Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.

What’s all this pushback about?

I was talking with a friend recently who explained that everything was going just fine. In fact, he felt that he was positioned for great things. But he was struggling.

“I push through the day,” he said. “I’m confident I’m doing the right things, the big ones and the small ones. But it’s all stretch. It’s work. And I don’t feel much certainty about it at the end of the day. It leaves me feeling tired and disoriented and as though I hadn’t done much.”

One thing he has going for him is clarity of purpose. He doesn’t doubt his direction, though he sometimes doubts himself. “But I’m all in,” he added. Given what he can know now, he’s sure he’s on the right course.

So what’s wrong?

I encouraged him and said: “You’re on the verge.” He’d taken big, if planned, risks with his work. He’d begun to lead his own projects, and not everyone welcomed it. “I’ve stepped out front,” he said. He felt somewhat alone there, but confident that his experience and expertise had laid a good foundation. He can see capacity for leadership taking shape. “You know what’s wrong?” he said. “Nothing.”


Here’s what we decided might serve him best:

Dig in

First, the facts: Acknowledge that the hard work of sticking to his plan and its goals will continue to be hard work, and that that will change over time.

Recognize that the challenge will tax him in ways that make him feel like something is wrong with him. He’ll feel like he’s not himself. But he may be becoming more like himself.

And he should be prepared to step back and take a break from time to time. Then dig in again.

Watch and listen

When is it difficult to face the work toward those goals? When is it almost unbearable?

Notice the thoughts and feelings in those moments at the verge. The resistance we feel when developing new abilities feels like we’re going in the wrong direction. We may look around for someone to blame or take responsibility off our shoulders. But resistance is crucial feedback that reveals our learning edge: where current capability ends and learning opportunity spreads out like the night.

My friend’s edge is full of information about what it will mean to step out. Watch for the little lights winking on in the darkness. Listen to what you tell yourself at the verge and be prepared to doubt that it has always been true or that it will always be true.


Resistance follows from challenging ourselves. If we’re pointed in the right direction, not fooling ourselves, it may take more than bliss to lead us to a deep and satisfying destination. So keep one eye on yourself and test where you may be telling yourself only what you want to hear. Then turn back to the resistance. That’s the frontier.

So, nothing is wrong. My friend’s purpose and goals led him to this verge. And they are changing him. He didn’t know that was going to happen. He didn’t suspect it would call on resources that he’s still developing. But even in the face of uncertainty and resistance he says, “I’m in. I am so in.”

Keep looking for the openings

Insight for practical tailored solutions

A friend recently quoted this advice to me. She’s right. When we’re aiming at a goal, the route between A and B is rarely clear. The way forward requires determination. But there will be openings that help confirm that we’re on the right track.

When we’re building something new – expertise, a project, a business, a movement – we’re changing our interaction with people, organizations, and markets. And they’ll talk back. The wisdom in looking for our openings is that there is data in the encounter. It holds out clues about the conditions for success: preparation, offerings, expectations, supporters, communications. It also points to you: what you thought, what you intended, what you aimed to accomplish, and how you reacted. What you hear when you listen to the response become the germ of guiding principles.

But the openings we look for are the ones we’re able to see. Once we’ve seen an opening or two, we keep on looking. We want determination to carry us forward without narrowing our view. The openings are clues. They may be just out of view to the left.

Experience and openness to learning will show us more windows and doors. Now we’re really headed for daylight.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 3

Reflection may not seem like a powerful problem solver, but as we said, it expands our view of the present and can reveal the wide angle mirrorunderlying story propelling hard-to-change behavior.

Third, reflection answers the question, “Who am I now?” You may not be asking that question, but the challenges of living in the 21st century seem to conspire to make life difficult. Circumstance presses in and asks the question for us.

Daily frustrations, constant demands, and occasional real tragedy test what we’re made of. It can be a puzzle to understand what it is adding up to. All that trouble isn’t a roadblock. It’s our ally. Sure, it’s unwelcome, but it calls on us to grow up. Here at BIG IDEA we focus on “grow.” It’s depth we need, not simple persistence.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 2

In part one, we said that reflection isn’t an idle look back. It’s a way of expanding our view of the present.wide angle mirror

Reflection can also focus on what happened to understand what it means. If you work with people who believe in learning from experience, you’ve autopsied the past to identify what went well and what we would do differently. It’s a good endeavor. But if you’re like me, you also know that it’s very difficult to do things differently next time. We have to remember, then recognize that it’s happening, and then do it.

So, we recommend looking back to uncover the story that helped produce the results we intended and those we didn’t. We can reflect in this way on past or present action. There’s always a story propelling it. And if two people are involved, there are at least three stories.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 1

Reflection often sounds like armchair philosophizing in the coulda, woulda, shoulda vein. wide angle mirror And if reflection were compared with other ways of getting results at work, it probably will not show up on the list. But speed has become a primary measure of how to solve problems. It’s important, but it can make action wrong, or just plain dumb.

First, reflection is real-time review. It’s looking at what’s happening now to see a bigger picture.

In the bias-for-action world in which we live, we often move to solutions before we have given them the consideration they deserve. They may prove to be the seeds of much bigger problems. The practice of reflection can help us anticipate unintended consequences, unexpected complexity, and the limits of our own perspective.

We believe that a bigger view is a better view. Reflection ensures we take that bigger view now, before we have to undo seemingly good solutions that we landed on today.

Two ways to find inspiration to get stuff done

The challenge for you and me, knowledge workers with unlimited information (and distraction), is knowing how to tap inspiration when it’s lacking.

Maybe “inspiration” should be “motivation.” You choose.  I mean “the intrinsic energy and meaning that keeps you going.” After all, there is no shortage of work and most of us want to be known for getting stuff done.


We can lose sight of the reasons our contribution matters. When no one else is noticing that we’re advancing a project, our mostly digital work seems invisible. What people tend to notice is errors and problems.

Your source of inspiration lies in doing the work and tracking your own progress. Measure against standards that are meaningful to you. If you’re like me, you’ll want to find someone to bounce the work off of. I ask, “This clarifies, or advances, the work in this way. Does it do that for you?”

When I’m asking for a reality check, I’m not asking for feedback. I’m looking for a “yes” or “no” answer. With that answer, and a sense of progress to bolster me, I may ask for feedback. My feedback rule: Ask for the feedback you want and if you get more than that, don’t worry about it. It will wait. Say thank you.under a rock


Most of aim for a job, a role, or a project because we believe in it.  We believe it will give us something we want, whether a short term win or a noble objective. In the challenges of getting stuff done, we can lose track of what we believe in or what we set out after.

  • What do I care about?
  • What animates me?
  • What do I believe in?

Even if you didn’t choose the project, if you have doubts about the work, you can choose to mine it for meaning. Sometimes, it’s all uphill. But within the experience, it’s within our power to change our minds. We can seek some meaningful purpose in our action the playing field. There will come a time to evaluate whether you’re always running uphill. You may want to change that pattern.

But now, while you’re in the middle of the run, watch your stride, keep the gain foremost in mind (rather than the pain), notice your progress, and encourage other runners. You’re not alone in digging deeper for purpose in what you’re doing right now.

What do you do to measure your progress and confirm accomplishments?
How do you uncover purpose in the face of day-to-day challenges?

Uncertainty: The real story of leading

Let us now praise those who search, who do not spin a story of imagined success, or a story of Phoenix-like recovery from failure. Let us praise not knowing for sure, because that is the sure thing – in business, in startups. In life. Let me now praise Path. This aptly named startup is getting interesting – that is, if you’re interested in leadership.

“…We’ve made a lot of mistakes,” said Dave Morin, CEO of Path, a San Francisco startup that saw a lot of attention in the business press and from celebrities with real cool cred in tech. (Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Spears. You be the judge.) And, according to the NYTimes update, Morin also played the flashy role of first and best believer in the inevitability of his vision. For a leader like him to confess to mistakes after playing the tech celebrity so well, let us praise that reflection and humility.

dark path

Most of us know two narratives about about leaders and startups. The first is the story of a leader with a brilliant idea. With some adjustments along the way and nod to the hard work behind the curtains, the story is one of seemingly inevitable success. The leader is responsible for it, with appropriate nods to the team that made it possible. It’s the revered American story of individual effort and independence.

The other story is “what I learned from failure.” We love this story because it is in fact mythic. Think Moses in the wilderness, Jesus in the desert, Dante’s hero in the dark wood. If hubris is the hero’s flaw, the desert teaches her humility, also known as self-awareness. I don’t know Dave Morin, but it sounds like he’s in the desert. I’m grateful that his story isn’t a simple version of success or failure. Morin is more like you and me, not knowing for sure. Until “it” happens, we don’t know for certain what “it” is

Uncertainty is almost unbearable for prolonged periods. There’s a good argument for experimenting with action, even any action. It’s the empirical way we cut a path through the dark wood. Those experiments may seem to how we pulled ourselves out of quicksand. But they’re still only techniques. And they don’t always work. Better than a lesson from inevitable success and instructive failure is the lesson that we have to face uncertainty alone and look within. What sort of person makes it out of the desert?

In my experience, leaders – maybe everyone – want something from work. Beyond a living, we are always seeking something else, too. Purpose, power, acknowledgement, respect, community, competition, meaning, and many other things.

The leader who makes it through the desert is the one who finds her purpose under the company, the product, the team. What makes us want to do this, our chosen work? What do we want to get out of it? That is the theme of story we are in.

My hero is a success and a quitter

Karen Olivo is one of my heroes. Last year, she quit.

She felt under-used, narrowed, and constantly angling for her next gig. The work she’d loved had to come to rob her of day-to-day satisfaction and genuine connection with colleagues and friends. She was, by many measures, a success.

Olivo won a Tony (2009) for her performance in “West Side Story” and has been singled out for performances in other notable shows.  “It took a good look at what I was capable of to see that what I was giving away for the price of a ticket was a fraction of me.” That blog post sent ripples through the theater community because it is an honest description of what many people feel. And it is what many people feel about other challenging, high stakes jobs, and many that are less so.

If Olivo felt that she wasn’t using all of herself, she also felt that she was playing a role that wasn’t authentic. “I was operating like an actor in my life,” she added, “which is scary – constantly wanting people to like me and thinking that I had to promote myself and the truth is, in life, you don’t have to do that.”

What’s important?

Today, she teaches musical performance at the University of Madison, writes for Theater Lila, and is working on a CD. She recently returned to the New York stage to play a role in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and reviewers loved her.  She doesn’t seem tempted to ride those reviews to another round of anxious stardom.  “…Every show ends and the only things that really stay current or are substantial are the bonds that we have with people.”

Olivo’s my hero because she saw that using her considerable skills cost her a great deal of her soul. By “soul,” I don’t mean her immortal, pre-existing, Platonic self. I mean “soul” in the sense of “genuinely human.” Think soul music, full of guts or heart or feeling. I mean the self that’s aware and mostly at ease. A self that’s very different from the watchful, wary, what-must-I-do-to-get-advantage self that Olivo felt she’d become. Sure, we can blame her for thinking about her predicament in ways that were bent by forces we don’t know about. But if she took steps to sustain her soul, she had to exercise a kind of courage.

As she wrote in her blog post upon leaving: “I leave behind the actor and start learning how to be me.” If that sounds too much like the way actors speak, and not enough like people with regular jobs, ask these Karen Olivo questions:

  • Am I using just a fraction of myself on the job?
  • Am I playing a role at work that doesn’t feel real?
  • Am I constantly reshaping myself to fit it, get people to like me, position myself for what’s next?

What’s that important to you?

Read the story here.  Quotes above, The New York Times.

Photo: Playbill

Busy, yes, realizing our potential in modern society

A …group of economists challenges the Keynesian presumption that leisure is preferable to labor. In the view of Edward Phelps of Columbia University, a career provides “most, if not all of the attainable self-realization in modern societies.”  Richard Freedman, of Harvard, is, if possible more emphatic.  “Hard work is the only way forward,” he writes. ” There is so much to learn and produce and improve that we should not spend more than a dribble of time living as if we were in Eden.  Grandchildren, keep trucking.”

From “No Time: How did we get so busy,” the book review column, The New Yorker, May 26, 2014, by Elizabeth Kolbert