The Secret to Changing a Habit
Habits are a lot harder to change than we might think.
“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” — Charles C. Noble
Consistency is an underrated feature. But it’s a superpower.
In fact, it’s the secret sauce that is responsible for the success of every New Year resolution.
The problem is, many people choose to commit to unrealistic or unsustainable goals in their resolutions, rather than focusing on the underlying behaviors that scuttle them.
The Sirens’ Song
Because he knew himself (and his predilection for procrastination, travel, and women), Odysseus (or Ulysses) had to take drastic precautions when sailing past the island of the Sirens.
He had been warned that the Sirens lure sailors their deaths by singing such beautiful songs that the sailors steer their ships toward shore, where they are dashed on the rocks.
Remember, Odysseus’ goal in his 10-year journey was to return home to Ithaca. But he knew that for the sake of this particular threat, it wasn’t enough to focus on the goal.
He needed to focus on the outcome: how could he keep his crew safe as they sailed by the Sirens’ island?
It comes down to the economic concept of dynamic inconsistency.
He had to force himself to behave in a way that wasn’t consistent with his nature.
Odysseus instructed his men to plug their ears with wax and to bind him to the mast of the ship, lest he be tempted to point them toward certain death. No matter how hard he pleaded, he warned them, they should not untie him.
Without his hearing impaired, Odysseus could indeed hear the song of the Sirens and implored his crew to break course. But they knew that this inconsistency in his behavior was due to the influence of the magic singing.
They honored their pledge to him and kept him tied to the mast and remained free of the clutches of the Sirens.
🚨 Red Alert 🚨
Every day, we have Sirens that call us. They may take the form of procrastination, distraction, food, drink, media of all sorts, but they tempt us to crash our ships on their shores.
Only through consistent behavior (forced or not) do we learn to avoid them.
Consistency is showing up and doing what you said you were going to do. It’s providing people with the same set of experiences, over and over again, regardless of time or location.
If your business has a physical location, your hours of operation are likely the same every weekday.
If you send out a newsletter, sending it on the same day each week builds a sense of expectation.
If you have an amazing online customer experience, people expect something similar in a brick and mortar location of yours.
When your doors are inexplicably locked at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, or your newsletter is late, or your in-store experience is nothing like the online one, that’s inconsistency.
Why Is Consistency Important?
Lack of consistency erodes trust.
And when it comes to your habits, you need to be able to trust yourself first.
Did you commit to a “dry January”? If you drink regularly, you may find it difficult to go cold turkey directly after the holidays.
In order to achieve that goal, the solution isn’t simply about avoiding alcohol; it may be about avoiding the circumstances, personal choices, and behaviors that lead to alcohol.
The same principle applies to the process of culture change. What we’re really talking about is a change of behavior.
Changing behavior takes time. But it’s the first step toward making broader changes that are essential for personal and business growth.
New behaviors — behaviors we’ve committed to with consistent actions — will make teams think about each other differently and commit to working together in different and better ways.
None of this happens overnight. Adopting a new software system or implementing a new series of meetings takes more than a handful of tries.
The problem is the implementation can be mind-numbingly boring or simply not pleasant.
Ignore that. Focus on controlling your consistency.
And if you can’t control your consistency, focus on the well-being that drives your behaviors.
Think outcomes, not goals.
That is your key to changing your habits.
“A drawback to success in life is that failure, when it does come, acquires an exaggerated importance.” — P.G. Wodehouse, 1915
Margaret Atwood captures the essence of what makes a siren song change our minds in her short poem “The Siren Song.” (Poetry Foundation)
“Greatness is consistency. Meditating once is common. Meditating daily is rare. Exercising today is simple. Training every week is simply remarkable. Writing one essay doesn’t mean much. Writing every day practically makes you a hero. Unheroic days can make for heroic decades.” — James Clear, 2020
When it comes to your habits, think of the WOOP framework: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. That means beginning with a wish and imagining a positive outcome that could emerge from achieving that goal. Then you identify any obstacles hindering you, before devising a plan to navigate around them. (Character Lab)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841
🎧 Have you ever wanted to change something in your life but can’t seem to get started? Or maybe you started, only to lose all momentum? On the Knowledge @ Wharton podcast, in the episode “Want to Get Unstuck? Science Can Help,” Katy Milkman shares her findings from her book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.
📚 If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. Atomic Habits offers a proven framework for improving—every day. James Clear, one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.