TADS Insights

Wake Up

1 May 2015

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When I asked a friend how he lost so much weight so quickly, he gave an unusual answer: “I simply woke up” he said.  Whatever do you mean?  Surely, just getting up a little earlier did not produce these amazing results.



Terry went on to explain that he began to wake up to his life.  Awake to the everyday choices that all of us make – how to use time, what to read, what to eat, when to eat, how much exercise to have, when to go to bed, when to arise and so on.  Having a heightened sense of alertness to all these choices, lead Terry to make better, more informed decisions, and soon enough the results followed.

And there is a lesson there for us too.  Perhaps we get the results that we get, simply because we are asleep to our lives, not bothering, for whatever reason, to become aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it.  Not only does this apply to our professional and personal lives, but is also is true in the way we lead teams and indeed how we manage organisations.

In becoming awake, we are battling against two forces that lull us to sleep: habit and self-control.  Both these work together making us want to ‘distance’ ourselves from reality by giving us the illusion that what we have done in the past is just fine and it’s all too much of an effort anyway.

Most of us underestimate the power of habit in our lives.  Habits are learned behaviours that make our decision making automatic.  Over time, one by one, small individual habits become set in our pattern of how we operate, and before we know it, their accumulated effect has a powerful influence on how we think and how we go about things.

One study by researchers at Duke University found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.  If you think about your everyday life, from the moment you get up in the morning, to going to bed at night, you may be surprised how much habit governs our behaviours, and therefore, the results we get in our lives.  Perhaps, unknowingly, we don’t choose how to live as much as we might imagine.

Of course one of the benefits of living with our habits is that, by automating decisions, they reduce complexity and unnecessary choice making.  Years ago, Edward de Bono calculated that there were over 80,000 different ways of putting your clothes on!  Yet, when you reflect on how you dressed this morning, it’s likely that your morning routine served you well and greater reduced any potential anxiety about which sock to put on first.

By waking up to the power of habits in our lives we put ourselves in the position of being able to change those behaviours that are unhelpful or even destructive.  Charles Duhigg writing in The Power of Habit, makes the point that by focussing on one pattern – what is known as a “keystone habit” – we are able to influence a stream of other habits and therefore reset many of our programmed behaviours.  The trick is to know what these keystone habits are and go to work on these first.

The second force that can keep us asleep is self-control, or more precisely, our lack of self-control.  Many research studies have shown that the ability to delay gratification is critical to living a successful and fulfilling life.  Otherwise known as “willpower” we now know they are specific techniques to increase your ability to do what’s right rather than do what’s short-term or immediately gratifying.

One of these techniques is to develop the skill of remembering what is truly important as you go about your day.  If you know the why behind what you’re doing, you’ll have created a context in which to base your decisions and choice making.  Most of us are so busy getting on with the “doing” that we fail to focus on the “why” and, consequently, this erodes our willpower.  We may find ourselves making decisions that we regret later.   

Waking up begins with individuals taking self-responsibility for how they live their personal and professional lives.  It involves a heightened sense of self-awareness combined with an honest appraisal of the habits we have formed and a strengthening of our willpower.  If we do this inner work first, we become authentic leaders of teams and our organisations.

-- David Keane