The Origin of Leaders #5: Habits. Routine sets you Free!

by Conor Neill on January 24, 2011

Habits play an important role in the origin of leaders. Successful leaders understand this.

How do we succeed in making changes in our lives?  How do we convert an event into a pattern—or ongoing habit–into our character or ongoing daily activities?

For example, when I first moved to Spain, I had only ever drunk one cup of coffee in my 29 years of life.  In my first month in Barcelona, I began to go to the coffee bar with my friends in the morning, as is the daily tradition here.  Over the course of the month I had a few coffees.  Some days yes, some days no.

The second month I started to enjoy this little habit and so probably had a coffee each morning. Over the next 8 years, however, I reached the point where I “need” 3 coffees during the 7am to 2pm period!  (I have probably drunk a swimming pool’s worth of coffee!)

What’s the point? I would never have drunk so much of coffee had it not been one of my daily habits. Drinking coffee is perhaps not an example of a positive, productive habit – but the story shows how habits enter a life.  I started writing seriously about 2 years ago.  I write 500 words a day.  Sometimes I write more, but my conscious daily habit is to ensure that I write 500 words each day.

We are what we habitually do

You are not a smoker if you smoke 1 cigarette.  You are not a smoker if you smoke 2 cigarettes.  You become a smoker at some point where it becomes a daily thing!

Likewise, you’re not a writer if you write today.  You are not a writer if you write a couple of times a year.  You only become a writer when it becomes a daily thing.

We overestimate what we can achieve in a day and underestimate what we can achieve in a year.  This is a widespread human challenge.  Most people, including myself, will set a list of to-dos for today that is impossible to achieve.  I overestimate what I can realistically get done today.  I underestimate the interruptions, the distractions and my ability to maintain focus on the tasks.  However, we underestimate our potential to create over the course of a year – if I do a little bit each day.  In my coffee example, if somebody showed me a big vat with all the coffee I drank last year and said – “can you drink all this?”  I would balk at the sheer volume.  However, done step by step, over many days, as a habit – enormous things are achievable.

What are habits?

Habits are actions you regularly do.  Smoking starts as an event, turns into a pattern, and becomes a habit.  Aristotle says “we are what we habitually do”.  Who I am and become is directly related to my daily habits!.

Habits are routines of behavior that are repeated regularly.  As the routine is repeated more and more regularly it takes less and less effort or self-discipline to begin and complete the routine.  Some say that it takes 30 days of sustained routine for it to become habitual.  If you write for 10 minutes for the next 30 days before you begin your day’s work, it will be an effort and require discipline for the first few days, but if you have the strength to keep it up it will become almost automatic around the 30 day point.

Start the day slowly

Ken Blanchard starts each day the same way.  After waking, before getting up and meeting the day, and certainly before checking emails, he sits on the edge of his bed.  He places his hands with palms down on top of his thighs and he listens to the thoughts running through his mind, the ideas, the people, the doubts; he listens to his body, how it feels, where it hurts.  After 5 minutes or so when he feels he has heard what his mind has to say, he turns his hands over so the palms facing up.  He thinks “what do I want to be grateful for at the end of today?”.  He starts each day this way – he calls it “starting the day slowly”. This start means that he spends the day on what is important.

Habituating Learning

All senior executives of Goldman Sachs are on 2 teleconferences every day.  At 6am and at 6pm they all dial in and have short conversation.  The 6am call looks at what patterns are happening today and gets each leader reflecting on the day ahead.  The 6pm call answers one question “What did we learn today?”.  This routine ensures maximum learning every day through a habitual reflection on what worked and what didn’t work during the day.  How do you ensure that you learn from each day?  Do you pause to reflect on what worked and what did not?

Routine sets you free.

I had a coffee with Verne Harnish just before Christmas at IESE business school.  Verne is author of The Rockerfeller Habits and founder of Entrepreneurs’ Organisation.  We talked about habits.  Verne says “routine sets you free”.  Deciding on what works and ensuring that it is a daily habit is something that makes the successful leaders stand out.  Michael Dell has a routine, regular habits, for reviewing his business performance.  Steve Jobs has a routine.  Bill Gates has a routine.  Warren Buffett has a routine.  Do you have a routine?  What differentiates the great work days in your life from the others?  How can you ensure that every day has the habits of the best days?

Verne coaches hundreds of businesses.  One important habit that he pushes in a big way is to ensure that all employees spend time in a daily huddle.  This daily huddle is used by hundreds of businesses.  It is a short 10-15 minute meeting where each person only says 2 things – what they are working on that day and (optionally) an obstacle that is in their way.  This 10-15 minute meeting allows a connection of the people within the company, and ensures that employees are proactive in planning their days.

Summary

We are creatures of habit.  We will repeat what we have done yesterday.  We are creatures of precedent. Share the habits you’re building into your life!

12/17/10 Update – Himanshu sent a CR workbook to BNA detailing the revised estimates for all CSOW items
Conor NeillConor Neill is the professor of Leadership Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. Years ago, he was a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He loves rugby, mountain climbing and will run a marathon next march. Conor frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as cuchullainn
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