Habit Reforming

My senior year of high school, I had an amazing teacher. She taught me more useful stuff about how to learn in the course of one semester than I had learned in all the rest of my 12 years of schooling combined. Her name was Dr. Tina Yeager, and I owe her more than I could ever repay.

One of the most important things she taught me was never to listen to someone who told me I was simply not “wired” to be able to do something I wanted to do.

“Teach to your weaknesses,” she would advise us. “If you limit yourself to doing the things that come easily to you, not only will you become a seriously lopsided person, you’ll start buying into the B.S. that people are who they are and can’t ever change. Change isn’t just possible, it’s inevitable. So you better take conscious control of the direction of that change.”

She was the first person to teach me about the power of habits. How they functioned, how they were formed, and most importantly, how to override deeply ingrained habits with new, more functional ones. An excellent book on the subject, for those who want to delve further, is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

This turned out to be a lifesaving skill for me, in some cases quite literally (I happened to be struggling with a life-threatening eating disorder at the time). With Dr. Yeager’s help, I managed to completely transform my study habits, get into a much better college than I would have otherwise, and re-aim the trajectory of my life.

As it turns out, though, the skills of teaching to one’s weaknesses and exchanging old habits for shiny new ones require continual practice to stay sharp. And over the years as I specialized more and more into areas in which I was encouraged by others, and which I found enjoyable (largely because I was already good at them), I let my habit-transforming muscles atrophy. I got a PhD, but I forgot how to challenge myself in areas outside my specialization.

It wasn’t until I found myself wondering if perhaps I was simply not suited to the detail-oriented work of administrative assistance that Dr. Yeager’s advice came back to haunt me. I had grown lazy. I wasn’t teaching to my weaknesses. I was relying on my strengths to get me by, and that was no longer cutting it.

I knew that if I wanted to keep this job, if I wanted to give Bossman the support that he needed and deserved, I was going to have to do some serious habit reforming.

So, after my now-infamous mistakextravaganza, I set a personal goal of reducing my error rate at work by at least 50% by 2015. That’s right: I wanted to halve my mistakes in two months.

It was an ambitious goal. And I’m happy to report that I’ve officially exceeded it.

Here’s how I did it, step-by-step:

Step One: Define the problem

The first question I needed to answer for myself was: What constitutes a mistake, and how many of them am I actually making?

I needed to parse the difference between a non-optimal action (which could be just about anything if you’re ambitious enough) and a wrong action. And here’s the definition I settled on:

A mistake is an action with a known a negative effect (reduced efficiency, increased stress, etc.) which could have been prevented.

Particularly destructive/egregious errors count double, as do mistakes which have been repeated more than once.

Next I made a list of all the mistakes I’d made that week, along with the correct action to take next time. This I labeled: “Week 1.” I won’t bore you with the entire list, but here are a couple of representative examples, just to give you a sense of the level of error I am aiming to eradicate. And, of course, so you can enjoy a bit of light schadenfreude with your coffee:

– Got the time difference wrong when setting up a customer meeting. Next time: remember we are no longer on Daylight Time, put PST into time zone converter.

– Forgot to tell Bossman’s wife about his upcoming travel so she could plan around it. Next time: always cc her on the itinerary.

The total for that week was 8. *cringe*

With the list in front of me I couldn’t rationalize that perhaps Bossman was simply overreacting, nor could I despair that the problem was insurmountable. These were not unforgivable mistakes, by any means. They were just your average, garden-variety oopsies. But there were clearly an unacceptable number of them happening.

Step two: Decide to make a change

This is the most crucial, and most often overlooked step in any process that requires a change in behavior.

People are fond of saying that “change takes time.” But that isn’t, strictly speaking, true. You can change your mind in an instant, and it’s never too late to make a new choice. What takes time is building new habits based on those choices.

So, having confronted the problem, I made a conscious and deliberate decision to start doing things differently.

Step three: Identify triggers

I started observing my own behavior. What were the triggers that preceded mistakes? What were the problem behaviors that contributed to them?

My first observation had already been made: my most egregious mistakes had been made hastily, in a state of some degree of panic. So trigger #1 was emotional duress.

My second observation was about focus. I thought back to the mistakes I had listed and tried to remember what was happening just before I made them, and I noticed that often, just before a mistake was made, my focus had been on something external. For example, just before the VC-scheduling clusterf*ck, I had been in the office kitchen, putting up a shelf. In fact, the shelf remained incomplete when I got the call from Bossman, and I was trying to get the scheduling done quickly so I could get back to that task.

My third observation was that I make mistakes when I’m bored. Back when I was waiting tables at the Palomino, I had the same realization. At noon, when the lunch rush came in, I became a well-oiled machine. Even though we were slammed, even though I had to hold an astonishing number of things in my mind at one time, I rarely made mistakes because I was in THE ZONE. My body and mind hooked into a familiar rhythm: two chop chops, two pizzas, a Sprite and a Diet Coke, coming right up…

But when things were slow, the rhythm was broken. An order here, an order there, and then ten minutes of folding napkins… My mind would start to wander. And things would slip by me, things that wouldn’t have had I been out on the floor, making the rounds, taking new orders.

The same applies, I have learned, to any job. So, managers in the crowd: if you find that someone you know to be bright is making silly mistakes, rather than taking work off their plate, try piling more on. Give them more responsibility, more activity, more challenge. Keep them in the zone.

Meanwhile, EA’s in the crowd: don’t wait for your exec to give you more work! If you aren’t feeling challenged, take on new challenges. Create projects. Write a blog! Ask other folks in the office if there’s anything you can help them with. Boredom is a liability you cannot afford, and it is well within your power to avoid it.

Step four: Establish new routines

Once I knew how to recognize the usual triggers for mistake-making, I had to come up with new go-to patterns of behavior to replace my existing habits.

Because see, here’s the thing about habits: it is FAR easier to establish new routines than to abolish embedded ones. So the more focus you give to the new routine, and the less focus you give to the old one, the more likely you are to be able to make real and lasting change.

I had conveniently already come up with my go-to behavior when I started to feel panicked or overwhelmed: step away from the computer, focus on something external, and take deep breaths until a calm, relaxed state is achieved/restored.

So I came up with a go-to response when my focus is elsewhere and Bossman needs me to suddenly snap-to and deal with something: if the “something” is urgent, I write down whatever I was about to do, or was thinking about, or was smack in the middle of, on a post-it note, and stick it on my computer, so that I can shift my focus confidently and completely, knowing I’ll remember to get right back to it once I’m done with the urgent task. If it’s not urgent, just important, I write *it* down on a post-it note, finish my current action, and then do it right away.

Finally, I created a list of tasks I can take care of any time I am feeling bored or run out of things to do.

And, most importantly, whenever I feel any of these triggers, I take that as my cue to S L O W  D O W N. Pay closer attention. Triple check my work.

Step five: Track progress

I continued to write down any and all mistakes as I made them for the next seven weeks.

Week 1: 8 mistakes

Week 2: 7 mistakes (*sigh*)

Week 3: 5 mistakes (One less mistake and I’ve made my goal!)

Week 4: 3 mistakes (Woohoooo!)

Week 5: 5 mistakes (Wait what? *facepalm* Got too cocky. Back to basics)

Weeks 6-7: doesn’t count, Bossman was on vacation, but kept working on my new habits in other areas of life, and kept on top of email, etc.

Week 8: 2 mistakes (Now we’re talking! Let’s get that down to ZERO!)

Week 9: ZERO MISTAKES! *confetti*

(OK, maybe there was like, half a mistake in there, but I’m officially calling it Good Enough and moving on. :P)

Now, does this mean that I am now perfect and will never make another mistake? HA! Nope. That would mean that I’d stopped taking risks, stopped trying new things, and that spells stagnation and disaster.

What it means is that I have created new habits which are producing fewer, newer, and higher-quality mistakes. It also means that I’ve remembered something it took me many years to forget: that I am perfectly well suited to whatever I choose to do. I just have to be willing to put in the requisite work.

So, what weakness will YOU teach to this year?

#challenge #portfolio #career #GettingThingsDone #personaldevelopment #Organization #Goals

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