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Is personal effectiveness all about good habits?

What makes us effective? Is it all about good habits? Aristotle said that, “Excellence… is not an act but a habit” and given that we repeat about 40% of our behaviour each day, our habits can really shape our present and our future. But are the habits we have helpful or unhelpful? And, if the latter, how can we change them so we increase our personal effectiveness?

Why are habits important?

One of the main benefits of developing helpful habits is that it gets you out of the business of having to use willpower. You don’t want to have to go through each day focusing your energy on making conscious healthy choices. Decision-making can be draining and demanding. You want to put that behaviour on automatic. Make it a habit.

In the book, ‘Willpower’, the psychologist Roy Baumeister and his co-writer, journalist John Tierney, studied high functioning individuals. They expected them to use a lot of willpower but found that they actually used very little. A lot of their behaviours had been made into habits. Which meant that when they needed to use willpower, they had a lot in reserve.

How do we form a new habit?

Stephen Covey’s bestselling book ‘Seven habits of highly effective people’, is one that most people have either read or heard of. Covey discusses his approach to forming habits:

KnowledgeSkillDesire
Knowing which habit you want to adopt.Understanding the best ways to start adopting this habit.Know the real reason why you want to adopt this new habit. What are the real benefits/rewards?

We know that each habit actually has three components:

  1. A cue - basically a trigger for the behaviour to start unfolding
  2. A routine - what we refer to the habit itself
  3. A reward - which helps your brain decide if this new habit is work remembering.

When people think about habits, they focus on trying to adopt the desired behaviour or the routine, but it’s actually the cue and the reward that determines why a habit forms.

How long does it really take to cultivate a new habit?

So how long does it actually take to make this behaviour a habit? The 21 or 28 day rule is often cited but in reality it varies. In a study carried out at University College London, 96 participants were asked to choose an everyday behaviour that they wanted to turn into a habit. They all chose something that could be repeated every day. They found that, on average, it took 66 days to form a habit but there was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do. Easier habits took less time; harder habits (for example exercising) took more time.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’

Stephen Covey makes a convincing case for why you should create habits based on solid principles.

He talks about moving from independence, habits that are based on self-mastery, to interdependence, habits based on working together to achieve a common goal. The habits he outlines (see below) encourages an individual to develop independence before building on this to develop a state of interdependence.

Developing independence:

Habit 1: Be proactive – knowing your personal vision

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind – developing your personal leadership. What do you want to achieve today?

Habit 3: Put first things first – Principles of personal management

Developing interdependence:

Habit 4: Think win/win – Principles of interpersonal leadership

Habit 5: Seek first to understand and then to be understood – Principles of empathetic communication

Habit 6: Synergize – Principles of creative cooperation

Habit 7 focuses on self-improvement:

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw – Principles of balanced self-renewal.

Developing habits for positivity

Author of ‘The Happiness Advantage’ Shawn Achor has some tips on training our brains to be more positive. Achor suggests trying to develop one of these habits and integrating them into your daily routine:

  1. Gratitude: Identify three new things to be grateful for each day.
  2. Meaningful experiences: Take two minutes each day to write down positive meaningful experiences
  3. Exercise: For at least 10 mins each day
  4. Meditate: Focus on the task in hand, at your desk for two mins every day.
  5. Random acts of kindness: Help your co-workers or others in your social support network. Giving contributes more to your happiness than receiving.

Achor studied KPMG tax managers in New York during their busy tax return filing season. He split the team into two – a control group and a test group. Those in the test group chose one of the five training ideas listed above and did it each day for three weeks. On every metric, the test group performed better than the control group.

Four months later, he subjected both groups to ‘Life satisfaction scale tests’ (the maximum is 35 points). The control group scored 22.96, whereas the test group returned 27.23, significantly higher. The three weeks of training had a lasting effect – four months later happiness had become a habit.

So not only can changing your habits make you personally more effective, it can also dramatically improve the quality of your life.  The writer John Irving once said that ‘Good habits are worth being fanatical about,’ and it’s hard not to disagree!