As previously published in Forbes.com.
You’ve all seen the clickbait headlines: “8 Habits of Highly Successful Leaders.” “12 Habits of Exceptional Leaders.” “20 Habits of Highly Successful and Effective Leaders.” But the reality is great leaders do have some good habits. Do you?
A couple of years ago, I read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, he explains the construct of a habit — what he calls a habit loop — which is a framework for understanding how habits work. Duhigg offers that MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue tells your brain to go into automatic mode and lets a behavior unfold. The routine is the behavior itself. And the reward is something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future.
"In fact, when you develop a habit, the brain starts working less and less," says Duhigg. "The brain can almost completely shut down. ... And this is a real advantage because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else."
Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.
So, what does all of this mean for you? How do you create the habits you need to be a better leader? How do you create your own intentional habit loop? You have to get personal with it. You have to experiment with your own habits and experience your own change. Here’s how I did it.
I have always wanted to have a regular meditation practice. I am an anxious person, and I’m aware that sometimes my mind runs off without me. I let fear and anxiety drive my behavior. I sensed that training my mind to sit and be still for even five minutes a day would be a good thing. But I had never built this particular habit. And truth be told, it seemed daunting.
My big idea was to try meditating for just five minutes each morning before I did anything else. To use Charles Duhigg’s framework, my “cue” would be getting out of bed in the morning. The “routine” was to walk into the kitchen, press the button to start brewing my coffee, then walk back into my room and sit on a meditation bench for five minutes. The “reward” was a cup of joe. That’s it. I told myself I couldn’t have a cup of coffee unless and until I did my sitting meditation. As a coffee-loving Seattleite, I can tell you, that cup of coffee was incredibly motivating to me.
That was two-and-a-half years ago. And today? Well, not only do I meditate every day, I’ve worked my way up to 21 minutes. I use the Insight Meditation timer app, which has thousands of guided meditations, music and support. And it’s changed my leadership. I am calmer and more focused. I am less reactionary when things go wrong. I don’t panic. I’m sleeping better and have even lost weight! Who knew?
My team has noticed the difference, too. Here’s a note my head of marketing sent me the other day:
Mindfulness has made you a better leader, boss and human being. I am reflecting on the impact it has had on me, the permission you have given me to slow down, to trust everything will get done, and to not get overwhelmed. Your mindfulness practice has had a positive impact on me. Your approach to our business and our work has shifted, and therefore has allowed me to shift as well.
I started this habit just for myself, to calm my busy, busy mind. But now I realize it’s not just for me; it is serving my team, too.
As research and real-life experience shows, intentionally building good habits (as opposed to bad habits just happening) means that you don’t have to use willpower or drain your brain on things that matter to you. So consider: What sorts of things matter to you? Exercising and being fit? Getting your inbox to zero? Eating dinner with your family every evening? Staying connected to the bigger ideals — the why — of what you are doing with your hours and days? Getting three important things that matter done every day no matter what? These are the habits that successful leaders build, according to a 2015 Time magazine article.
What habits will you build for yourself?