New Year Habit Changes

New Year’s resolutions are essentially commitments to change a habit that we realise consciously is not serving us well. It’s true that the evidence on such habit change isn’t good. We can find lots of surveys that show that the vast majority of people have broken their commitments to themselves before the end of January.

In my experience, this is incredibly important. We all live with regrets about aspects of our pasts, decisions made or not made, things achieved or not achieved. For many years in my life, starting way too young – I was a smoker. When i look back now I marvel at the mental kidology I was capable of in my 20s and 30s to convince myself that this wasn’t a problem in my life. I played rugby, went running and was very physically active. So, I used to tell myself that this meant the smoking wasn’t harming me as much as it might harm a sedentary person. Looking back now, I wonder how much better I might have been at those sports if I hadn’t been lighting up before and after training or matches.

Slowly, the health effects were creeping up on me so that by my mid thirties I knew ‘something needs to be done’ I started giving up! And I was successful – every time, sometimes for as little as a couple of hours. Maybe one of the biggest low points was when I agreed with a doctor that I needed to do something after a string of repeated chest infections. I was still in England at the time. The doctor put my name down for a hypnosis session. One session was meant to be all you needed to give up. It cost me 50 pounds. I had a nice rest – I think i actually went to sleep. 5 hours after walking out of the clinic i lit up again!

When I moved to India, I was still in the process of regularly giving up. I did bring about a fairly significant reduction in my smoking, but I still wasn’t giving up. The longer this went on, I now realise, the more my self esteem and belief in myself was wearing down.Every day I was doing something to myself that I hated, that in my conscious mind I was so clear I wanted to stop and that desire should have been enough. It ate away at me to think that I was someone who apparently had so little self-control. I felt condemned by own lack of effective willpower.

What I realise now and wish I had known then was that the more I fixated on the habit I wanted to stop, the less it was likely I would be successful. I needed to realise that willpower alone was not going to get me there. What I should have been doing was;

a) Seeking to understand the benefits that smoking gave me – the secondary gains, wrapped up in self-image of myself as a smoker, keeping my hands busy while anxious or preoccupied,
b) Figuring out a new, less harmful habit that I wanted to put in its place,
c) Enlisting accountability partners – people to whom I would give undertakings and who would call me out when I failed. I came across a great idea of promising to a friend to give money to a cause you vehemently disagree with every time you fail. That focuses the mind, because every failure hurts at a personal, visceral level.
I’d certainly have my mind focused if I was obliged to give money to Nigel Farage and UKIP every time I failed in changing my habit!
d) Maybe the biggest and most fundamental issue is how to deal with failures when they happen. Too many of us see habit change or resolutions as a zero sum game. The result is that as soon as we have a lapse of any sort we start putting ourselves down, condemning ourselves. Failing at a habit change has to be something we do, not something we are. It is not all-defining in terms of who we are and it’s rarely terminal. All too easily, we treat a failure as evidence that we were foolish to want to change the habit, to believe that we could.

We start to identify ourselves as a person who can’t change habits. Yet, if we stop and think for a moment and ask one simple question – can I think of a habit I had in the past that I don’t have today, we’ll all be able to think of at least a few. Once we do, we can understand how we have been successful at giving up past habits and believe that we can be successful again.

So, if like me, you’ve got some commitments you’d made to yourself to address a habit, to change something in your life – and so far your performance on the change has been less than stellar, it’s time we cut ourselves a bit of slack, stop beating up on ourselves and reevaluate to see whether we can get the change habit back on track.

When we are able to change a habit, however small, there’s enormous power to create momentum that we can channel to taking on bigger challenges and changes. My belief is that humans are rather like bicycles. We’re not stable when standing still and not very effective in that condition. We’re meant to be in movement, perpetually moving towards progress. When moving in a line, as straight as possible, towards meaningful goals that’s when we humans are at our most effective and powerful.


Getting Good Habits Early

Teachers invest a great deal of time in enabling children to learn their seven times tables, until 6 X 7 = 42 becomes a very automatic and speedy output. But, as useful as this skill might be (perhaps?), how much time is invested in enabling young children to acquire habits that are proven to play a part in enabling a person to live a successful life?

Aristotle is quoted to have said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Evidence keeps mounting, in my view for the benefits of the right habits and the potentially horrendous limitations or impairments that happen for those who don’t acquire positive habits early. There’s also an awful lot of evidence that the development of positive habits is easier and more effective when two things happen. Firstly, getting the habits early. And secondly, being mindful and aware of the good habits, why they matter and the benefits of having them.

When we look at the acquisition of habits from the perspective of being a parent or an educator, one of my own strong beliefs is that a habit is only a habit if it’s owned by the individual and that only comes with self-discipline based development and understanding of the ‘why’. The key to this is we can’t put habits in to children through enforced discipline. So, making children act in particular ways “because I say so” or because we’re big, you’re small and we know best and you must be obedient is not the way to build positive, constructive habits. In fact, I see greater likelihood that when the pressure is taken off, there’s a strong chance that we’ll see the young person follow the very opposite habits and go down unproductive paths.

Obviously, when a child is really young, we have to take the lead on habit development. They have to come from us. But, as the child gets older, we need to hand over more of the responsibility to the child. I often compare this to flying a kite. When it gets up in the air we pay out more line – equivalent to handing over more of the power to the child. If there’s a lull in the air flow, the kite may dip and even start to fall towards the ground. At that point we draw some of the line in (not all of it!) until the kite height and the wind strength are compatible. Then, as the kite steadies, we start paying out more line again.

I believe that somehow, today, parents and educators have come to believe that the antidote to strict, controlling parenting is completely laiiez faire parenting where children are left free to make all their own choices and judgements. These appear to be very dangerous extremes. Instead, the right way is to aaply the kite analogy above. This does require investment of time and effort, flexibility and strong awareness of the adult to both their own emotions and how the child is responding to the opportunity to set their own routines and habits.

With regard to habits, we need children to know and understand the implications of good or bad habits, be given the help to acquire the good habits, reflection when they let the good habits slip and to get back in to believing they are capable of establishing clear, positive habits – growth mindset is also a vital ingredient.

here are two recent articles that show, if not definite cause, then certainly strong risks for children who don’t have positive, healthy habits in their lives early on. The first suggests a strong correlation between teenage obesity and failure to have positive, regular bedtime habits in the early years of life;

NPR – Eat, Sleep, Repeat – How Kid’s Daily Routines Can Help Prevent Obesity

The second again highlights correlation, but not yet conclusive evidence of cause, regarding very young infants and screen use causing delayed speech development;

CNN – Speech Delays in Kids Could be Linked to Mobile Devices

Leaders are Readers

I truly believe that in an ever faster changing world, the readers are destined to be the winners. Further, I think it’s vitally important to reinforce that the real knowledge we need to access doesn’t come through popular daily mass media; newspapers, magazines etc. or from TV.

So, as educators I believe we really need to be doing all in our power to ensure that children develop reading books as a natural pattern of their regular daily actions. For this, they need to develop great reading habits and the earlier they start these the better the chances that they will maintain those habits in their adult life. Sadly, a bit too often for comfort I hear parents who put the onus on schools to devel the reading habit in their children, or who bemoan the fact that the child isn’t a stronger reader, but who admit that they don’t read on a regular basis themselves. The excuse, nvariably, is @I don’t have the time.”

So, I was interested to come across this article looking at adult reading habits, triggered by recent pronouncements from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg (who’s certainly way busier than you or me!) It makes clear – this is a habit we can build in to our adult lives if we just acknowledge its importance and put in the effort. However, I don’t think we should underestimate how challenging it would be for anyone who doesn’t naturally have the habit.

Here’s the article:
Fast Company – Why You Should Read 50 Books This Year

Which is why I am really keen to see more students in schools developing the habit early. part of this, I believe, is to encourage them to read for pleasure as much as for learning. Fiction opens up the mind in different ways to non fiction that tends to expand one’s knowledge. Books in the home are a valuable investment. We now know, or at least suspect according to recent research I’ve highlighted in other articles, that sleep patterns get disturbed by watching screens in the last hour before bed. So, what better alternative than to get your child to switch off the TV/ iPad/ computer an hour before bed and pick up a book?

When your child has been reading, it’s great for their thinking and language development to ask questions about the reading, how it made them feel, the messages nderlying the story etc. It also brings a sense of togetherness and bonding.

I have long had a habit that at any particular time I have two books I’m reading simultaneously – one fiction and one non fiction. Right now I’m reading “A strangeness in my mind”, the latest novel from Nobel Literature Prize winner Orhan Pamuk – a deep and thoughtful read. The non fiction is “Creative Schools” by educator, Sir Ken Robinson – I’ll maybe write more on that when I finish it.

Happy Reading !!!!

‘Design Thinking’ for Life

Design thinking and the idea that principles from design can be applied well beyond the conventional ideas of what we commonly think of as design have been around for some time.

So, I was interested to read this New York Times blog post in which a Stanford Professor has applied it to a specific aspect of life – namely, developing effective life habits

New Year Times Blog Post – Design Thinking for a Better You

The element of reframing a challenge or problem is prominent in his thinking. The key seems to be that the design thinking protocol of five steps allows for looking at the issue in hand from different perspectives – what he calls ’empathizing’ which in turn gives the scope for a bigger array of potential solutions to be considered because the issue or ‘problem’ at hand is looked at from a variety of perspectives.

When he talks of empathy, I read this as meaning both empathy with others and the world around us, but also with ourselves. Too often, when confronted with our own habits that don’t lead to the best outcomes (or the ones we want) it can be very easy to lose that empathy with one’s self – to be tempted to put the lack of effective outcome down to simple weakness or failure to do what was necessary. The approach outlned here enables a more sensitive and nuanced understanding of what’s got n the way, what the desired end outcome really is and then the exploration of ways to achieve it.

Habits – Who’s In Charge?

Many writers and trainers over the years have rightly focused upon habits as a key determinant of success in a person’s life. Of course, Dr Stephen Covey put great emphasis on this in his work with his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ and subsequent works.

So, I was very interested when I came across this Fast Company article recently;

Fast Company – How to Make Long-Lasting Changes to Your Unconscious Habits

The first thing that struck me was the way that these consultants were working with companies to deal with employee habits at both the individual and collective level. When I thought about it, this made a great deal of sense when you think about the way certain workplace habits become norms passed down between employees without real conscious thought about how well they serve the organisation.

Then, there’s that extraordinary statistic – 40-50% of all that we do in a day is made up of habits – but we just don’t know it! Too often we’re following habits unconsciously, so they are leading us, rather than the other way around. To my mind, the most important act if we want to change our habits or to be master over them is to become consciously aware and questioning about our habits.

We can’t tackle them all, and wouldn’t want to. If you brought every daily habit in to conscious thought, firstly you’d be in significant conscious overload, but secondly, you’d probably disturb and upset lots of very positive habits that serve you very well in getting through the day.

Much to ponder on here.

New Year’s Resolutions Update

OK, so I’m fully aware that some might wish I wasn’t bringing this subject up again – especially those who’ve already ditched the good intentions and consigned the list of ‘things to do better this year’ to the rubbish bin.

Well, first of all, anyone who had a slip up – SO WHAT? Don’t we all know that failures are an inevitable part of the journey to success? So, that’s no excuse to quit with the good intentions. Yes, we might have felt the need to beat up on ourselves a bit. Why am I so pathetic? I decide to do something that’s good and positive for me, and I can’t even keep it up for more than a couple of weeks? How embarrassing!!

Well, as this great New York Times article points out, maybe our real issue is that we don’t have the right understanding about ‘habits’. What are they, how do we get one, and in this context most important – how do we deliberately establish a new one.

Hopefully, this will inspire some to dust off the resolutions and get back to them. Happy Habit building!

Developing Habits – Good or Bad

Every child, in fact every person, is going to develop habits. One of the keys to a good life (or a good community, society) is the development of more good habits and less bad ones! Now, in a number of articles I’ve written here on the blog earlier I’ve made very clear that I’m not one of those educators who believes that everything important to be learned must be ‘taught’. However, I do believe it is a fundamental part of our work to ensure that when we create learning climates/ environments in schools we create climates within which the likelihood is that more of the students will develop more of the ‘good habits’ more of the time.

If we have schools within which children are developing habits such as aggression, greed, selfishness, bullying, cynicism then I believe we are duty bound to look at the practices, habits, ways of working of the Institute and all the people in it to determine whether these are, in some way, contributing. I fully acknowledge that school doesn’t exist in an isolated bubble. Rather, it exists as one element in the lives of children along with the family, home and the wider world (including all the media they are exposed to). Nevertheless, this shouldn’t tempt us to wash our hands or excuse ourselves. Lots talk about educating ‘the whole child’ or holistic education, but can be slow to really apply deep thought to how this is done. If school routine sets children in competition with each other, where they develop in an environment of ‘zero sum’ game mentality, then we should not shy away from acknowledging that we are ‘part of the problem, contributing to habits in children/ character traits that will reflect belief in a ‘zero sum’ world.

By ‘zero sum’, I mean a climate within which people see resources and ‘good things’ as being finite and limited. If we see them in this way, we will believe that there is only a limited amount to go around and that therefore we need to do whatever it takes to get more of that resource for ourselves. This can relate to something as simple as attention from a teacher, marks, praise, recognition, or fun. If a child believes unconsciously that there is a finite and limited supply of these things, then they will develop habits that reflect those beliefs. They are more likely to ‘fight’ to get what they want, to adopt aggressive behavior or put others down (your weakness = my strength).

It was a result of thinking about such issues that I found the following two articles really interesting. The first is a report from the BBC that details some simple experiments with positive results – children who practiced specifically carrying out random acts of kindness were both happier and more popular with their peers: BBC Report – Kindness

In addition to taking up approaches such as this where we encourage children to deliberately and consciously carry out random acts of kindness and diarize them, I believe most schools would also benefit from introspective processes that engage all stakeholders to question and analyze whether or not the school climate and environment is conducive to kindness and altruism, or whether there are hidden messages that actually inadvertently steer children in the opposite direction.

The second article comes from Scholastic and takes a broader look at the benefits to be achieved by developing a habit of giving. Scholastic Article – Children Changing the World

Here in India I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of the Design for Change (started out as Design for Giving) initiative started by Riverside School, Ahmedabad. I believe that if schools combine these two aspects – specific projects and initiatives related to giving and regular small scale development of habits of kindness – then, we can improve our chances of developing a generation of children with positive habits towards others who are far less likely to develop unproductive habits in their relations with others. The chances for a world within which more people approach kindness, generosity and positive social behavior with a sense of abundance are worth working for.

Personality – Nature or Nurture

Here’s an article about a piece of research that is likely to attract many objectors. It suggests that personality is largely fixed at or close to birth and remains little changed throughout the remainder of a person’s life.

MSNBC Article

In order to make these claims, the research looks at 4 personality features and suggest that in the sample of people they analysed, these features identified in infancy were still apparent in adulthood. My feeling is that this doesn’t automatically mean that personality can’t change, or that there are not other personality traits that can be ‘acquired’ or strengthened in such a way as to provide a compensating balance for these that might be fixed.

If it does prove to be true that personality traits are largely fixed I believe this could be potentially good news in two respects;

a) It would bring an end to the whole ‘personality development’ industry which seeks to convince all that there is a given personality stereotype that is an ideal, that all should aspire to and work to be like. Instead, there would be re-evaluation that would seek to recognise the strengths for different situations in different personalities. For example, it has been fashionable to suggest that extroversion is preferable to introversion (this article even shows some bias this way). However, even as a relatively extrovert person myself, i can see merits in introversion that fail to get enough recognition.
b) If personality is seen as being more ‘fixed’ and pre-determined, this would bring greater focus on to character – something people can put effort in to in a worthwhile way, to aspire to be a more successful person and make a bigger contribution in the world. Character is predominantly determined by one’s habits. The ‘best’ habits to have can be identified in those who exhibit them, recognised and practiced until they become sufficiently internalised to become a habit.

So, whilst this might not be the final word on personality, by a long way, there is reason to hope that even the debate itself can offer positive outcomes.

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