Changing Habits

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. 
 ~Mark Twain

Assuming it takes twenty-one days to change a habit, three months of living in the new normal of the pandemic is more than sufficient time for you to have changed some and established others. A good question to ask yourself would go along the lines, “Of the changes that I’ve made, which ones have found their way into habit? And what changes have I made that will never become force of habit?”
Don’t know your feelings on the latter, but I can’t wait to not have to wear a surgical mask while grocery shopping.
Where I live, wearing a mask is no longer a matter of choice; it’s now the law. Personal protective equipment has been mandated as one means to reduce the risk of COVID. Of course, there are other ways and means to reduce risk: clean, disinfect, keep your distance, stay home. The more of those kinds of things you do, the less likely you are to come down with it. 
This should sound familiar: for the hazards found on the job, you do things like that all the time. It’s called managing risk.
As for the requirement to wear masks in the grocery store, warning signs are now conspicuously posted on the front doors.  Not that the rule guarantees everyone who enters wears a mask. 
See what I mean about this sounding familiar?
The other day, I couldn’t help but take notice of two of my fellow shoppers who weren’t in compliance. One was a twenty-something, leisurely pushing his cart down the aisle wearing a tee shirt with DOPE in big letters on the front.  Seriously. The other was old enough to have been his father: darting around the store dressed in his fire retardant clothing which prominently displayed the name of the fine company that employs him. 
Seriously? It was like a scene from a Saturday night comedy show. Except for the fact that it was not comedy: this was public health they were messing with.
So much for new habits.

About Habit
In management circles, habit is one of those words thrown around in conversation without much thought given as to what the word habit really means. I put habit on my list of favorite shorthands, a shorthand being a term of art used by leaders for which there is no common definition or understanding. Habit is right there on the shorthand list with accountability, attitude, control, culture, mitigate and risk. If you can explain every one of those shorthands in simple English – in a way that a fifth grader can understand you – you are my hero. 
And if you can’t, why are you using any of these shorthands?
On the matter of habit, is a habit a behavior that is commonplace and routinely done? Like getting up in the morning, getting dressed and heading off to work. Or is a habit something that is done without conscious thought? Nowadays, most of us buckle up without even thinking that we’re even doing it, but it wasn’t always that way. I’m old enough to have heard the argument from those opposed to buckling in, fearing they’d be trapped inside a burning vehicle.
Yes, that could happen, but what are the odds? 
In defining habit, there’s a world of difference between conscious and unconscious behavior. If it were otherwise, there would be days when you’d be halfway to work before realizing, “Oh, it’s Saturday, isn’t it. I’m off today.” 
When was the last time something like that happened?
The Value of Habit
There’s not a thing wrong with considering conscious, routine, commonplace behavior as habit. We all have routine, ordinary behaviors we do because we either want to or have to. We get up in the morning and head off to work early enough to be sure we’re on time. Of course, come the weekend, we sleep late because we don’t have to get up early to be to work on time. 
We label the behaviors “habits.” On the drive to work we follow a route and follow the speed limit. As to why we’re in the habit of following the speed limit (or for that matter, engage in any good behavior that fits the definition of habit, such as wearing a mask when entering a grocery store where one is now required) we have our reasons. You, for example, might be a very careful driver. Perhaps you’re careful simply because you don’t want to have an accident, get hurt, or hurt someone else. But suppose you drive the speed limit simply because you don’t want to get a ticket. Or in the past you had a bad accident, or earned more than your share of tickets in the past for driving too fast. 
No matter what the reason, a choice has been made to engage in good behavior. Does the reason why anyone chooses to do the right thing – observe the speed limit or wear a mask in a grocery store – even matter to you? Either it is, or it isn’t. 
But suppose you’ve been driving for such a long time and are so familiar with the drive to work that, just like buckling your seatbelt, you drive the right speed without even having to think about it.  

That’s the narrow way to define habit: behavior done without conscious thought. One study found that 40% of our normal everyday routines fall into this category: behavior made not by choice, but out of habit!
By either definition of habit – broad or narrow – what we do by habit plays a big role in our lives. Considering the impact habit has on our lives, its contribution to our health, safety, success, and quality of life, the role of habit gets even bigger. 
Little things play big, a phenomenon militaries the world over identified centuries ago. They call it discipline, in the sense of imposing order, obsessing about details, insisting that things be done a certain way. “Take care of the small things, and the big things tend to take care of themselves.”
Make safe behavior a habit, and it doesn’t get turned on and off at the beginning and end of the day. Out of habit, that shopper in the grocery store wearing the company uniform would wear a mask because it’s required, and wouldn’t think about behaving any other way.
That’s a perfect way to understand the goal and the value of habit.
Changing Habits
Eventually many of those new requirements and expectations brought on by the current level of health precautions will fade into the past. With them, many of those so-called new habits we’ve all developed will vanish. 
But not all. Certain behaviors will live on because we consciously choose to keep practicing them. You might decide team meetings on Zoom is a great idea. The behavior might become something we do without even thinking we’re doing it. Picture the tradition of the handshake giving way to eye contact, a smile and a few kind words.  Time will tell. 
Creatures of habit we all are, we have habits, good and bad. Buckling the seatbelt and holding on to the handrail are good habits. Driving over the speed limit and talking on the cellphone while driving – if done routinely – are examples of bad habits.  If you want to improve your life, cultivate good habits and change bad habits. The same logic applies to managing safety performance, yours and your followers.
Habit – routine and commonplace behavior done with or without conscious thought – starts out deliberately. The desired behavior needs to be recognized; the problematic behavior seen as a problem. Next comes the decision to engage in the right behavior. Finally, there’s the investment of energy to behave differently.
Think that’s easy?
New behavior often feels awkward, uncomfortable, hard, time consuming. The old behavior was so easy it required no thinking. It was habit. 
You might not like the new behavior you’re putting on one darn bit.  Clearly that is what you are doing: “putting on behavior.” This is so not you. But you do it anyway, because you wanted to, and decided to. Or had to: change – or else!
That’s how this works. 
Think about that the next time you’re working on changing your habits. Or those of your followers.
Paul Balmert
June 2020

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