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Habits and Strategies

Rituals for Excellence

By Habits and Strategies

William James 1842-1910

My client Frank was having a very hard time with his money. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway’s bankrupt character Mike in “The Sun Also Rises,” money problems tend to happen gradually, then suddenly.

Frank was, fortunately, still in the “gradually” stage, feeling anxious and a bit untethered. The frustrating thing was that he knew exactly what he needed to do… he just didn’t do it.

Well, to be more precise, he usually didn’t do it.

When he saw that his credit card balances were creeping up, and he’d lost track of what was happening with his investments, and he started worrying about bills that he hadn’t prepared for, then he would pay attention to his spending and check diligently on his investments… for maybe a week, maybe a month.

But when the anxiety subsided a bit as he adjusted his behavior, he would begin to feel less urgency, and eventually the old habits would reassert themselves, slowly re-creating the same problems that had been troubling him.

And the cycle would repeat itself.

We can know the right things to do. We can know how to do them. But until and unless these behaviors become automatic habits, we will never actually do them reliably over time. It just takes too much energy, focus, and willpower to consciously think of everything all the time.

As the great American psychologist William James said about a hundred years ago: Read More

Curiosity Provides the Energy for Excellence

By Habits and Strategies

An essential ingredient for success at anything – beyond the most mundane of rote tasks – is curiosity.

Curiosity is about exploration and discovery; it creates energy, possibilities, and movement. It also allows us to create relationships, and to grow more deeply and delightfully connected with one another. It allows us to play – and excellence in work can be like play for adults.

In my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist, Life Coach, and Business Consultant, I would be utterly useless without curiosity as a central deliberate practice. I need to get to know, before I do anything else, who this other person is – or who these people are if it’s a couple or a work team. I need to be keenly interested in knowing and understanding them, their circumstances, and what their goals and challenges and strengths are. That’s all about curiosity.

You might think, “Well, that sounds like you start with empathy…” But empathy, in my experience, follows from curiosity. If we’re curious about the other person, that’s the portal through which our empathy and care for other people enters.

Think of your own work, your own family, your own friendships. With those with whom you enjoy a good relationship, I would bet that you also are curious about who they are as people. On the other hand, if there are people from whom you feel more distant or critical, you might find that bringing more curiosity about their internal worlds can bring fresh energy and interest – and perhaps greater compassion as well.

In our work, our success and prospects grow with curiosity. The antithesis of curiosity is a sense of or desire for certainty. Read More

Taking Your Time at the Start

By Habits and Strategies

When we see someone who truly excels at what they do, one quality often jumps out: they make it look easy.

But what is it that gives us the impression of ease?

They seem to take their time. Even when you’re seeing an elite athlete making lightning quick moves, it seems to be moving more slowly than the actual elapsed time. They’re not panicked, they’re not forcing things; the moves look fluid.

When someone has reached a state of mastery, with all the deliberate practice that requires, they’ve accumulated a vast store of knowledge and experience in their working memory. So when they get to work, they don’t need to take time to look things up; or when it’s a physical skill like athletics or music, they don’t have to think about the movements themselves.

Because of this, they also don’t feel rushed to act. They have time to orient to the problem or the task, and before they take action, they will have scanned their working memory for the information they need – the facts, the experience, the causes and effects they know – and then when they do act, they do so magnificently. Read More

Excellence Takes More than Time

By Habits and Strategies

We can learn a lot about gaining our own expertise from seeing how the great masters gained theirs.

Back in the 19th century, Sir Francis Galton in his book “Hereditary Genius,” argued that performance of skills for mature adults improves rapidly at first, but then at some point “Maximal performance becomes a rigidly determinate quantity.” What limits any significant improvement beyond that, in Galton’s view, was whatever nature endowed us with.

Other researchers – as far back as 1899 – added to this that it may take over 10 years to become an expert. The idea that this is a relatively orderly process, moving from novice to intermediate to expert, led to the belief that we can judge expertise through someone’s social reputation, education, accumulated knowledge, and length of experience.

There’s truth to this, of course, but it’s missing something important.

Because it turns out that people’s level of training and experience don’t always predict high performance. From psychologists to software designers, to wine experts, to decision makers and forecasters on investing, research has shown that the amount of time spent in the field is not a reliable measure of performance.

Something else is essential, which K. Anders Erickson and his co-editors map out in their tome, “Expertise and Expert Performance.”

What makes the difference between a Mozart or a Beethoven and somebody who can play quite well? What makes the difference between a Michael Jordan and a good overall basketball player? Read More

Your Long-Term Goals Have to Matter to You

By Habits and Strategies

Where do we find the energy to achieve big, long-term goals?

How can we persevere over time and through adversity to create something that requires a commitment of several years?

Simple. It has to matter to you.

Not just a little bit. It has to matter enough that you’ll see it through.

When someone calls me for coaching, once we’ve established the goals that they want to accomplish, one of the first questions I ask is “Why is it important for you to reach these goals?”

If the reason is something like “My parents want me to…” or “My boss wants me to…” or “I’m supposed to…” I know we have some work to do before we get to the nuts and bolts.

Somebody else wanting us to do something is rarely a strong enough motivation to make changes in our lives.

And reaching big goals usually requires making big changes.

Changing behavior, learning new skills, overcoming personal limitations – all take consciousness, time and willpower.

Habits are powerful forces; we can change them but not lightly.

Frankly, we have to have a darned good reason to change.

And we have to have an even better reason to maintain these new habits through adversity. Read More

Why You Shouldn’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

By Habits and Strategies

– and How to Actually Reach Your Goals This Year

Now’s the time when we’re supposed to make New Year’s resolutions. All those bad behaviors we’ve suffered from (or made others suffer from); all those good behaviors that we know would make life better for ourselves and those we care about. The things that we vow to do this year even though we’ve never done them before…

Even though we’ve resolved year after year to do them this year.

And then felt anywhere from a mild regret to deep shame when we don’t make the new thing happen.

Magically, like a spell we cast on New Year’s.

Well this year let’s make that a different story, because I’m going to tell you why it never worked before, and why this time you’ll have a good chance of actually reaching those goals this year – assuming that they’re actually reachable. Read More