The Freedom of a Disciplined Life

We often think of disciplined people and teams as freaky phenomena of nature. They are a bizarre combination of will power, seriousness, and inflexibility. We admire them but don’t want to live the way they do. Like New Zealand’s All Black rugby team, we watch, stand up in awe but stand back unchanged.

Discipline, sometimes called self-discipline, is intentional behavior focused on motivating oneself intrinsically to get—and stay—on track. It is conscious behavior, repeated over time, resulting in a desired and sustained outcome. It requires willpower to activate. Discipline is always related to the achievement of goals and connected to a value beyond the goal. I call that value a Result.

A discipline is simply a habit that requires a little push to get started . Habits only require a cue, sometimes even very subtle cues, to start. But disciplines require a conscious decision to trigger them. Then, once initiated, they follow the same pattern and routines as habits. Disciplines yield rewards. Disciplines set us free. The disciplined person is free; the Disciplined Team is a force to be reckoned with.

Disciplines require a jump start to get them going. They function like activation energy in a chemical process. They are simply a small burst of energy (willpower) that gets us moving. Then, once moving, the momentum of habits take over. Such energy is required to move molecules into a state in which they can undergo a chemical change and our lives into a state in which we are stronger and more free.

Examples of activation energy are all around us. This morning it took activation energy to get out of bed. It took activation energy to start your car’s engine or to get it moving from a stop. It takes this form of energy to start the compressor on your refrigerator or to start a fan. In most arenas it takes more energy to start moving than to keep moving. This is a great way to think of a discipline.

Disciplines are needed after goalsetting occurs and before habits engage. Set a goal, decide how to accomplish the goal, plan the first step of the goal, initiate the discipline, move, engage the habit. Do this over and over and we achieve the goal.

Let’s use a health example. Set a fitness goal to be able to have more energy and more lean muscle mass, for example. Imagine that you decide to include running daily as part of the way to achieve the goal. Decide to run daily in the morning before work. Set out your running shoes and shorts each night before you go to bed and tell someone else you will be running. When you awake to your alarm, it takes a few moments of discipline to get up, put your shoes on, stretch, warm up and begin the run. After three or four strides, your habits kick in. This is the difference between habits and disciplines.

The run doesn’t require uninterrupted explosions of willpower and discipline throughout to complete. It only requires small bursts of willpower and discipline, especially in the beginning, to achieve the benefit. The rest of the time our habit structure takes over.

In times when a little push doesn’t work to get us started, we’ve learned that one (or all) of these three tools will act like extra rocket boosters to break free from the cold grip of psychological and physical gravity.

One: Use the buddy system. We learned it in first grade. Link up with someone. Get them to do the discipline with you. Then when you are sitting in the malaise of the moment just knowing that your friend or co-worker is waiting for you is exactly the thing you need to get the party started.

Two: Plan ahead. Decide when, where and how you are going to practice the discipline a few days in advance. Then, put it on your calendar. And, tell someone else you are going to do it.

We are sophisticated herd animals and we thrive on connections with others. We thrive on certainty and a degree of predictability. Combining the buddy system and planning ahead feed both of those appetites.

Three: Plan for the celebration. Make a commitment to do something (that doesn’t undermine the discipline) upon completion of the discipline. Something small. Something pure and enjoyable. It doesn’t need to be proportionate to the time and energy exerted in the discipline. A brief, joyful pause is sufficient. Finish the run and stand in the early morning light listening to a favorite song. Finish the discipline and pause to enjoy a dark cup of coffee or play with the dog or call your grandson. It won’t take long before the ritual of the discipline + habit + pause will fuse themselves together as one.

You already have disciplines. So does your team, your organization. Some of them are written down and enforced and others are silently expected. Disciplines in a person’s life, or in an organization’s teams, reveal true values and mission. More than habitats, they show what’s really important. Disciplines point to what really matters like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

What arenas in your life could benefit from a disciplined approach? Is it your health, relationships, finances, organizational skills? Is it your perspective or attitude? Is it procrastination? Whatever the theme, pick one simple discipline you would like to institute, envolve another person, plan ahead and set up a simple reward at the end.

Do this three times. Your neuropathways in your brain will set you up to crave the discipline. And, after practicing for a short while, you will be free.

How to Break a Habit

Habits are not so much broken as replaced. The way to break a habit is to create another one in its place. And the new habit must be more rewarding and simpler to enact than the one it replaces. Simple, huh?

“What is better than ice cream?” Dan asked this one night after a beautiful meal, drinks on the town and lots of laughter. His question carried a heavy implication: nothing is better than ice cream!

Dan is a fan of ice cream. A huge fan, if you get my drift. He has tried to quit his ice cream habit by replacing the delicious evening treat with celery and carrots. And with a walk. And with a treadmill. He doesn’t like any of those things. But, one summer weekend his four-year-old granddaughter came to visit. She wanted to go outside and play. Dan didn’t have ice cream that night. Or the next when she wanted him to read eleven stories. Later he said that he didn’t even think of ice cream. He liked spending time with his granddaughter more than eating ice cream.

Joan loves to gossip. She thinks of it as keeping people in the loop on her team. She is such a good storyteller that listeners rarely realize she is merely gossiping. Whenever she gets a little bored or irritated, she springs into the “have you heard…?” habit. It makes her feel good. It makes her feel closer to her team, and it distracts her from the boredom at work.

She recently attended one of our leadership development courses and learned that gossip is destructive. We call it triangulation. It is the single most destructive behavior in the workplace. She saw herself in our illustrations and vowed to break the habit. Her versions of carrots, celery and treadmills didn’t work either. Nothing she tried was as pleasing as the habit of gossip. Until she realized that boredom was the trigger for the habit. She approached her Director and said she was bored and needed more challenging work.

Only too happy to oblige, the Director assigned Joan a very complex project that had failed twice under other project managers. She took a deep breath, said yes, and dove into the work. A month passed before she realized that her new habit of engaging and challenging work was more pleasing than the old habit of gossip. She craves the work and doesn’t even think about gossip anymore.

Break any habit by replacing it with something you like more. It will take some thought, honest self-assessment, and experimentation but you will be astonished at how practical this approach is.

I have an intense workout habit. Six mornings a week you can find me sweating like a nervous horse, breathing heavy and focused. I like the feeling after I workout much better than the feeling when I don’t. This habit would be tough to replace. It is very rewarding.

I write every day. It’s a discipline. After the first few paragraphs, the start-up energy required to activate the writing diminishes. Staying on task, focusing, trying to make sense of my mental whirlwind is a discipline. Fingers flying over the keyboard is a habit. The discipline and habit of writing work better for me than a habit of thinking and staring out the window. I like what the writing habit does for me. I like how it sharpens my thought processes, organizes my emotions and how it results in a vague sense of productivity, even knowing that most of the sentences will never see the light of day, having wilted under the heat of the editor’s cutting torch.

7 Ways to Keep a Habit Going

Even long-held and beloved habits can be replaced by newer ones. Think of the number of times you’ve said, “I should get back into that.” Or, “I used to do that all the time,” with a wistful, distant gaze, fond memories wash over you.

All habits require a little maintenance. Simpler and older the habits require less prompting while newer and more sophisticated ones need periodic support to keep them alive. Here’s what we have learned about keeping a habit going:

1.) Rearrange your self-image to match the habit. I am a runner rather than I went running. I am a steward of my time rather than I use a calendar and to-do list.

2.) Involve other people. Directly get others to practice the same habit. Indirectly ask others to check in with you about the habit.

3.) Schedule the practice of the habit days in advance. I put my daily workout schedule on my calendar every Sunday evening for the coming week to ten days. Plan what you are going to eat for dinner at a restaurant the morning before. Even go so far as to write it down.

4.) Create a small reward right after the habit. Wait for the cup of Ethiopian coffee until after you’ve exercised. Wait to watch the long-anticipated new episode of South Park until after you’ve folded laundry. Save the sushi lunch until after you’ve completed the review at work.

5.) Don’t miss two straight days of the habit. It only takes that long to establish a new habit, especially if the new habit is simpler and more pleasing than the old one.

6.) Bundle habits together. Put the wavering habit together with one that has never wavered.

7.) Create a stronger trigger. The trigger is a cue that sets your brain up to step into the routine. Once we step into the routine, we rarely stop.

How to Keep a Habit Going in a Team

Even donuts won’t save you.

Habits are maintained if they work. They work if they achieve, sometimes incrementally, their purpose and if they feel good. Simply put, habits that do not create neurochemical and interpersonal reward, are never sustained. They have to feel good—the “ahhhhhh” that washes over us when we do them—and they must create nods, smiles, and looks of appreciation from the team.

Back to the Transtheoretical Model of behavior change. DiClemente and Prochaska provide some insight that I think is particularly helpful for team leaders. They suggest ten initiatives that accelerate and sustain change in groups.

  1. Consciousness Raising – Increasing awareness about the behavior by systematically calling attention to it in group settings.
  2. Dramatic Relief – Creating interest, humor, anticipation and a game-like atmosphere resulting in both positive and negative emotional arousal about the behavior.
  3. Self-Reevaluation – Self reappraisal to realize the behavior is part of who the team wants to be.
  4. Social Impact – Social reappraisal to understand how their lack of habit affects others. Talk openly and regularly about the impact of the behavior on team members.
  5. Social Liberation – Create opportunities to show that the team is supportive of the new habit. Create moments of small celebration when the behavior is attempted even with mixed results.
  6. Experimentation – Commitment to try the new behavior based on the belief that achievement of the behavior is possible.
  7. Cheerleading and Coaching – Identify supportive one-on-one relationships in the team that encourage the desired change.
  8. Counter-Conditioning – Substitute the new behavior for old ones. Arrange the workday so that the new behavior occurs at the same time as the old undesirable behavior.
  9. Reinforcement Management – Reward the new behavior and reduce or eliminate the rewards that come from the old behavior.
  10. Stimulus Control – Re-engineering the environment to have reminders and cues that support and encourage the healthy behavior and remove those that encourage the unhealthy behavior.

At the risk of being redundant, groups dramatically impact this process. As Hal discovered, if the group wants a behavior to occur, even donuts won’t save you.

The Five (or Six) Stages of Habit Formation in Groups

Let’s get fancy. One school of thought, called the transtheoretical model of behavior change (TTM), suggests that adults change behavior in response to group expectations by moving through five, or sometimes six stages.

Change is first Pre-contemplated: This stage raises my awareness of a change in behavior in others but not in myself. I see others can—or should—change their behavior and recognize that they are successful at it, but that doesn’t mean it applies to me. In this stage, I become vaguely aware that this new behavior exists “out there somewhere.” People run regularly to stay in shape. They seem to like it. Good for them.

Contemplation begins when I think that sometime down the road, usually within six months, I may attempt that new behavior. I begin to pay closer attention to the change I’ve seen in others. I could see myself getting a treadmill or running a mile or two. I ran cross country in high school, so maybe I could pick it up again.

Preparation, also called Determination, begins when I decide now is the time to make the change and start to take small steps. I am determined to start the change in behavior within the next month or so. At this stage, I begin to imagine the behavior and may even make financial and time investments to support it. I am determined to start running, so I purchase a pair of running shoes, for example. And I look on Craigslist for a used treadmill.

Then I take Action. At this stage, my new behavior begins. I am a novice, but I do it anyway. I fully intend to adapt the behavior to fit my tastes and begin to see myself differently. I put running on my calendar and run a half mile a day for a few weeks. Then a mile. Then two miles. I am a runner, not just a shoe owner.

Maintenance of the habit then becomes my focus. The newness of the behavior has worn off, and I concentrate on keeping sustaining it. I may keep score on a calendar of successful days in a row. Relapse is less of a concern at this stage than in the Preparation and Action stages. Now my attention turns to continual improvement.

A sixth stage may be achieved by those whose self-image has itself shifted to incorporate the new behavior. Since “I am a runner” and “I am a healthy, energetic person in charge of my own vitality” are part of who I am, the thought of not running simply never crosses my mind. I call this a change in Image.

When we add the power of a group to the mix everything is accelerated. Precontemplation may only take hours or days rather than months or years. Contemplation speeds up as conversations with team members prompt me to take little steps and make small investments. Group affiliation and affection may be withheld if I do not. If I say I am going to get a pair of shoes or a treadmill, the group will ask me if I did and challenge me if I delay. If everyone else is a runner (or shows up on time, or rides motorcycles, or hunts, or has a YouTube channel), I will be given shortcuts and held accountable to follow them.

Preparation is almost forced on me by the group. My willpower, tiny as it is, is multiplied by the willpower and enthusiasm of the group. Why wait? Do it now. The preparation stage may only last a couple of days. Or, as with Happy Hal (see previous Blog post), overnight.

Action is less risky when supported by a group. If I fail, I’m not alone. If I don’t know how to act, someone else does, if I get discouraged, my team will laugh it off and demand that I continue. This stage is fraught with opportunities to relapse. But the team will have none of it. At this stage, I am doing it for the team as well as for myself.

The group expects the behavior to continue. Investments of time and energy and money revolve around the behaviors. Affection flows because of the habits. Opportunities are created because of the habit. Maintenance of the habit becomes an expectation for membership in the team.

My habits are now ingrained in my self-image, and in the image of the team. It is unthinkable that I would not both have, and improve on the habit.

Groups accelerate and deepen habits. Choose your groups wisely. They are the single most powerful influence on your habits. And your habits define who you are.

How to Guarantee Your Habits are Formed

From a neurological perspective habits need three things to form: They need a trigger, a propellant and a rewarding moment.

Triggers are almost always a combination of time and place. It’s Friday. Gold Rush is on at 9:00. I sit in my favorite spot. Trigger. Six hundred calories of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream added to my bloodstream. I didn’t think about that delightful concoction all day (or all week). Not even once. Even when I saw someone else eating it at the airport, I didn’t crave it. Even after meeting a boy named Ben and his dog named Jerry… nothing. But as soon as I sat down, clicked the remote for saved programs and saw the Gold Rush logo, my neurology said, “Time for ice cream!” In fact, it screamed for ice cream.

All habit triggers operate like that. If you usually make coffee when you get up in the morning, it is because of time and place. Change time or place or both, and you will not think of making coffee.

If you habitually gossip about people at work during your lunch break with Sandra and Stevo, eat in a different location with different people, and you won’t gossip.

If your habit is to stretch in your garage after putting your shoes on before setting out on a run, wear different shoes and leave through the front door and you will likely not stretch in the same way, if at all.

In some ways habit development in groups is easier to accomplish than when an individual builds a habit alone. The powerful gifts of affiliation and inclusion offered by the group to individuals who comply with expected behavior add another layer of drive to the formation of habits. If an individual fails to continue with early habit formation, he is the only one who notices. But if he does so in a group, everyone sees and reacts.
Habits are formed so subtly and quickly in groups as to be nearly undetectable to the individual. Before they know it, they are eating, drinking, dressing, speaking and even thinking like the group. World views, assumptions and plans—and the habits that support them—are subtly shifted to attain affiliation.

This is true in a work setting as well. A highly creative design team at a software development company in California began to experience a drop in productivity and engagement. I recommended that the most influential member of the team start showing up for work earlier and stay a few minutes later than everyone else in the group. He was happy to participate in the experiment. Within eight working days every member of the team mirrored his behavior — everyone except Hal.

Hal is a happy guy who loves a good time. He is the life of the party even when there is none. He is also disorganized, chaotic and perpetually late. When the rest of the team established the new habit of arriving early for work Hal did not. On day ten of the new habit the rest of the team used the weekly staff huddle to tell Hal it was time he changed his ways. On day eleven, when Hal showed up late carrying donuts, the team unceremoniously dumped them into the garbage. “Donuts only work if you show up on time,” said one person. Then, the next morning, the group was ready to assign a difficult task to Hal if he showed up late.

He was 15 minutes early sporting donuts and a sheepish grin. His time management habits have mirrored the group’s habits since.

If you want to form, or re-form, a habit, join a group that already has it. Done. If your groups don’t support your desired change in habits, you’ll never be able to make the change while remaining in the group. This is one of the most powerful discoveries in drug addiction, for example, of the past 50 years. Pick your friends and coworkers carefully. They will be the single most powerful influence in habit formation.

Next week, I will share the Five (or Six) Stages of Habit Formation in Groups. Stay Tuned.

It’s All About Habits

Bad Hair Day Beanie

How does your hair look today?  Are you having a good hair day?  How about your teeth?  Any spinach embedded between them after lunch? Did you just run your tongue over your teeth or glance in a mirror at your hair?

Shoes tied?  Are you sure?  Do your socks match?  Where are your keys?  Where did you park?  Where is your driver’s license?  Do you remember the details of your drive home last night?[1]

Combed hair, brushed teeth, matching socks are all the result of habits.  The brain has nearly limitless capacity to build, remember and use habits in the background of life.  Habits are etched micro-pathways complete with intersections and triggers and memory nodes woven into complex sub-conscious, energy saving maps.  Hundreds of thousands of these maps serve as constant guides. 

Programming the complexity of flossing and brushing your teeth into a computer would take up would take up most of the RAM in your largest, most powerful PC.  And most of the permanent storage.  And that’s just one habit.Our brains crave habits.  They are negro-chemically satisfying and efficient.  Even when we do not consciously focus on developing habits, our brains create them.  Do something once, and our mind remembers it.  Do it twice, and it lays the second experience over the first and begins to weave them together.  Do it three times, and our dopamine-craving cranium anticipates the entire process before we act it out, practices it without concentration, and stores the movements in the basal ganglia.[2]

Habits are easy to develop.  Contrary to popular opinion, they are so easy to develop that, if they work, our brain anticipates them after just a few laps.Imagine habits of all sorts as sequences through which our body and mind move in the background.  Like your washing machine, they have steps through which they cycle.  Step one of a habit is responding to some form of a trigger.  Most commonly, triggers are location dependent.  The trigger sets the habit in motion, and a small part of our mental energy (very, very small part) anticipates the first step of the habit, often called a cue.A routine follows the cue. 

Some habits have many steps in the routine, some few steps.  We have found that the more steps in the routine, the greater the neurological pay-off for the habit. Once the routine is completed, the mind moves to the reward stage wherein a sense of completion causes a small release of neurochemicals that create a sense of peace, and a mental “ahhhhhh.”These steps are the basic architecture of every habit.  Interrupt one of them, and the habit is incomplete.  Interrupt a habit early in the stages, and the brain will create a brief sense of unease.  Interrupt the habit towards the end of the steps, and the brain will scream creating a larger sense of unease for a few minutes.

All habits function like this.  Simple habits differ from complex ones in two main ways.  Simple habits have very few routine steps; complex ones have dozens.  And simple habits neuro-chemically reward the brain with small amounts of dopamine while complex habits reward with massive amounts.  When we introduce external chemicals into the habit process, the reward and trigger stages are magnified.  Sometimes a lot. 

Nicotine is a common accelerant to the habit process.  Surprisingly nicotine is one of the most addictive of the most well-known and commonly researched drugs.  It creates a dependence loop more quickly than most substances.  While relatively easier to withdraw from than heroin or alcohol, it accelerates the neurological craving for the next step in the habit structure more quickly, in initial stages, than other substances.

Since our brain craves habits as a way of efficiently functioning in complex environments, it creates them with relative ease.  Most of our habits are neutral or even beneficial in the long term.I tie my shoes, always the right one first, while thinking of what motorcycle I will ride today.  I effortlessly switch between fork and knife at dinner and sip hot coffee while listening to an engaging conversation.  I pilot a 4,000-pound machine at high speeds in dense traffic at night while listening to an Audible book.  My fingers glide over the keyboard, turning thoughts into words, words into keystrokes, and crafting complete sentences while listening to music.  All habits. 

I wake up at 4:30, workout, make and eat breakfast, shower, and dress for work all with very little concentration.  Habits.Anything can become a habit. Anything that “works” (that chemically rewards the brain) will become a habit.  This is the primary work of the brain.  The more complex the environment, the more our mind craves habits as a way of simplifying the confusing intricacy of our world.

Furthermore, our neurology does not differentiate between good or bad habits, especially from a moral or ethical perspective.  If we become anxious and resort to shopping for trinkets[3] to ameliorate our frustrations, that habit will eventually cost us more than expected.  If we come home on Friday after a long week, settle into our favorite home theater seat, click the remote to watch Gold Rush and consume an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy ice cream without a thought—our habit-loving brain does not consider the long-term consequences.  Habits are for now.

If we are frustrated with a coworker and talk to someone else at work and experience that behavior as a satisfying way of venting our frustration, our brain will quickly make that a habit regardless of the toxic nature of our behavior. As with a tool in your garage, my habits can be good or bad depending on their purpose and focus.  And if they are rewarding—if they create a rush of dopamine and adrenaline and a release of serotonin–our brain craves their repetition. 

This is a liberating (or enslaving) reality.  We create our habits, whether good or bad and stick with them. Fast forward a few weeks or months (or years) and evaluate the long-term impact of any habit to determine if it is good, bad or neutral.  It’s a myth that good habits are harder to form than bad ones.  They all form easily if they create the neuro-chemical pay-off in the brain. 

We are feeling creatures that think not thinking creatures that feel.[4]

So, as you go through the day today, notice two or three habits.  Ask if the habit is adaptive (makes things better) or maladaptive (makes things worse).  If you find one what is maladaptive, take a few days to study it thoroughly.  Don’t change anything; just take a look at what triggers the habit.  Where are you when you first think of stepping into the routine?  Study every part of the habit  And, read on.  I

n the next week, I will share more about habit formation and re-formation and offer some tips as to how to engineer your habits to make the most of your brain’s super-power.  



[1] Ok, I’m assuming you were not driving home under the influence of an alcohol-enhanced adult beverage or some other recreational pharmaceutical.  If so, imagine my left eyebrow raised and my right index finger disapprovingly wagging slowly from side to side.

[2] A spicy part of the brain, the basal ganglia is a group of neurological structures found deep within your basal brain linked together and associated with the thalamus.  It is where we store the memory, and anticipation, of movement.  Habits are movements, both mental and physical, that are powered in part by this structure of our brain.

[3] My definition of ‘trinkets’ may be problematic:  Some people shop for shoes.  My most recent Google search included a 2001 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 for sale in San Diego, CA and a Triumph Tiger 800XC.  Hmmmm…

[4] You may want to read that again.  Our limbic system is thousands of times faster than our conscious, focused thought system.