Some of life’s experiences get hard-wired into us at a very young age, and our awareness of how they are dictating what we think and feel and how we act remains at an unconscious level until we, or someone in our life, asks, “Why are you doing that?” That question is a powerful one — it gets you to stop and be curious about the “why” behind what you are doing.

Let’s say that every day you start your workday off by checking your email. Before you know it, it is 10:00am, or sometimes later, before you get to start working on your priorities for the day. Day in and day out you do this — it’s a habit. You hated getting up and having to go to school so early. You really function better after about 10:00am, so this routine is comfortable.

One day you are talking to your partner about how you can never get done what you need to get done and you leave work frustrated. Your partner says, “Tell me what a typical day looks like for you?” You begin by telling her that you start your day off by checking your email, and she says, “How long does that take?” You reply, “Well, I sit down to my desk at 8:30, and most times I’m done by 9:30-10:00.” She says, “It takes you 1 ½ hours to go through your email each day!” As she says this, you think to yourself, “Yeah, it does take me that long. Why does it take me so long to go through my email?” Your partner is about to ask you that question, but you beat her to it.

There it is — you just broke the pattern, and now you can start to observe the habit, its impact (positive or negative), its pay-off (what do you get from doing it), and if you want to keep it or change it.

You decide that the next day you are going to “observe” yourself as you go through your emails. You notice that with each email, you read it, go search for other emails or information you need to answer the email, and that when you do that, you can’t help but check your phone for the latest business news or get diverted to another website. After about 30 minutes, you have now observed the pattern, and you are starting to see the impact and the payoff — doing your email this way is unproductive, but the payoff is that you really like easing into your morning, and this routine helps you wake up and get ready for the rest of the day.

Does the payoff for what you are doing override the impact of not being productive? Maybe. Maybe not. Remember earlier you complained that you leave work frustrated because you can’t get all your work done? If you replaced the impact of not being productive with your frustration at the end of the day, does that override the payoff of your email routine?

The point here is that if you want to change a behavioral pattern, you need a strong and compelling reason to change, and you must be able to envision the payoff you will get from that changed behavior.

You begin to think about not leaving at the end of the day so frustrated, and you think about what it might look and feel like to leave work every day knowing your priorities got done. You think, “I’ll sleep better because I wake up about 3am most nights and start thinking about everything I have to do that day, and maybe when I arrive home I’ll have more time to interact with the family instead of rushing off to finish something I didn’t get done.”

Now assuming this new payoff is compelling enough, you are ready to ask the question, “Okay, what do I need to do to make this (the payoff) happen?”

Given that this behavioral pattern has been in place for a while, it won’t change overnight. Consider taking some baby steps, like doing a cursory review of your emails and putting them into buckets — immediate, today, needs research, FYI, put on To-Do list, or quick response (and then do those). Then, from your buckets, make a list of your priorities for the day and get started on them.

Remember your old payoff of liking to ease into your day and the gratification you get from checking in with news or your favorite sites? How can you include that in your day but not have it impact you getting started on your work? You can have your cake and eat it too — you just need to figure out “when” to do it and how long to give yourself to do it. Chunk like activities together. If you are going to visit your news sites, give yourself a specific time and don’t multi-task while you are doing it. If you need to do research, set time to do it all in one sitting, then plan to do the next step after the research. If you must make calls, make them all in one sitting. We gather momentum when we stay focused on similar activities or one task until completed.

Here’s the deal — changing habits is not easy. It takes:

  • Self-awareness: Why am I doing this?
  • Self-observation: What am I doing? How is it impacting me? What is the payoff?
  • Self-inquiry: What do I really want and am I willing to do what it takes to get what I really want?
  • Self-determination and Commitment: What change(s) will I make?
  • Self-discipline: Making the changes but setting small milestones to check in, keeping your payoff in front of you all the time, tweaking what isn’t working and celebrating what is.

There are obstacles along the way — continuing to do what you are doing and expecting different results (definition of insanity); not asking the “why” question at all; not digging deep enough to get to a compelling payoff to keep you motivated along the way; or making too many changes too fast or trying something and not giving it enough time to create a new habit.

The greatest trap we see people fall into is once they have identified the “why,” they don’t know how or what to change. Don’t let that or any of the other obstacles mentioned keep you from realizing what you really want. Call us, and, with a little coaching, you just might discover that what you really want is within your reach!