair in front of the TV. I needed develop a replacement routine. So what to do?

First, I asked my wife to stop buying cereal. She rarely eats it and there’s only two of us in the house at this point. Second, I collected a pile of the books I’ve wanted to read and placed them on the table next to my favorite chair. This way, I would feel compelled to pick up a book rather than flopping in front of the TV (another crutch after 9PM). Finally, I moved the cereal bowls from one shelf to another. While they were still within easy reach, I was reminded every time I saw them that I shouldn’t be snacking just before bed. Granted, this is not rocket science. But changing or removing the environmental cues have done the trick.

Your bad habit may not be snacking in the evening. But these principles are universal. Consider a habit you’d like to override and come up with a simple strategy for doing so. Note: Only try one at a time. Each one of these attempts will be a source of stress until it has overcome the old routine. Attempting several of these changes at once is a recipe for failure.

By the way, don’t measure the duration of the habit change. A lot of made of the myth that it takes 21 days to establish or extinguish a habit. But every time you think about how long it’s been since you began a shift in behavior, you reinforce the neuropathway you’re trying to de-emphasize. This, of course, comes down to mindset. (It’s the same thing as someone saying to you, “Don’t think about elephants.”) The next time you catch yourself saying or thinking, “I’ve got to stop . . .” ask “What habit or practice should I replace it with? Then step away right then and begin to establish that new routine.

How to Say “No” and Get Away with It

You know the drill. The boss says, “I need you to . . . .” or your team leader informs you that everyone else decided that you’ll be one to . . . “ or maybe a new initiative comes down from above without warning. In every case, you’ve already got too much on your plate. You may feel like people are dumping. Inside, you want to yell, ENOUGH!”

But it’s the boss, or the team, or someone else you feel you can’t refuse. But maybe you can. After all, there are only so many hours in the day and most of them are supposed to belong to you. So, here are three strategies for doing what some people think is unthinkable – Saying “no” and getting away with it:

Challenge the delegation with a reasoned and rehearsed response.The last thing anyone should do is simply tell the boss “No.” But after you’ve accepted the assignment, revisit the situation when the time is right. Here’s how – Begin by thinking through why you shouldn’t be completing the assignment. Too much on your plate? Is there someone better qualified or can complete it more efficiently? Maybe you’re concerned that with so much to do, you won’t be able to do your best work. You get the idea. Then develop your reasoning for saying “no” and offering an alternative outcome. Make it succinct. No one likes a big long story.

Rehearse what you’re going to say to make sure it comes out the way you want. Finally, approach your boss, team leader or whomever. You might begin with, “Could we revisit the project you assigned me yesterday?” or “I have a concern about the assignment you gave me yesterday.” Anticipate how the person might respond and be prepared to defend what you’re asking for. Hopefully, the delegator will consider your reasoning fairly and work with you to ameliorate the situation.

Ask the person to prioritize your tasks.It is not uncommon for supervisors to lose track of how much they’ve assigned. Diplomatically asking them to prioritize the tasks on your plates will remind them of your work load. You might begin be saying something like, “I was doing some thinking about the assignment you gave me this morning. I have three other projects in process. Where would you like me to fit this task into my priorities?” Then wait for them to consider the question. If you are given an off-the-cuff response like, “I don’t know. Just get it done,” this is a red flag. Ask for clarity about time commitment, deadline, specific outcomes and so on. Hopefully this will result in you getting some breathing room. If they do it again, repeat this process. Hopefully they will get better over time about how they delegate to you and everyone else.

Approach the person about your overall workload and commitments. There are times when you simply have to confront the situation. Be careful, however, to consider the perspective of the person assigning all these tasks. You have to offer options and solutions. Appearing to simply complain will not be a successful strategy. Take some time to consider how to best rearrange your work to ease the stress and make you more effective. Then present your ideas in such a way that demonstrates that you will not be adding to your supervisor’s burden, yet easing your burden so you can work more effectively. You might consult with a couple of trusted individuals, asking them to help you think through the best way to do all this. There is no guarantee that your supervisor will go along of course. But if he or she sees that it is in everyone’s best interest, you’ll have a better chance of success.

As with any strategy, effectiveness is all in the execution. These tactics certainly won’t work every time. But it’s worth the try if you want to reduce your decision fatigue and find more balance.

Five Simple Strategies for Battling Decision Fatigue

With the advent of mobile technology, it has become easy to feel tied to the workplace at all times. Do you clear e-mail waiting for dinner to arrive? Do people ask you to stop texting during the movie? Is everyone passing you on the road because you find it tough to focus on a customer call and drive at the same time? (You know who you are.) A recent survey conducted by Robert Half International found that 96% of managers say their people have too much to do every day.

The result of this, of course, is decision fatigue, that feeling that you’re just plain tired of making decisions and figuring stuff out. This condition impacts both sides of the employment relationship. For the employee, it fosters resentment, a feeling of helplessness and even anger. For the employer, it impacts productivity, quality of work, and staff turnover levels. With the ever-increasing emphasis on efficiency and the bottom line, however, the solution is not simple.

But what can you do, personally, to battle this insidious affliction? After all, it’s not what happens to you that counts. It’s how you respond. So, here are five quick strategies to commence the fight:

Number one, take stock. If we take a hard look in the mirror, most of us will realize that we can be our own worst enemy. We’re doing things we shouldn’t be doing. We’re making decisions others should be making. We’re doing things the old way rather than adapting. So, take a couple of days and catalog the tasks you complete and the decisions you make. Nothing fancy. Just a list. Include everything from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. Then look for items that can be eliminated, performed by someone else, or simplified. Even if you find one or two, it will be worth the effort. You may say, “Who’s got time for this? You’re just adding to my decision fatigue.” But if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. ‘nuf said.

Number two, say “no” more often.Sometimes, we are reluctant to challenge the endless parade of assignments handed down from above, for fear of irritating someone or even putting our jobs in jeopardy. Yet well thought-out and rehearsed responses to assignments that get piled on will generally be met with dialog about how to accomplish the work without overwhelming everyone. I address how to accomplish this in more detail in this post.

Number three, say “yes” less often.How often do you say, “Sure,” or “Happy to do so,” or “Not a problem,” during the week? You might be doing this out of a desire to please. You might worry that if you don’t say “yes” you’ll lose an opportunity. Or maybe, you naturally want to help, but fail to consider your calendar and existing commitments. The best decision makers have trained themselves to hesitate before committing impulsively. They say things like, “I might be able to help, but let me check my calendar,” or “I’d be happy to pitch in on part of that. I just need to be mindful of my time.” In this way, they frame the agreement on their terms.

Number four, rid your phone of useless conveniences.Have you ever watched someone swipe left over and over trying to find the app that will save them a couple of minutes. Then they wait a couple of minutes for the latest update to load because the WIFI is slow. Maybe this has been you. We tend to download apps because they seemed like a good idea at the time. Truthfully, most are just sand in the gears of our decision making. The next time you’re sitting in line at the car wash or waiting for the movie to begin after 13 minutes of trailers, delete a few of the apps you really don’t need. Doing this once a week will relieve some of that background stress you feel from having too many options.

Number five, learn what others do to cope.Who around you is the best about managing all the daily decisions and tasks we now navigate? What are these individuals doing that you should be doing? What are they not doing that you should not be doing? Chances are, they have learned these strategies from others. You should learn from them and then pass them along to others who also need the help. These five tactics will not alleviate all of the decision fatigue you feel. But they will serve as a start toward your recovery.

Are the Sunday Scaries Contributing to Your Decision Fatigue?

Imagine sitting in front of the football game on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying a beer. You’re looking forward to a peaceful evening before returning to Monday’s pace. Then you get a text from your boss, outlining three “quick” tasks she wants you to complete before the morning meeting. All of a sudden, the remainder of your peaceful weekend has vanished. Been there? So have many other people. So much so, that there’s now a name for it – the Sunday Scaries.

Digital technology has always been a mixed blessing. On one hand, it provides access and convenience to people, information and solutions. On the other hand, it enables businesses and employers to track our moves, choices, finances and time. One of these is this unspoken expectation that your employer should be able to communicate with you 24/7/365. If you’re okay with this, that’s fine. Stop reading here.

But if you’re feeling stressed and resentful about having to respond on the employer terms, consider taking the following steps:

Consider the culture that may be demanding this.In many ways, we’ve become a society of trying to do more with less. If this is characteristic of your firm, you may be faced with a choice about whether this is the right place for you. On the other hand, this may be more about a supervisor who lives for the job and expects others to do the same. Besides, if this is affecting you, chances are it is impacting others as well. You have every right to ask for a conversation about defining parameters of access in both day and time. But before doing so . . .

Clarify the balance you would like to achieve in work/life balance.Some people are okay working on the weekends because they’ll take a weekday off for something fun. Others cherish their weekends for family and a chance to recharge. What does your weekly balance look like? These days balance isn’t about a defined set of hours each week, it’s about control over your personal time.

Define your desired parameters.The traditional work hours of nine-to-five are long gone, especially for professional positions. At the same time, consider what you think is reasonable. Flex time and comp time have become prevalent in many organizations. It is up to you to determine reasonable expectations and an easy way to explain them to the person supervising you. After all, you’ve got to obtain that person’s agreement.

Approach your supervisor, but be prepared to negotiate.There has to be a meeting of the minds. You may up agreeing to one weekend per month or responding to texts and e-mails until 7PM on weekdays. There may be a season when broad access is important (think January thru April with accounting, Thanksgiving thru New Year’s with retail, and winter for ski resorts).

Be prepared to enforce the negotiated plan when “mission creep” occurs.Once you and your supervisor have settled on the parameters of access, there will still be the occasional exception. When these exceptions start to become the norm again, it’s time to re-visit the issue. But now you are working from an established agreement. Simply saying something like, “I thought we had an agreement about the parameters of weekend access,” will hopefully resolve the issue.

In these times of invasive communication and access, the sunday scaries and similar practices will continue to pervade. It’s up to us, as individuals, to define and enforce our priorities.

Do You Squander Your Time in Traffic?

I was driving to a meeting and a young man in a beat-up Honda Accord had spent the last three miles trying to get around me and the other motorists. Every time he got a few cars ahead, he was thwarted by the flow of traffic or stoplight timing. I would pull up right behind him, pull a few cars ahead or end up beside him at the next light. I was tempted to lower my window and ask, “What are you accomplishing?” but I didn’t think he’d get it.

Young people in old cars are not the only ones displaying this impatience. I see middle-aged women in SUVs and older men in pick-up trucks doing the same thing. Most of them have this look of focus and determination that says, “I’m going to beat all these people to the next intersection.”

Of course, given a distance of ten miles, chances are we’ll all arrive within seconds of each other. At the risk of appearing a little anal, I even tested this theory a few times by mentally tagging these individuals in the flow of traffic. Sure enough, I’d be right behind them at light after light after light. When my kids were young, I pointed out to them that certain vehicles were demonstrating this dance of impatience while imperiling everyone else on the road. Once they earned their driver’s licenses, they began mentioning this phenomenon as they got behind the wheel.

Of course, this behavior is not confined to driving. I’ve seen people get so wound up in positioning themselves in a meeting or for a job, that they’ve been ignored or passed over because everyone thought they were annoying or even obnoxious. I’ve interviewed thousands of successful leaders over the years. With the exception of a few, I have found them all to be cordial, generous, and forthcoming. Apparently, they have figured out that working with the “traffic,” rather than competing with the “motorists” gets you further ahead in the same amount of time.

On the roads of life, we have all have choices for how we spend our time and energy. I’d rather sit back, go with the flow, and think through the day’s real challenges, such as writing the next article for my blog. There! I think I’ve done it.

What Achievers Do to Improve Their Listening

Franklin Roosevelt became convinced that people were so excited to meet him in person that they didn’t pay attention to what he actually said. So, he tried an experiment. As he greeted people during a White House reception, he smiled and told each of them quietly, “I murdered my grandmother yesterday afternoon.” As he suspected, everyone in line responded with something like, “That’s great, Mr. President,” or “I’m glad to hear it, Mr. President.” This happened, until the last person in line, the ambassador from Bolivia. The ambassador hesitated and then whispered back, “Well sir, she must have deserved it.”

How often do we greet people with “How are you?” and have no expectation of a response other than “fine?” In fact, we’re surprised when the other person actually gives an honest answer. While this may be seem harmless, behavior like this begins to infect more meaningful conversations as well. Have you ever gotten so used to listening to the boss, for instance, that you no longer pay attention?

Have you ever made a mistake because you didn’t listen for all the details of the assignment? With the hundreds of distractions bombarding us every day, we become overwhelmed. Real concentration on anything now seems to come at a premium. We try to attend to important issues. But this attention is being constantly reset because of electronic distractions, constant music and news and the impatience we’ve all developed. Then there’s FOMO, or the Fear Of Missing Out, that compels us to check our smart phones 40 and 80 times a day, depending upon age.

The result is our inability to focus very long on the problems that really count. Yes, you have to make a decision on filling that vacant position or resolving that customer service issue. But all the little tasks need to be completed as well. It’s just easier to do those. So, what do you do? Here are three strategies that I’ve seen high achievers use:

Train your brain – The best thinkers know there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. Rather, they’ve learned to focus intently on the task at hand. They read deeply outside of the everyday business documents to improve their critical thinking. They debate with others to sharpen listening and persuasion skills. They take up hobbies that require concentration and creativity.

De-clutter – Look at the screen of a high achiever and you’ll notice a lack of clutter. They develop systems for organizing files and essential documents. They take a bit of time every day to “clear the chaos.” They’re huge fans of concise reports and proposals. If an idea comes to mind while focused on another task, they jot it down without breaking concentration. They focus on the essentials, rather than be distracted by irrelevant chat and nonsense.

Compartmentalize – High achievers organize their days and then remain on task. Don’t expect them to respond immediately. They usually clear e-mails two or three specific times a day. Ask if they’ve got a couple of minutes and they’ll diplomatically set a time that works into their schedule. That doesn’t mean they’re inflexible. They’ve just developed systems that permit them to focus on one task at a time, thereby improving listening and concentration.

Of course, these strategies don’t succeed without the self-discipline to develop good habits of mind. What can you do in the next week to adopt these tactics?

Is Your Impulse Control Better than Sophie’s?

This is Sophie, our Wheaten Terrier. She had leg surgery two months ago. She has been wearing this “cone of shame” to prevent her from licking the wound. Again, that was TWO months ago! Every time we take it off, she immediately starts licking the wound. We’ve wrapped it. We applied a sour apple ointment. We’ve even applied a product called Yuck! Her natural impulses always win out.

The truth is, I sometimes feel like Sophie. As I write this, I am tempted to check social media, read the news, grab another cup of coffee, start another project, clear my e-mails and on and on. Sound familiar? With all the distractions and manipulations in today’s environment, controlling the urge to click on a funny image, respond to someone’s zany comment or just watch 30 seconds of cute kitty videos can be overwhelming. Sometimes, we simply give in to all this due to decision fatigue. (The irony is that we are doing this to each other through our marketing and promotional efforts.)

But this failure of self-control impedes us from achieving our daily and long-term goals. Our personal and professional successes are the result of the habits we develop and the self-discipline we exercise. Arguably, there is some luck and timing involved as well. But even that luck and timing has to be leveraged with good habits when it appears. I know I am preaching to the choir here. But I need to hear it occasionally as well. I’ve found that one of the best ways to address this challenge is to emulate those around me who are more consistent in their impulse control. Pretty much every one of us can point to others in our environment who have possess stronger habits than we have, at least in some endeavors.

When I speak to young professionals about decision making, I suggest a simple two-step process for developing impulse control: Begin by figuring out who the best decision makers are around are you. Then ask yourself two questions – “What are they doing that I should be doing?” and “What are they NOT doing that I should not be doing?” In reality, this is a good exercise for anyone, regardless of age. (I am preaching to myself here, as well.) So, what’s one little area where you can begin to improve your impulse control right now?

How to Remember Fantastic Shower Ideas

If you’re like me, you’ve had fantastic ideas in the shower. But when you’ve tried to recall them while drying off, they’re nowhere to be found in your memory. So why is this? Simple. When the brain introduces a bright idea or insight, it does so into your short-term, or working, memory. Unfortunately, thoughts in short-term memory only last three to five seconds before they are flushed out of the way by the next incoming thought or stimuli. The only way to capture these great ideas in through instant rehearsal. In other words, you’ve got to stop whatever you’re doing immediately and focus ALL of your attention on that great idea.  Here’s an example:

Not long ago, I was taking a shower and thinking about something I had to teach in an upcoming seminar. Suddenly, it dawned on me exactly how to explain the concept. But not having anything to write with, I began to write it on the steamy shower door. Even though I knew these words would disappear within seconds as the steam from the show erased them, I was mentally rehearsing them and moving this explanation from short-term to long-term memory. When I got out of the shower, the first thing I did was grab paper and pen write them down along with any other associated thoughts and ideas. I still have that water-stained paper because just looking at it helps me to remember the concept.

You can do the same thing, in the shower, while you’re driving, pushing a shopping cart, chatting with a friend, or anywhere else. The key is instantaneous rehearsal. Drop what you’re doing and focus all of your attention on recording the idea. Don’t believe this works? Ask the smart-decision makers you know. They’ll tell you similar stories.

“Getting to Yes” Decisions

Thirty years ago, Roger Fisher and William Ury published their bestselling negotiating book, Getting to Yes. One of the key strategies they espoused was to resolve the easiest issues first and work toward the more difficult ones. By the time you reach the most critical issue, they argued, you will already have momentum by coming to agreement on the smaller disputes first.

The same might be said of making critical decisions. It is only natural to focus on the “elephant in the room” when trying to make a big decision. That obstacle can seem insurmountable when viewed in isolation. But most big decisions are really a collection of smaller decisions. If you approach the big obstacle by breaking it down into its incremental challenges, you relieve some of this pressure.

Consider the purchase of a house – Yes, the purchase itself is a big decision, filled with emotion, the unknown and the fear of making a mistake. But this decision is really broken down into lots of smaller choices – house layout, number of bedrooms, amenities, financing, location, schools, access to stores and entertainment, commuting time, taxes, proximity to friends and family. Given a piece of paper, we could all list an additional dozen factors or more.

But few people take time to list and prioritize all these elements in a rational way. Once you have, and considered each element individually, many of the smaller decisions become easy to make. As they do, some of the pressure over making the biggest decision is relieved. In a way, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Besides, once you’ve made the decision and experienced the inevitable buyer’s remorse, you can go back and remind yourself of the reasons why you made the choices you did.

This technique of listing and prioritizing can be applied to most any significant decision. But too often, we allow ourselves to be distracted by other’s opinions, the endless advice on social media, our natural impatience, and the worry associated with making irreversible choices. Does this process require some concentration and self-discipline? Of course. But any decision with lasting consequences requires these traits. Once you’ve developed these practices, they become easier to implement every time you are faced with a big decision. This is one of the keys to becoming a smart decision maker.

Are You a Flat Rabbit?

My friend Jay, was watching his grandson, Jake, vacillate over decision. After a minute or so, Jake’s mother, Tina, said “don’t be a flat rabbit.” When Jay asked about the origin of the phrase, Tina explained that rabbits start to cross the road, hesitate and then run back to where they started, just in time to be run over a car. The same can be said about squirrels, cats, armadillos, and the occasional human.

So how about you? Are you a flat rabbit? We all succumb to indecision from time to time. In the process, we over-think problems, obsess about unknowable outcomes or thrash back and forth out of fear that we’ll make a mistake. As a result, we lose out on opportunities and appear indecisive to those around us. Do this enough and it can become a habit . . . a bad habit.

I’m not arguing that we have to be absolutely decisive in every situation. That said, the best decision-makers I’ve interviewed generally display an air of decisiveness and confidence that most people wished they possessed. These decision-makers use their intuition and sense of clarity to go with what feels right. The decision doesn’t always work out. But pretty much all of them will tell you that it’s better to take action with a 90% chance of being right, than waiting till everything feels perfect and finding the opportunity has been lost.

So, how do you go about becoming more decisive? In reflecting on the interviews I’ve conducted, two patterns have emerged. First, these individuals have developed the discipline to stop and consider the factors involved when confronted with a decision, especially one that requires a quick action. When a couple of co-workers lean into your work station and say, “Come on, we’re going to lunch” Your first impulse might be to say, “okay.” The people I’ve interviewed are more likely to stop, think a ahead to the afternoon’s commitment and the impact a juicy sandwich will have on their productivity.

In addition to resisting impulsive decisions, the best decision-makers rely more on their intuition. While we all possess an intuition, the best decision makers have honed theirs into a tool upon which they depend. Intuition is not just something that evolves. It is a tool that can be consciously developed. It is so important, in fact, we spend an entire module on developing intuition during my on-line course, Make Your Best Decisions Now.

Becoming more decisive begins with defining personal priorities. Simply asking, “How important is this decision?” will compel you to determine the amount of time and energy you should be devoting to the issue. So the next time, you find yourself vacillating on a decision, stop and ask yourself, “Am I behaving like a flat rabbit?”