Time for a “Fresh Start”?

For many people, this week is the last week of summer vacation – next week back to work! For others (including me), this year’s summer vacation is coming up soon, or may be in full swing already!

Summer vacation time creates a great opportunity to relax and reflect on our lives a bit, to reflect on our habits and create new commitments to change as we switch speed from work>vacation >work again:

  • The positive habits that we want to live by but that somehow elude us,
  • The negative habits we need to quit but that’s so hard,
  • The habits that we don’t know yet that we need, to live our purposeful lives

Professor Katy Milkman, in her recent book How to change, recommends “fresh starts” as one of several techniques to change habits, achieve lasting change, and what better time for a fresh start than the return to work after a long, refreshing summer vacation?

So what exactly is a habit?

Wikipedia describes a habit as: “a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously”. The same Wikipedia article continues: “When behaviors are repeated in a consistent context, there is an incremental increase in the link between the context and the action. This increases the automaticity of the behavior in that context. Features of an automatic behavior are all or some of: efficiency; lack of awareness; unintentionality; and uncontrollability.

Psychologist Wendy Wood, in her book “Good Habits, Bad Habits” tells us that “Our nonconscious selves are forming habits that enable us to easily repeat what we have done in the past. We have little conscious experience of forming a habit or acting out of habit. We do not control our habits in the same way as we do our conscious decisions. This is the under-the-surface, hidden nature of habit.”.

So, in summary, habits are formed as a consequence of repeated behaviour that then create mental shortcuts in our brain. Wendy Wood describes these shortcuts as examples of “procedural memory” along with learning a second language, riding a bicycle. “It’s such an important repository of information that only the most frequently repeated patterns get stored like this. It functions somewhat separately from other memory systems, and the specific information encoded isn’t accessible to consciousness. This kind of cognitive coding is a sort of mental equivalent of admin-only files on your computer. Your computer’s best functioning relies on you not naively messing around in its most fundamental code, which it stashes away behind several layers of obfuscation. This is why we don’t know much about our habits. The information we learn as a habit is to some extent separated from other neural regions.”

In his book “Atomic Habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results”, author James Clear puts a strong case for tweaking your habits. He argues that a 1% improvement in daily habits results in a “compound interest” of 37% in one year. He goes on to describe the positive or negative impact that this compounding has on your life:

Positive compounding

  • Productivity compounds. Accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day, but it counts for a lot over an entire career. The effect of automating an old task or mastering a new skill can be even greater. The more tasks you can handle without thinking, the more your brain is free to focus on other areas.
  • Knowledge compounds. Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative. Furthermore, each book you read not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas. As Warren Buffett says, “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
  • Relationships compound. People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more others want to help you. Being a little bit nicer in each interaction can result in a network of broad and strong connections over time.

Negative Compounding

  • Stress compounds. The frustration of a traffic jam. The weight of parenting responsibilities. The worry of making ends meet. The strain of slightly high blood pressure. By themselves, these common causes of stress are manageable. But when they persist for years, little stresses compound into serious health issues.
  • Negative thoughts compound. The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.
  • Outrage compounds. Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single event. Instead, a long series of microaggressions and daily aggravations slowly multiply until one event tips the scales and outrage spreads like wildfire.”

James Clear. “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.”

OK, so now we know what a habit is and a bit about why they are important to our lives, but how to change habits?

According to the research from James Clear, the process of a habit can be seen as 4 steps: cue, craving, response, reward.

  • The cue is the trigger that you brain receives that initiates the habit.
  • The craving is the motivation or desire for something in response to the cue. It is the outcome of the habit that you desire. Some examples by James Clear “You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth”.
  • The response is the habitual behaviour itself that you may carry out depending on your will to do it
  • The reward is the end goal of the habit, to satisfy the craving. The reward is also the reinforcer for the habit – “feelings of pleasure and disappointment are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain distinguish useful actions from useless ones. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.” James Clear. “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.”

These 4 steps can be seen as a cycle – and depending on how you perceive the habit (is it bad or good), this can be seen as either a vicious or virtuous cycle. If you want to build a new, good habit, you can focus on this 4-step cycle to reinforce each of the steps. Similarly, if you want to break an existing bad habit, you can focus on these 4 steps to minímise each step:

Building a good habit

Cue: Make it obvious

Craving: Make it attractive

Response: Make it easy

Reward: Make it satisfying

Breaking a bad habit

Cue: Make it invisible

Craving: Make it unattractive

Response: Make it difficult

Reward: Make it unsatisfying

Wendy Wood offers a similar approach, but with three steps:

  • Context – The context of the habit – the environment and what’s going on that triggers the need for a particular habit (cue and craving). “…the restraining forces, the driving forces, and the pitfalls of your introspection illusion.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”.
  • Repetition – Designing the actions for the new habit (response), and then committing to these actions for long enough that it becomes a habit (around 40 repetitions, according to Wendy Wood’s research).
  • Reward – This is the secret spice for a new habit – to turn the pain of repetition and change into something that delivers something that you desire, even if small. “Rewards, to have a role in habit formation, have to be bigger and better than what you would normally experience. That’s likely going to take some forethought and creativity. It might require some deliberation on your part.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”. Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic to the behaviour of the habit. Intrinsic rewards are the most effective to reinforce a behaviour, “This could be the feeling of pleasure you get when you read an engaging story to your kids and see their enjoyment; or maybe the warm glow of generosity you experience when doing a good deed, like volunteering at the soup kitchen.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”. Extrinsic rewards are rewards you in a hedonistic way, for example, a treat, an hour on Netflix, a new pair of shoes.

Tips to overcome change resistance

Back to Katy Milkman. In her book How to change, she builds on the work of James Clear and others, and provides a set of research-based, practical tips to facilitate change:

  • “Fresh starts” are times in your life that you could consider a new life chapter – such as a birthday milestone, a new job or home, a new year, or even the start of a new month. Katy’s research advises “Fresh starts increase your motivation to change because they give you either a real clean slate or the impression of one; they relegate your failures more cleanly to the past; and they boost your optimism about the future. They can also disrupt bad habits and lead you to think bigger picture about your life.” The Purposeful Life Journal is naturally designed for a “fresh start” each new month.
  • ·“Temptation bundling” is a technique where you engage in something you enjoy while conducting your new habit. In Katy’s words “Temptation bundling entails allowing yourself to engage in a guilty pleasure (such as binge-watching TV) only when pursuing a virtuous or valuable activity”. – for example, in my case, I watch Netflix while cycling on my indoor cycling machine. She goes on to say “Temptation bundling solves two problems at once. It can help reduce overindulgence in temptations and increase time spent on activities that serve your long-term goals”.
  • “Commitment devices” can be used to overcome procrastination by openly committing to something that you will do if you fail to commit to the change. “Present bias often causes us to procrastinate on tasks that serve our long-term goals. An effective solution to this problem is to anticipate temptation and create constraints (“commitment devices”) that disrupt this cycle. Whenever you do something that reduces your own freedoms in the service of a greater goal, you’re using a commitment device. Cash commitment devices are a versatile form of commitment device. They allow you to create a financial incentive to meet your goal by letting you put money on the line that you’ll forfeit if you don’t succeed. Public pledges are a form of “soft” commitment that increase the psychological cost of failing to meet your goals.
  • “Timely reminders” can help overcome forgetting. These could also include cue-based reminders, such as remembering to floss after you have brushed your teeth. “Timely reminders, which prompt you to do something right before you’re meant to do it, can effectively combat forgetting. Reminders that aren’t as timely have far smaller benefits. Forming cue-based plans is another way to combat forgetting. These plans link a plan of action with a cue and take the form “When ___ happens, I’ll do ___.” Cues can be anything that triggers your memory, from a specific time or location to an object you expect to encounter.”
  • “Selecting defaults” can combat laziness, making it easier to complete the desired action. “Laziness, or the tendency to follow the path of least resistance, can stand in the way of change. A default is the outcome you’ll get if you don’t actively choose another option (such as the standard factory settings that come with a newcomputer). If you select defaults wisely (say, setting your browser’s homepage to your work email instead of Facebook), you can turn laziness into an asset that facilitates change (say, wasting less time on social media). Habits are like default settings for our behavior. They put good behavior on autopilot. The more you repeat an action in familiar circumstances and receive some reward (be it praise, relief, pleasure, or cold hard cash), the more habitual and automatic your reactions become in those situations”
  • “Emergency passes” can be used to help you stay confident and on track with a plan. “Set ambitious goals (say, exercising every day) but allow yourself a limited number of emergency passes when you slip up (say, two per week). That strategy can help you stay confident and on track even when you face the occasional, inevitable setback”

So how about it? What change can you make in your life with this summer Fresh Start opportunity?

Reading with “purpose”

I don’t know about you, but as a Life Coach, I find myself on a constant and steep learning curve – studying books and articles all the time, watching YouTube videos and participating in Online Courses. And it seems that the more I study, the less knowledge I retain.

It’s made me realise how difficult it is for me to actually retain the knowledge that I have read, and how much time I am wasting by just reading but not learning. How can I capture the insights and related references so I can recall them when needed?

So with that in mind I have tried to research what I can do to build the discipline to read purposefully.

The starting point for this journey has been the book “Make It Stick. (Brown, Peter C.)”. This has made me realise that my approach to learning – something that I guess I learned while at school some 50-odd years ago, is very wrong:

“It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference. People commonly believe that if you expose yourself to something enough times—say, a textbook passage or a set of terms from an eighth-grade biology class—you can burn it into memory. Not so. Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

The core of the “make it stick” concept is to use techniques and habits to:

  1. help the transfer of learnings from short-term memory into long-term memory, (so you actually learn) and…
  2. train in the retrieval of learnings from long term memory (so you can access what you learn).

“One of the best habits a learner can instil in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know. It comes down to the simple but no less profound truth that effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability. This single fact—that our intellectual abilities are not fixed from birth but are, to a considerable degree, ours to shape—is a resounding answer to the nagging voice that too often asks us “Why bother?” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”.

Throughout the book Peter reinforces the point that retrieval must be “effortful” – that the practice of retrieving the knowledge as the basis for learning requires some effort, some hard work:

“Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval. After an initial test, delaying subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, because delayed retrieval requires more effort.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

These techniques and habits are somehow interwoven as the process of retrieval is fundamental to the process of storing into long-term memory. In summary:

  • Make a conscious effort to recognise what you are reading for leisure and when you are reading for a purpose (eg: to learn), and in the latter case be prepared to invest extra effort to make the learning stick.
  • Practice reflection, using different techniques or situations to force yourself to retrieve the learning, for example by creating tests for yourself or describing the learning to another person (I use my wife for this).
  • Create context for the learning, enlarging existing mental models you may have to encompass the new learning with cues from prior learning.
  • Space out your retrieval exercises – practice retrieving what you have learned learning later the same day, later in the week, after a few weeks etc.
  • Look for principles behind the learning that you can then relate to similar principles in different contexts – enlarging your mental models across a set of shared principles.

“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

At a practical level, if you need to improve your purposeful reading skills, try these simple steps:

  • Start a list of learning resources to keep track of learning resources as you discover them – books, podcasts, videos etc that you discover or that people recommend to you that may help your growth journey.
  • At the start of each month, consider which learning resources you intend to work with in that month and add these to your monthly plan.
  • As the end of each day, put some time aside to note down insights and key learnings that you have noticed and that you would like to develop into long-term memory. As you do this, reflect on the “mental models” that this learning shares with previous experiences you have had – to enlarge your mental map of the world in such a way that it includes also this new learning.
  • At the end of each week, set aside an hour or two to review the week’s insights and create “self-test questions” for each insight or key learning that you will use to test yourself wi at the end of the month.
  • At the end of each month, use these test questions from the previous weeks to test your memory and in doing this, help move these learnings from short-term to long-term memory.

“The good news is that we now know of simple and practical strategies that anybody can use, at any point in life, to learn better and remember longer: various forms of retrieval practice, such as low-stakes quizzing and self-testing, spacing out practice, interleaving the practice of different but related topics or skills, trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution, distilling the underlying principles or rules that differentiate types of problems, and so on.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

An additional resource you may find useful is the Self-testing: Student tip sheet – a free resource from the web sitehttps://takinglearningseriously.com, a “resource to help teachers understand how students learn and use that knowledge to inform their teaching.”

Bring “fizz and “buzz” to your online team

How can you, either as the leader of the team or as the leader of yourself, bring “fizz” and “buzz” into your team environment to create a positive social climate (as suggested by Professor David Clutterbuck in his LinkedIn post.

In particular, how can you do this in today’s world of social distancing and remote teamwork?

WFH (working from home) can help workers to achieve a better work-life balance as they avoid long and stressful commutes between home and the workplace, and they have more time for family. Other benefits of WFH include increased worker satisfaction, productivity and loyalty, and reduced staff turnover.” An employers’ guide on working from home in response to the outbreak of COVID-19”. International Labour Organisation (ILO).

For some people, working from home is a blessing that creates new opportunities to integrate work and life and improve overall wellbeing, substituting travel time with “me time” to meditate or exercise and creating opportunities to balance work time with family time to match their personal circumstances.

For many, however, the workplace was a haven where they could focus on work, separate from the other priorities of family and home life. For them, working from home can create obvious challenges when they have small children also at home from school and where their apartment is now expected to serve both as an office and a home. Their workplace may also have been the “hub” of their social life! Now their social life is limited to web calls and social media, a poor substitute for meaningful relationships and human interactions. Again, from the ILO: While WFH (working from home) arrangements have a great deal of potential, the reality is often more complicated,… Maintaining work-life balance may be a particular challenge for those with family care responsibilities due to closures of childcare facilities and schools, and in the absence of alternative care arrangements. Often, WFH leads to a blurring of the boundaries between work and personal life, an increase in work hours and an intensification of work. Thus, WFH can interfere with private life and cause work-life conflicts that can be challenging for workers’ well-being, and affect overall work performance”.

At the core of “working from home” is the technology that we use to hold meetings online: one-on-one, in our teams or in online events or workshops. How can we adapt our own behaviour to use this technology in the best way possible, to help alleviate the new challenges of work-life balance, bring fizz and buzz back into our online team activities, and to help and support one-another in this online world? Here are some ideas that might help:

Practice Rapport building

One of the cornerstones of Life Coaching is the skill of rapport – building lasting connections with others that deepen over time. Tony Robbins defines rapport as “achieving mutual trust and understanding between two or more people. It leads to deep listening, meaningful conversations and fulfilling relationships where everyone involved benefits.” Tony Robbins – building rapport in Business.

Listen actively

  • Create a natural, relaxed and open atmosphere through the practice of “checking in” with the other person or group of people – How has their day been? How well are they able to contribute in this online call?
  • Practice mirroring and matching – Recognise and utilise the power of non-verbal communication – this is challenge over Zoom or Teams, but not impossible
  • Be present – Focus fully on the other person – what they are saying and feeling, on what they need – resist the temptation to multi-task while in an online meeting, but take the opportunity to write down key pointsor questions that you can ask when appropriate
  • Watch for changes in energy flows– the twists and turns of a conversation that may suddenly open up new ideas or shut down engagement and discussion

Plan and prepare

  • Discuss and agree the desired meeting outcomes at the start of the meeting
  • Review the agenda – the planned flow of discussion together as a common path we may follow to achieve the outcomes we have defined
  • Assign roles – in particularly the facilitator role and minutes/note taker role
  • Consider the best use of the technology – sharing common tools that update on each person’s own computer simultaneously, such as Trello, Office 365, Google Office,.
  • Consider brainstorming tools such as Mural and Miro that support free-flowing ideas for individuals that can then be shared and refined by the team.
  • Use the polling and chatting tools included with most online platforms to allow engagement from everyone (especially valuable in workshops if used judiciously)

Be flexible and accommodating

  • Recognize when energy levels drop and agree short breaks in the meeting to regroup and refocus
  • Be prepared and willing to accommodate interruptions from the family pet or the 3-year-old child with a sudden 3-year-old child’s need
  • Be prepared for glitches in the technology – when the network starts to fail or people lose access – and have backup plans in place if appropriate

Practice acknowledgement

Acknowledgement is a powerful technique for constructive feedback, especially negative feedback. It is often used to give recognition to others, to help another person feel heard, encouraged and even motivated to stay on the course. Practicing acknowledgement in an online meeting is arguably the most powerful way to support team members where there is little or no face to face opportunity. This Growthroom blog post is an excellent guide in how to practice acknowledgement to team members.

Practice validation

Validation, as a form of acknowledgement, is also especially important when social distancing is in place – us humans are social beings as this Forbes article describes, and as social distancing limits the opportunity for physical engagement, touches, hugs, we can use our online time together to help team members feel validated and worthy – donating “mind hugs” in the form of recognition and statements of caring.

Working from home is likely to be here to stay, at least in some form. For many it is a blessing and for some, a curse – but as with any change, a new normal will emerge that will benefit us all. In the words of the ILO: The WFH arrangements implemented by employers due to the COVID-19 response is temporary. Workers will normally be obliged to resume normal working arrangements when the situation permits and as directed by employers. Employers however may want to assess the benefits and challenges of WFH during this pandemic and decide on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with workers or unions, if any, on the feasibility of implementing regular WFH arrangement, if workers request it. An employers’ guide on working from home in response to the outbreak of COVID-19”. ILO

How would you define a ”purposeful life”?

Is creating happiness the foundation for a purposeful life? It depends on how you define happiness.

According to Victor J. Strecher, (professor and director for innovation and social entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.), in his book “Life on Purpose”, there are two distinct sources of happiness: Hedonistic and Eudaimonic.

Hedonistic happiness is the happiness derived from the pleasure we derive from the “good things in life” – beauty, good food, drink etc. This source of happiness, rewarding ourselves with a burst of dopamine, is short-lived. In the words of Aristotle “The many, the most vulgar, would seem to conceive the good and happiness as pleasure. . . . Here they appear completely slavish since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals.”

Eudaimonic happiness, on the other hand, is the happiness one finds when they have developed a deep understanding of themselves and are living in harmony with that understanding. This word, “eudaimonia” was coined by Aristotle and includes the word “daimon” which means “true” or “most divine” – so in this context, eudaimonia refers to one’s true self.

Victor Strecher continues by referring to a study of the impact of hedonistic vs eudaimonic happiness has on individuals just beginning their careers: “In a study of graduating college students, the researchers found first—perhaps unsurprisingly—that they were more likely to attain what they aspired to. Those placing importance on money, fame, and image (hedonic) were more likely to attain them, while those who aspired to greater personal growth, relationships, and community (eudaimonic) were more likely to attain these outcomes. Those who attained hedonic aspirations, however, reported greater anxiety and physical symptoms of poor health, whereas those attaining eudaimonic aspirations reported greater life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive feelings.”

So, if eudaimonic happiness is the foundation of a purposeful life, it follows that in order to discover and then live a purposeful life, you must firstly develop a deep understating of yourself, your strengths, values, aspirations and goals, your legacy.

Your strengths and your personal values are critical aspects of your roots as these two attributes together help define your state of “flow” (as identified by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975), which in turn support your discovering and living your Life Purpose. 

Wikipedia describes “flow” as follows: “The flow state has been described by Csikszentmihályi as the “optimal experience” in that one gets to a level of high gratification from the experience. Achieving this experience is considered to be personal and “depends on the ability” of the individual.  One’s capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals leads not only to the optimal experience but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall.

Your personal values also help shape your “why” as described by Simon Sinek, which can also be seen as your life purpose. In his book “Start with Why” he argues that the elements of “the golden circle” relate closely with the relationship between the neocortex and limbic brain – or in other words, the thinking brain versus the feeling brain. “The limbic brain is responsible for all of our feelings, such as trust and loyalty. It is also responsible for all human behaviour and all our decision-making, but it has no capacity for language.” He goes on the claim that “Gaining clarity of WHY, ironically, is not the hard part. It is the discipline to trust one’s gut, to stay true to one’s purpose, cause, or beliefs. Remaining completely in balance and authentic is the most difficult part.”

If you’re interested in learning more, why not join us in next week’s free Growthlab Workshop “Find your life Purpose