Let's face it. Those you lead already know you are not perfect. It may be a minor shortcoming that is a blind spot, or it could be a leadership habit impacting those you lead or the company's financial results. When you become self-aware of accidental bad habits, the only real decision is between choice and change. Change always begins with a choice. It is one thing to recognize the need for change and another to be entirely willing to act. Striving for better habits is a competitive advantage for any leader and business looking for a powerful point of differentiation. If you choose to create better leadership habits – here is what you need to know based on the latest research and six proven tips to get you moving in your best direction.
"The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken." – Samuel Johnson
Myth-Busting: It takes 21 days to form a habit
Habits are routines, patterns, or practices performed regularly. A common myth is that it takes 21 days to break a habit. Evidence from Dr. Maxwell Maltz's 1960 book 'Psycho-cybernetics' is believed to have led to this myth.
The number of times you complete a healthy habit before it becomes a habit can vary substantially by the person and the situation. One study concluded it typically ranges from 18-254 days of consistency. The key is repetition, and eventually, it will become a habit.
Habits (good or bad) are often enjoyable and automatic
Often, our brain works against us when we try to build better habits by reinforcing our bad habits. Some of these habits produce pleasure and release dopamine as a reward. We are wired for repetition and doing things automatically. This creates advantages for mindless tasks and makes changing habits harder.
Good intentions are not enough to break habits. However, leaders are not doomed to live with certain habits. You can change and reorient your behavior. You can build self-control, making standing firm while trying to change easier.
After you begin with a choice, these tips will keep you moving in your best direction:
Better Habits Tip #1: Know Your Why
Living daily without a vision for the future is not a great approach if you want to make the most of your life. Success and significance are not accidents and will require being deliberate and persevering. Starting with the end in mind goes far beyond knowing what habit you want to create. It requires considering why and what outcome you want from your personal and professional investment of time and energy. To answer this question, you have to factor in the impact you will have on others, what you stand for, and how you want to show up daily.
Ikigai (e-key-guy) is a Japanese concept that refers to your direction or purpose in life, providing fulfillment, satisfaction, and a sense of meaning. The literal translation consists of two words, 'iki' meaning to live and 'gai' meaning reason. Evidence suggests that the positive psychological effects of Ikigai include professional success, well-being, and physical benefits such as longevity of life. A study of over 40,000 adults found that men and women with Ikigai had a decreased risk for death from external causes.
Better Habits Tip #2: Get a Plan
You may have heard the saying that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. There is not a one-size-fits-all plan template. However, a good development plan, at a minimum, should include your why, making it easy, making it automatic, planning for accountability, and falling forward. Also, writing down your goals is associated with goal success. Evidence suggests you are 1.2X to 1.4X more likely to accomplish goals when they are vivid and explicit versus when they are not.
If you want to take the easy route, you can take the free Accidental Habit Assessment, pick up a copy of my book Life-Changing Leadership Habits, or schedule a 20-minute call, and we can put a plan together specific to your needs.
Better Habits Tip #3: Make it Easy
It's about consistency over intensity. Don't try to make too many changes at once. Make it easy. Pick one easy change and gradually increase the difficulty when creating a new habit. Multiple changes at once make creating a new habit more difficult.
For example, if your goal is to create a healthy habit of appreciative thinking. Rather than starting with implementing an appreciative inquiry summit or redesigning your organization's approach to strategic planning, pick one appreciative question to incorporate into existing one-to-one meetings. Keeping it simple to start allows you to build on success.
Better Habits Tip #4: Make it Automatic
Habit stacking is a proven approach to starting and making a new habit automatic. Habit stacking involves connecting new habits with existing habits to make them memorable. For example, suppose you are looking to create a habit of saying thank you to your team. In that case, you could benefit from connecting it with another behavior you already have formed.
For example, if you walk through your facility daily to check production status, you could start using that time to catch your team doing something valuable and immediately say thank you. Pairing new habits with existing routines makes the new habit more memorable and establishes automaticity.
Better Habits Tip #5: Get an Accountability Partner
Life was not meant to be done alone. Too often, we fail to consider leveraging accountability to help us create a new healthy habit. Being accountable to ourselves and someone we trust is proven to help you create a new habit. Conducting check-in meetings with an accountability partner to increase your motivation. We all tend to do better when someone is watching, even if that someone is you. Daily reflection and considering improvement opportunities establish personal accountability and a continuous improvement mindset.
Better Habits Tip #6: Fail Forward
No, I didn't just say to fail—plan for falling forward and not backward. When you first learned to walk, you fell more than you walked. You are human, and failure only comes with giving up. Being consistent is essential for creating a new habit and not being perfect. Develop a plan for getting back on track when you fall. It's not that you expect to fail but thinking ahead about how you will get back up rather than being perfect. Creating new habits is not a game of all or nothing.
The steps described are not an exhaustive list of every potential action you will need to overcome every challenge you may encounter when creating new leadership habits. Instead, these steps help you with the more common situations and significant difficulties you may encounter.
"Virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions ... The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.” Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
You can develop better leadership habits with a bit of planning. Like hiking, the first step is being entirely willing to make a change.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. Avery.
Cleo, G., Glasziou, P., Beller, E., Isenring, E., & Rae, T. (2019). Habit-based interventions for weight loss maintenance in adults with overweight and obesity: a randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Obesity, 43(2), 374-383.
Doolittle, J. (2023). Life-changing leadership habits: 10 proven principles that will elevate people, profit, and purpose. Organizational Talent Consulting.
Garcia, H. & Miralles, F. (2018). Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life. Penguin Life.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, Cornelia H., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
Murphy, M. (2010). HARD goals: The secret to getting from where you are to where you want to be. McGraw Hill.