New Year, New Habits

A look into habits and how to incorporate them into your professional life in 2021

“We are the sum of our actions, and therefore our habits make all the difference.” – Aristotle

While the new year starts full of promises, projects and hope, it’s also a good time to review our habits and how they impact the people that we care about and that we work with, but also how they impact ourselves. Take a moment to think about what you would change from last year. What habits do you need to incorporate on a daily basis to succeed in your career development? What habits do you need to quit? What habits are important to maintaining your life-work balance? How were they impacting the people that you care about and also yourself? All of these questions are important as 2021 begins to pick up full-steam ahead. 

Habits: A closer look

To understand the importance of a habit it’s important to ask, “What is a habit?” With any quick Google search, one can find vastly different definitions, but one that stands out is: “A way of behaving that is repeated so often it no longer involves conscious thought.” This leads me to wonder – if we are not conscious about our habits, then in many situations in our lives, are our actions executed automatically? Actions define habits, habits define behaviors, behaviors determine the character, the character delineates our lifestyle, and our lifestyle describes our life. Isn’t it crazy to think that we are made by thousands of subconscious actions? But, in that same breath, improving our lives and positively impacting the people that we care about is, in fact, up to us, meaning our lives are in our hands – subconsciously or not. Therefore, in order to improve a habit must be formed. 

A Starting Point 

To figure out which habits I wanted to form, I started by putting together a list of things that went well last year, but the funny thing is that when we are busy and focused on overcoming challenges we don’t realize that there are a lot of good things that have happened or are happening. When we’re stressed or overwhelmed it seems like the bad things have more relevance than the good ones. Which is why creating a list is a good idea – putting all things on the table and identifying the change that we want to make. Compiling both the good and bad things is the first step that will take us to determine which habits we need to change, remove or acquire, and through that we will disclose our reason for the change.

While there is an extensive list of habits that I want to incorporate in my life, I want to focus on one of the keystone habits, the one that defines us as humans: Empathy. Throughout my whole career, and even more so within the last year, I’ve heard that word so many times that curiosity has taken over. What is empathy?  Empathy could be defined as the ability to “feel with” another person, to identify with them, and sense what they’re experiencing by “putting yourself in their shoes.” Empathy is a learned behavior even though the capacity for it is natural. The best way to think about empathy is an innate capacity that needs to be developed. There are three different types of empathy:

  • Cognitive Empathy: Essentially, Cognitive Empathy is when you’re able to put yourself into someone else’s place and see their perspective. It does not, however, fully fit with the definition of empathy as “feeling with,” since it is a much more rational and logical process.
  • Emotional Empathy: This is probably the first type of empathy that many of us feel as children and is quite common. It can be seen when a mother smiles at her baby, and the baby “catches” her emotion and smiles back or. alternatively. cries if they another baby crying. Emotional empathy occurs when someone quite literally feels the other person’s emotions alongside them, as if they had “caught” the emotions. 
  • Compassionate Empathy: This is what we typically understand as empathy– feeling someone’s pain and taking action to help.

Building a New Habit

To build an effective new habit you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.

  • Reason: Get clear on the payoff for changing something as familiar as an old behavior. Think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help someone you care about. In my case, I identified that empathy largely impacts my relationships- with my colleagues, with my family and friends and with clients. It’s not that I’m not an empathic person, but sometimes one does things just automatically, without stopping to think about what I’m actually doing and where I can improve.
  • Trigger: If you don’t know what triggers an old behavior, change can’t happen. Be short and specific. Once I identified that I want to work on my empathy habits, I made a list of triggers and a sub-list of triggering situations that I need to improve on. However, a habit may be composed of different trigger types and different triggers at the same time. Charles Duhigg, an American journalist and non-fiction author who is a subject matter expert on habits and productivity, says that there are five types of triggers: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action.
  • Micro-habit: Again, be short and specific. If you define your habit in an abstract and slightly vague way, you will not get any traction. If it takes too long to do, your big brain will find a way to hack your good intentions. Now that a triggering situation is identified, it’s time to redefine our habits. The intent here is to articulate the old habit so you know what you’re trying to stop doing and then define the new behavior, one that will take 60 seconds or less to do.
  •  Effective Practice: Practice small chunks of the bigger action. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and repeat. If we had identified that to change our core habit we need to do a couple of steps, then we should pick one and practice it, then add another step, and another, until we control it and we are completely conscious about what we are doing. The habit won’t always work and you’ll feel awkward as you sit in the place of learning known as “conscious incompetence” (an accurate if slightly insulting phrase). But, it’s through deliberate and regular practice that you will move to “conscious competence,” which is a more pleasant place to be.
  •  Plan: When you stumble (and everyone does) it’s easy to give up. What you need to know is what to do when that happens, a sort of a “Plan B.” Make your habit a resilient system. It is important to understand, as well, why the habit is floundering. Maybe we are missing a trigger, maybe we need to reformulate it or maybe we need to execute it into smaller chunks. No matter what your answer, take the lessons learned and improve your habits, iterating over them. This is not about seeking perfection, this is about looking for improvements and winning consciousness over our habits. 

While everyone can attest that 2020 was one for the books, it is well within our grasp to have a great, productive new year. Make the most of it and set out with good intentions and even better habits. What are some habits you’re looking toward instilling this year?