In my coaching practice, I work with clients to help them identify habits that serve them—and to shift the habits that get in their way. In her recent post, Harnessing Habits — Why Your Change Projects Are Failing, Sara Saddington makes the case for a focus on habits over goals. As Sara writes, focusing on habits “creates a series of small wins, building confidence while building capability.”
At the same time, even as we work on habits and can see and experience shifts—both large and small—at some point we are going to confront some aspect of ourselves that resists those shifts. In the language of Doug Silsbee, my teacher and the author of two of my favorite books, The Mindful Coach and Presence-Based Coaching, we bump up against our habit nature. When we do, we are likely to wonder if our habit change toolkit is sufficient.
Sharzide Carmine, author of Positive Intelligence (the first book I summarized for Actionable and still one of my top five), provides one framework for thinking about our habit nature. Carmine identifies ten different saboteurs. He suggests that each of us have at least one dominant saboteur and that these were cultivated, largely in our childhoods, to help us survive the challenges that we inevitably faced. They were used for self-protection—even self-preservation—but as we grew up they increasingly became the voices that held us back and prevented us from accessing what he calls our “sage” brain.
As an example, my dominant saboteur is the hyper achiever, who is “dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation.” When I listen to my hyper achiever, I am not at my best. And, despite all the great advice out there for working on habits, my hyper achiever remains ever-present—part of my deeper “habit nature.”
While knowing about my saboteur has helped me to work with it, I am frequently reminded that the saboteur still resides within me and that working with it is a ongoing process. Sometimes, I know it’s getting in my way and struggle to reduce its voice—sometimes I only realize it was present and influencing my behavior after the fact.
By this point, you may have thought of something that operates for you in a similar way—some part of your habit nature. Using Carmine’s framework this might be the Stickler (perfectionist), Hypervigilant (worries that what can go wrong, will go wrong), Pleaser, Victim—or any other saboteur. It also might be the voice that sees scarcity instead of feeling that there is (or you are) enough. And, if you’re not sure, you might want to take a few minutes and complete the free self-assessment on the Positive Intelligence website and see if that helps you form a picture of your own saboteurs/habit nature. Keep your own habit nature or saboteur in mind as we continue.
So, what can we do to work with our habit nature—with the parts of ourselves that are the most resistant to change? How do we more consistently operate from our best versions of ourselves? Following are several strategies that you can start working with today:
Change the goal posts: I no longer am trying to banish my hyper achiever. Instead, I’m cultivating a new habit—that of noticing when she emerges, catching her, and gently and kindly reminding her that her work is done. Using my single favorite habit change formula, drawn from the work of the researcher Peter Gollwitzer, I created a “when-then” formula (also known as an “implementation intention”). “When I notice the voice of my hyper achiever, then I stop, take a breath and remind her that I don’t need her.” And, when she gets the better of me, I try to accept that, take a breath, remind myself that I am, like all other human beings, imperfect. The act of acceptance turns out to be one of the very best ways to reduce the power of my saboteur.
Embrace self-compassion: Self-compassion is one of the more powerful, underutilized, and in some ways counter-intuitive tools for meaningful behavioral change available to us. By accepting my habit nature and not going to battle with it, I’m developing the capacity for self-compassion. As noted above, acceptance is a big part of self-compassion. A great place to start to explore self-compassion is on at Kristen Neff’s website, self-compassion.org. Neff, author of the book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself is both a Buddhist practitioner and a professor who has extensively studied the benefits of self-compassion. She demonstrates linkages between self-compassion practice, well-being and resilience. Her website is a generous collection of resources including research, practices and videos.
I’ve been adding self-compassion exercises into my morning meditation and noticing that I am becoming better at being kinder to myself—even when what I’m doing may not be serving me. And that, paradoxically, helps me get back on course far more quickly. If you already meditate, consider adding self-compassion practice. Here’s one of Neff’s simplest practices—a 5-minute “self-compassion break.” Neff’s partner is Chris Germer, and his website is equally rich in resources and offers an alternate voice with similar practices.
Stay Curious: When I apply an attitude of curiosity to what is happening in me and around me, a significant shift occurs. Curiosity is the antithesis of judgment. My personal goal for 2018 is to strengthen my “curiosity habit.” Using that same habit formation construct, here’s what I’m working on. “When I notice that I am judging (myself, others, a situation), then I will step back and remember to be curious.” When I am curious I have more capacity to see myself—to become an observer of my own behavior. When I can do that, I can make adjustments to that behavior without nearly as much of the “story” that I would otherwise bring to that process.
Another virtue of curiosity is that it feels light. When I’m curious I am open, interested and even able to laugh at a situation and at myself. When I’m curious, things are not too serious. And, when I’m curious and not so serious, I am a better learner.
Seek feedback: One of the barriers to change is that there is much we do not see. We may be aware of something in the abstract, but are not aware of when it is showing up, in the moment. Others, who do see us in action, are unlikely to offer up the feedback we most need. When our intent is out of alignment with our impact, we are unlikely to hear about it. Learning to ask for feedback, focused on the specific things we are working on, is a powerful way to work on our habits.
What’s most effective is letting people know what we are working on and inviting them to tell us when we’re doing great—and sharing with us when we could do better. For more on the value of feedback and the benefits of seeking specific feedback, I recommend Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.
Pause: Another powerful habit to create is that of creating a pause between thought (or feelings) and action. Pausing emerges from paying attention in the moment, from being able to be both an actor and an observer. This may be simple, but it is anything but easy. Our default is to be so “in” the moment that we can’t “see” the moment. And yet, even a brief pause can be enough to remind us that a thought is just a thought. One can choose whether to act or react in response to that thought.
In the words of Victor Frankl, author of Man in Search of Meaning: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
None of the strategies outlined here are quick fixes. And yet, none of them are inherently difficult. The more we can learn to be both actors in and observers of our lives, the easier it becomes to work on our deeper habit nature. For me, a regular meditation practice has been my primary path towards building a capacity for self-observation and mindfulness. For those with whom meditation does not resonate, there are other paths. Adam Grant’s op-ed in the New York Times from 2015, suggests that mindfulness does not require meditation and offers some alternative strategies for developing mindfulness. If meditation just isn’t your thing, I suspect you’ll enjoy this piece quite a bit!
Regardless of where you decide to begin and which strategy you decide to work with, the most important thing is to stay light, stay curious, and stay kind to yourself.