Changing habits: a personal experiment

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching how to change habits at work. (I captured some of those ideas here, here, and here.)

But before I can change the habits of an entire company, I need to do some experiments and some fieldwork.  So I decided to start with a small set of volunteers: me.

Since I’ve already changed my work habits, I focused on 4 changes I’ve been wanting to make for years:

  • eating less meat
  • drinking less alcohol
  • yelling less at my 2-year old son, Hudson
  • exercising more regularly

Here’s what happened and how it applies to work.

2 common themes in the research 

Six different books on changing behavior – “Switch”, “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way”, “Power of Habit”, “The Progress Principle”, “This year I will…”, “Nudge” – all emphasize breaking down a desired change into small, achievable goals and making progress towards those goals very visible.

These simple ideas sound obvious, but I’ve overlooked them. Big, abstract goals – whether it’s “eating less meat” or “reducing service costs” – invoke fear in our change-averse brains.

It takes too much energy and attention to translate such goals into action, and so we simply go back to our more comfortable, unthinking habits.

The notebook

Inspired in particular by “Kaizen”, I took my 4 goals and turned them into more specific, achievable objectives:

“I won’t eat meat for 4 days a week.” 

“I won’t drink alcohol for 5 days a week.” 

“I won’t yell at little Hudson 4 days a week.” 

“I will exercise 3 days a week.” 

And I bought a notebook.

Each day, I write down what I eat and drink and, at the end of the day, I give myself a point for doing something towards each one of my goals. I also track progress towards my weekly goal.

If I meet my goals for a month, I’ll reward myself with a particular piece of jewelry I’ve admired to commemorate the change.

The results

What I’ve found is that specific, achievable goals combined with a simple tracking and rewards system made a big difference for me.

For example, I’ve wanted to eat less meat ever since reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” years ago, but “becoming a vegetarian” was daunting. Yet I knew I could avoid meat for one day and starting there relieved my apprehension. I also found myself wanting that point each day.

This little process – it’s almost a game – simply makes me more aware of my choices. My food choices, for example, went from unthinking (“I’ll have a burger.”) to conscious (“Hmmm. I’m behind on my goal this week, so I’ll be sure to ask for vegetarian options.”)

For the 3 goals that required on-the-spot decisions – what to eat, drink, or say – the greater awareness made a big difference and I was able to easily meet or exceed my goals by the second week. As time went by, I started to visit new places, started to get used to different options, and started to develop new habits.

Exercise, though, required something more. Since it involved a specific amount of time, it required planning in addition to a decision. And without that, I fell short of my goal for several weeks and learned I’ll need to make adjustments to my system.

Experimenting at work

It’s nice that I feel healthier and happier. And little Hudson is certainly pleased with my experiment. But what about work?

The connection is that changing work habits – how we fill our days with meetings, how we run those meetings, how we spend our time processing email – will also require the same elements I’ve used: simple steps towards a goal that matters, greater awareness, visible progress, and rewards.

The next step is to plan small experiments at work that include all these elements with the hope is that we can create a concerted, comprehensive approach to changing habits at work. If we can do that, we can finally get rid of the practices we all know are wasteful and that sap time, energy, and fulfillment from our jobs.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Management, Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Changing habits: a personal experiment

  1. Old 454 says:

    How we form, maintain, and change habits is fascinating. I’m with you, though, “exercise” is a much more complex set of behaviors than “eating a burger”, at it touches on so many other habits (“wakeup 1 hour earlier”, “go to bed 1 hour earlier”, “don’t watch tv after work”, “address childcare conflicts”) . Also like the idea of taking personal habit change techniques and applying them to an organization.

  2. I continue to enjoy how you summarize themes from entire books along with examples on how to implement the advice in a short post. I will be sharing this one with friends and colleagues.

  3. A nudge for exercise that I have found effective is to look at ways to incorporate it into my existing routines instead of only thinking of it as a separate activity requiring multiple considerations. So I always take the stairs, I do squats or crunches during commercials when watching TV, I try to schedule walk and talk meetings to discuss issues, and I keep a rubber band in my messenger bag so that I can always do 5 minutes of exercises for a quick recharge during the day.

  4. monicaleguizamon says:

    Hey John, its amazing the sincronicity, I’ve just wrote down my next blog in draft related with new beginnings, it is a personal and a family experiment. I’ll tell you more in my blog. Thank you for sharing and inspiring! have a nice weekend!

  5. Sam G says:

    As much as I would like to register my opinion, one of the habits I’m trying to change is reading about people doing things (and commenting) without actually trying them myself. So, if I actually do this, I’ll come back and tell you about it… But I will say I think its a great post.

  6. Exercising regularly is such a tough nut to crack. I like to be in work early to enjoy that quiet time before the day gets crazy. And I like to spend my evening hours enjoying my family. That leaves 5:30am (super busy gym time in my town) or weekends.
    But there are definitely other small changes I’d like to make and I think I’ll start with a couple of those today.
    Thanks for the post. I’m off to play tennis with my wife now 🙂

  7. Bernd Lohner says:

    I enjoy your posts. For me exercising and breaking down the changes at work are a bit easier than food – we all have our own daemons… Sometimes the challenge is to find enough room to make time for specific goals… I recently made the second mobility move in a year and it was the most refreshing experience of my life. Having little baggage I was able to start redefining myself to the professional I aspire to be without losing my authenticity… I have a similar list of objectives that I reflect on every morning on the train to work – and I take inventory at night… The nights I have failed I take as a chance to figure out why and to see if I need to adjust my behavior or my objectives.

  8. Again, an inspiring blog post, John – thank you very much! By the way, I guess this might be interesting for you – from a more general point of view:

  9. Kelly Adams says:

    Hi John – saw your comment about Omnivore’s Dilemma. Great book. I and my kids had a similar reaction and we only eat grass fed beef now – and much less of it. The problem is that it’s really hard to know if it’s really grass fed – a leap of faith in honest, accurate advertising/package…

  10. Paulina Vizgan says:

    Yelling less at your son depends less on you than on him. In any case, to vent your frustration is better on the spot than to accumulate the resentment and keep it boiling. Also, he’ll pass the terrible twos and change into terrible threes, negotiating to death fours, arguing fives, etc. As soon as you think you got him, he’ll change and leave you scrambling for the next list.

    • John Stepper says:

      Yes. 🙂 I have 5 kids (from 2 to 17). Not only is each one different but they each keep changing! What’s a manger (um, parent) to do?! Lots of personal development left to do…and I’m grateful for it.

  11. I was reading through your post and thinking…umm notebook note taking. Is there an iPhone/Android app around to put your own objectives and track them easily?

    I know some about sport, tracking your weight and the things you eat. But flexible enough to put your own goals, nothing now. Happy to hear any contribution.

    It is a good practice to apply fo rmyself either!

  12. John Stepper says:

    Thanks, everyone for your comments. I’m sure there will be another post in the future as I learn more. One thing I’ve already found helpful is the HALT acronym from recovery programs. In short, it reminds you that whenever you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired that you’re more prone for a relapse.

    So if I find myself in one of those states, I realize I’m more prone to make a bad decision and take some steps to change the situation or defer the decision.

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