Break Bad Habits with a Simple Checklist – Harvard Business Review
By: Sabina Nawaz
Large, immeasurable goals are very hard to implement successfully. Small, easily attainable, focused goals are much more likely to take root. There is an excellent method mentioned in this post that most of us can grow with over time.
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When we’re starting out on a new goal, we’re full of energy and enthusiasm. We eagerly make changes and take steps in our new direction in the first few weeks. But as time goes on, the newness wears off. Our energy drains, and we lose sight of our goal. Ultimately, we slide back into the status quo.
No matter how sophisticated your strategies to rid yourself of bad habits and create good ones, you’re less likely to succeed if you don’t track and review your progress frequently. Noting your improvements each day encourages you to keep going. And by identifying where you’re falling short, you’ll notice patterns and make adjustments, so you won’t feel stuck in habits that feel unnatural or aren’t producing real change.
Consider the example of Yi-Min, chief of staff for a CEO at a technology firm. Yi-Min’s colleagues thought he was a poor listener who micromanaged and didn’t respect others’ time. His boss wanted him to work on being more considerate and empowering others. After receiving some particularly stinging feedback from a colleague that confirmed what his boss had shared, Yi-Min vowed to be a better leader. Together, we crafted a plan to help Yi-Min achieve his goals.
Yi-Min started by creating three goals, one for each area of negative feedback he’d received. He aimed to listen better, reduce micromanagement, and value others’ time. While these objectives were ambitious and commendable, they weren’t measurable. We needed to identify ways for him to improve that he could monitor and track. Here is what we came up with:
- Listen better. Attend one meeting a day without devices.
- Micromanage less. Use the delegation dial technique during one-on-one meetings with his staff to loosen his control and empower them to take on new responsibilities.
- Value others’ time. Limit instant messages to two a day among all colleagues.
Note that for each goal, he chose only a small task. Taking on large tasks, or too many tasks at once, overwhelms us. You’re more likely to follow through if the task is small. Once successful, you can then try a new activity or increase the original task’s complexity. For example, in order to listen better, Yi-Min could have left all devices behind for every meeting, but that would be a hard shift to make. Instead, he started with one meeting a day. From there, he was able to decide whether to increase the number of device-free meetings, or consider another activity that could help him to be a better listener.
Once he identified his tasks, it would have been easy for Yi-Min to move on with his daily work, with a plan to execute each of them. But this would have been a mistake. He would likely have started strong but slowly lost his dedication, distracted by daily to-dos and falling back into his old habits. Instead, Yi-Min needed to proactively track his daily progress.
I recommend using a simple tracking chart called the “Yes List” to help you see where you’re making progress toward change and where you may be falling short. If you’re groaning at the thought of a daily exercise, don’t worry; this will take you no more than two minutes a day.
Simply track whether you accomplished each habit daily in a checklist, using Y for yes and N for no. For example, see Yi-Min’s list below.
Pin your Yes List on your device or as a hard copy somewhere you will see it regularly, and create a daily reminder to fill it out at the end of the day. Tracking your results allows you to see progress with a quick glance. Most people get a sense of accomplishment as they tally up the Y’s and N’s at the end of the day.
After several weeks of tracking your habits, assess whether there are any patterns that need adjusting. Doing so lets you see your successes — and missteps — and helps you to identify what might be causing issues.
For example, when Yi-Min and I reviewed his patterns, he found that he failed to delegate appropriately on Mondays. He realized it was because, at the beginning of each week, he met with the one employee who was an underperformer. Yi-Min was afraid to delegate to this employee because he feared receiving poor work in return. Once he understood this, he had a very different conversation during their next one-on-one. He gave more direct feedback instead of indirectly taking over the employee’s work. Had he failed to notice the trend, he may never have addressed the real reason behind his challenges in delegating.
Reviewing his patterns also allowed Yi-Min to recognize when he was ready to introduce another habit aimed at achieving his goal. After practicing with one meeting a day, Yi-Min slowly increased the number of device-free meetings he attended until, four months later, he no longer used devices in meetings at all. He even stopped tracking his device-free meetings because it had successfully become habit. He now had the energy and focus to tackle a new habit. Yi-Min replaced the old one on the chart with the next one in his goal of being a better listener: paraphrasing what he heard at least once a day. He continued the pattern of creating a habit and adding a new one for each of his three goals. A year later, Yi-Min’s staff consider him to be a stronger listener, a mindful collaborator, and an empowering manager.
You can set goals to achieve your dreams or improve your behavior, but without actionable ways to move forward and a way to measure progress, you’ll fall back into your old bad habits once again. Take the time to identify how to meet your goals, starting with little steps, and take note of your improvements. Pretty soon, you may discover you’ve developed some positive new work habits.
Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDx and has written for FastCompany.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, in addition to HBR.org. Follow her on Twitter.
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