Habits are not easy to change. Most New Year’s Resolutions fail. However, I have made a practice of giving myself a new year’s ‘focus’ over the past few years. Two years ago it was ‘Aiming for Average’, and last year it was about ‘Opportunities for Maximising Impact’. They have proven to be useful, and more helpful to me than attempting an ambitious collection of resolutions. (More about my focus for 2017 later).
Speaking of habits hard to break, I have been intrigued with a pattern I’ve noticed with organisations who are experimenting with collaboration, deliberative democracy and citizen engagement. Despite having positive experiences with certain projects, they are inclined to revert to established patterns of command and control, or decide and defend. Habits are hard to break; probably harder than we imagine. Organisations are no different in this regard to those of us who attempt to keep our resolutions!
So what does it actually take to a break a bad habit, or create a new habit? Various experts suggest a range of times it takes to develop a new habit or behaviour (somewhere between 21 and 36 days). Elliot Berkman, Director, Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, says that “It’s much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behaviour.” It turns out that values also play an important role in developing new habits. Berkman says “People who want to kick their habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behaviour faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others.”
These insights are useful for organisations as well. Just having a policy, strategy or toolkit is unlikely to lead to consistent collaborative practices with citizens and other stakeholders. A values statement won’t do it either. Building commitment to the principles of engagement and collaboration will do more than just inform people what is expected of them. Leaders displaying the behaviours with their workforce will also go a long way to reinforcing that the values or principles being espoused are real – they mean something, and they will not be thrown out as soon as some challenges are experienced.
Back to my focus for this year. 2016 has been hectic. A bit too hectic. Moving to Melbourne to start my own consulting business just over two years ago has proven to be eventful and highly successful. Being hectic has its downside though. Not as much time with Angela, family and friends; nor enough time for making new friends, enjoying what Melbourne offers, listening to music, or travelling. Not enough time for reading, writing and reflecting. So here is a chance to take stock, consider, and make some plans.
I love my work and that can be a trap. I cannot think of one project over the past year that wasn’t rewarding or worth doing. I am very, very fortunate in that regard. It can make it hard to say ‘no’ to such opportunities. Not that I haven’t said no on occasions, but there is no doubt in my mind I said ‘yes’ to too many opportunities.
So how will 2017 be any different? Here is where I’m up to (but I am also open to more suggestions).
- I will practice saying ‘yes’ to things other than work. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t come naturally to me. But, of course, with every time I say ‘yes’ to something I will be saying ‘no’ to other things. I think it’s called opportunity cost.
- I will prioritise work that is likely to have the most impact and, for me, is the most meaningful.
- I have decided to engage a virtual assistant for about 10 hours per month, but this could grow as I learn to take advantage of her skills. My virtual assistant will look at my scheduling, arrange travel, remind me of commitments and deadlines, and help maintain my social media activity.
- I will work increasingly with others on projects. This has already started to happen increasingly. Over the past 12 months I have worked quite a lot with Village Well, Jacinta Cubis, Michelle Weston, Articulous, Collaboration for Impact, 3 Hills Consulting, Peer Academy, Clinicion, Innergise, Shape Urban, KJA, GHD and Nation Partners. I’m sure there have been others. Not only does it ease the load, it makes work fun and we learn lots from each other.
- I am going to schedule mental health days; days where I do things purely for enjoyment and relaxation, and with the people whose company I most enjoy. (To make sure this happens I will add this to the list of tasks for my virtual assistant).
Well, it seems I have developed 5 resolutions to support my focus for 2017. It makes me nervous, because as I said earlier, I found having a focus is more useful. But hopefully, my focus says something about my values, and these resolutions will build into some much healthier habits!