Coaches are better able to lead themselves, and consequently lead others, if they are motivated by a purpose bigger than themselves, make good decisions, and focus their time on the most important tasks. Unfortunately, as most people know, turning ideas into action is a complex, messy affair that often leads to failure more than success. Too often, when it comes to behavior, there is a huge gap between what we know and what we do. Maya Angelou beautifully wrote that you should “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The trouble is too often we know better, but we don’t do it.
One reason why we fail to turn ideas into action is that we assume that willpower is all we need to change. We buy the gym membership and then count on willpower to get us to the gym. Then, when our enthusiasm for exercise fizzles out, we blame ourselves for being weak, not having the grit to actually do what we know we need do to. Research suggests, however, that willpower usually isn’t enough. If we really want to turn ideas into actions, we need a structure that will ensure that we do what we know we need to do. That structure is a habit.
In the past decade, researchers and journalists such as Charles Duhigg (2012), James Clear (2018), Wendy Woods (2019), and B.J. Fogg (2020) have clarified what habits are and why they are so important for leading ourselves. The authors’ research should help any coach who wants to adopt new behaviors or who wants to support others who choose to change.
Although the different authors have different words for describing how habits work, the structure each describes is fairly consistent. A habit begins with a cue, some prompt that triggers an action, like a green light on a traffic signal. Following this, there is a routine, a response to the cue or prompt. Then there is a reward for the action.
For example, I have a habit of drinking coffee each the morning. Walking into the kitchen is my cue. The routine is the complicated way I make a cup of coffee. The reward is the scent of fresh-ground coffee, the taste of a just-brewed cup, and the pleasant sensation of becoming more awake and alert.
The Cue, Routine, Reward Habit Structure
|Cue||Green light that prompts us to act—walking into the kitchen|
|Routine||A simple repeated behavior—making my pour-over coffee|
|Reward||Something that reinforces our routine, and encourages us to keep doing it—the pleasures of the flavor of coffee and of feeling awake|
A habit, Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habits (2014) “is a formula our brain automatically follows … a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often everyday” (p. 284-5). If we keep dropping the ball when it comes to change, the problem isn’t that we lack grit, the problem is that we lack a structure, we lack a habit.
Coaches who want to make a change—to implement the time management strategies described above, for example—can create a structure for the habit by focusing on the cue, routine, and reward elements of a habit. A good place to start is to identify the cue for the habit, the green light that will trigger implementation of a new habit. One green light might be the bell at end of the day at school. A coach who is intent on developing the habit of using adaptive time management might adopt the bell as a cue to sit down and plan their next day.
After the coach has identified the cue, she needs to develop a routine, a simple action or set of actions to do the same way each day. Research suggests that she will be most likely to transform that routine into a habit if she does at least three things:
- considers the context for her habit
- makes it easy
- embraces repetition
Consider the context
We increase our chances of success at adopting habits by thinking about how our context enhances or inhibits our ability to form a habit. For example, people will find it easier to give up fatty, sweet food, if they keep the sweet stuff out of their house. Similarly, our coach who wants to do her time management at the end of the day may find that many people want to talk with at that time. Since she will likely want to have those conversations with teachers, the coach needs to find another context for implement her routine if she wants it to become a habit.
Make it easy
BJ Fogg, at the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, suggests the people make it too difficult to form a habit by trying to do too much. Our coach, therefore, would be wise to keep it simple when it comes to change. She may be tempted to mix planning her day with many other actions, but the greater the complexity, the smaller the chances an action will become a habit. If the coach focuses on one or two simple actions, there’s a greater chance she will form the habit.
For many years, people have cited Maxwell Maltz’s (1960) suggestion that it takes 21 days to make a habit. Unfortunately, more recent research suggests that it takes much longer. Wendy Woods (2019) and her colleagues at the University of Southern California have conducted several studies that suggest it will likely take two to three months to form a habit. Or as Wendy has written, if we want to turn an action into a habit, we need to “keep doing it … until [we] aren’t doing it any more” (p.102).
For repetition to work, it’s important to do the same action the same way. If I want to start the habit of planning my days, it is a good idea to plan at the same time every day. If I sometimes plan in the mornings, or at the coffee shop, or just before bed, and I skip somedays, I’m not really repeating, which means I’m not really forming a habit.
If am going to stick with a habit, it’s a lot easier when the new habit is more rewarding than my old way of acting. If I develop the habit of reflecting and planning my day, for example, that needs to feel better than not planning. The best rewards are intrinsic. If the act of reflecting and planning is intellectually pleasing, or if at least, seeing my plan for each day makes me feel more in control, then I’m more likely to form the habit.
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