Like many young people in the 1980s (just writing that, it feels like an age ago), I started smoking. And like many smokers, I soon developed a habit that was really hard to kick. A bad habit that felt I needed.
Not all habits are bad. Many keep us safe, and others help us perform better. Ask Owen Farrell to change the meticulously rehearsed series of eye movements, innocuous twitches and rocking movements that characterise his preparation to kick a rugby ball and he’ll ask you to find something else to do with your advice, as only a rugby player could.
Fighting the comfort of routine
Bizarrely, in facilitating a range of skills in teams, some of the most mundane habits are the hardest to change. It just feels safer not to. We regularly run courses on presentation skills and our groups unanimously agree that the beginning of a presentation is absolutely vital – we all know how quickly impressions are made, so get it right first up. They will also wearily agree that the most boring way to open a presentation is by saying “Good morning, my name is… thank you so much for your time…”. So far, so good.
But when you then invite the attendees to start in a different way, and provide alternatives and rehearsal time to try something else, nearly half will still default to the option they agree is not great! “It just feels weird”, they say. Well, of course it does. The force of habit is so powerful that no rationale will shift it.
A leopard can change its spots
Some years ago, I was running late for a course training other trainers how to run a session. This involved a large roll of posters that had to be put up in advance, and there was time in the agenda as part of the logical flow to walk them round the room explaining each one. On this particular morning, I was beginning to panic as I was being beaten by the clock. When I arrived on the room, the first delegate was already there clutching his plastic cup of machine coffee. I couldn’t put up the posters. In that moment, I realised that actually I shouldn’t be the one doing it anyway. This was something they were going to have to do themselves, so why not get them doing that now? I left the posters on the table and one of the first things I did when all were in was invite them to put up the posters. It worked like a dream. Forcibly freed of my habit, I found something new and better. A new habit!
Habits are not just for “old dogs” who are wary of new tricks. We all have them. To really develop, we need to consider letting go proactively, rather than waiting for conflict or even failure to change them.
Thankfully, I managed to break free from nicotine. Watching a programme about people trying to give up smoking and seeing a living room littered with ashtrays and two kids being fumigated by their parents habit clicked the switch for me. I stubbed out the cigarette I was smoking at the time and 25 years later haven’t touched another! I now eat packs of salted peanuts instead… now there’s another habit that I should look at…
Managing Director, Sun and Moon Training