Acquire new habits of mind and practice to achieve important goals

Photo/Dennis Sparks

Even while we’re creating new “neural pathways,” the old ones are still there in our brains. Until the new ones become completely second nature, then stress or fear can make us fall back on the old ones.

—Alan Deutschman

In Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life Alan Deutschman explains that people are influenced to change through three linked elements he calls relate, repeat, and reframe. “Relate” was explained in a previous essay, and “reframe” will be described in my next post.

School leadership is an incredibly complex task that for the most part is governed by habits of mind and behavior. Leaders’ understandings, beliefs, and actions are often directed by “default settings”—habitual patterns of thought and behavior—that may operate beneath the level of conscious awareness and that can either support or impede the achievement of important goals.

The cultivation of new habits, when appropriate, requires intention, attention, and persistence across many weeks or months until mastery is achieve, a task often complicated by the tenacity of old habits. The development of new habits begins with an initial learning of new ways of thinking and acting. It continues with the repetition of those thoughts and behaviors (often in the face of opposition from people who prefer the old habits) until new ways of thinking and acting have become routine.

Leaders first change themselves

Leaders begin by changing their own habits, and they are more successful in acquiring new habits when they anticipate and persevere through an “implementation dip” during which performance may temporarily diminish as new skills are acquired. It’s also important for leaders to be patient with themselves when they occasionally revert to old habits when fatigued or experiencing strong emotions.

An example:

A leader commits himself to being a much better listener, particularly when the subject at hand provokes strong feelings or is of personal interest. His current habit is to interrupt to ask questions, correct the speaker, or offer advice, all of which interfere with his ability to understand what the person is saying and to learn from it. His specific goal is to recognize these impulses as they arise in his mind and to maintain a focus on the speaker by not blurting out his questions or points of view. To establish some “small wins” he begins by committing himself to a “micro-action” at which he is unlikely to fail—one minute of committed listening—and to gradually increasing the duration of time during which he will practice this habit. He also recognizes that it will be important for him to be tolerant of mistakes as the neural “hardwiring” of the new habit begins to take form.

Take a moment now to . . .

• identify a habit you would like to cultivate and determine the first-step you will take in the process of its development.

4 Responses to “Acquire new habits of mind and practice to achieve important goals”

  1. 1 Mike May 5, 2010 at 6:54 am

    In the example, good listening habits includes not asking questions. Most people, me included, think that asking questions shows interest. However, I can see how this can distract the speaker. I will generally restrain myself from asking questions when someone is speaking.


  1. 1 “Reframe” how we think about things « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on May 7, 2010 at 4:09 am
  2. 2 The importance of intention in developing habits that serve us and others « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on May 28, 2010 at 4:10 am
  3. 3 Adopt “vital behaviors” « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on June 7, 2010 at 4:25 am

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