Changing habits: a personal experiment

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching how to change habits at work. (I captured some of those ideas here, here, and here.) But before I can change the habits of an entire company, I need to do some experiments and some fieldwork.  So I decided to start with a small set of volunteers: me.

Since I’ve already changed my work habits, I focused on 4 changes I’ve been wanting to make for years:

  • eating less meat
  • drinking less alcohol
  • yelling less at my 2-year old son, Hudson
  • exercising more regularly

Here’s what happened and how it applies to work.

2 common themes in the research 

Six different books on changing behavior - “Switch”, “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way”, “Power of Habit”, “The Progress Principle”, “This year I will...”, “Nudge” - all emphasize breaking down a desired change into small, achievable goals and making progress towards those goals very visible.

These simple ideas sound obvious, but I’ve overlooked them. Big, abstract goals - whether it’s “eating less meat” or “reducing service costs” - invoke fear in our change-averse brains.

It takes too much energy and attention to translate such goals into action, and so we simply go back to our more comfortable, unthinking habits.

The notebook

Inspired in particular by “Kaizen”, I took my 4 goals and turned them into more specific, achievable objectives:

“I won’t eat meat for 4 days a week.” 

“I won’t drink alcohol for 5 days a week.” 

“I won’t yell at little Hudson 4 days a week.” 

“I will exercise 3 days a week.” 

And I bought a notebook.

Each day, I write down what I eat and drink and, at the end of the day, I give myself a point for doing something towards each one of my goals. I also track progress towards my weekly goal.

If I meet my goals for a month, I’ll reward myself with a particular piece of jewelry I’ve admired to commemorate the change.

The results

What I’ve found is that specific, achievable goals combined with a simple tracking and rewards system made a big difference for me.

For example, I’ve wanted to eat less meat ever since reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” years ago, but “becoming a vegetarian” was daunting. Yet I knew I could avoid meat for one day and starting there relieved my apprehension. I also found myself wanting that point each day.

This little process - it’s almost a game - simply makes me more aware of my choices. My food choices, for example, went from unthinking (“I’ll have a burger.”) to conscious (“Hmmm. I’m behind on my goal this week, so I’ll be sure to ask for vegetarian options.”)

For the 3 goals that required on-the-spot decisions - what to eat, drink, or say - the greater awareness made a big difference and I was able to easily meet or exceed my goals by the second week. As time went by, I started to visit new places, started to get used to different options, and started to develop new habits.

Exercise, though, required something more. Since it involved a specific amount of time, it required planning in addition to a decision. And without that, I fell short of my goal for several weeks and learned I'll need to make adjustments to my system.

Experimenting at work

It’s nice that I feel healthier and happier. And little Hudson is certainly pleased with my experiment. But what about work?

The connection is that changing work habits - how we fill our days with meetings, how we run those meetings, how we spend our time processing email - will also require the same elements I've used: simple steps towards a goal that matters, greater awareness, visible progress, and rewards.

The next step is to plan small experiments at work that include all these elements with the hope is that we can create a concerted, comprehensive approach to changing habits at work. If we can do that, we can finally get rid of the practices we all know are wasteful and that sap time, energy, and fulfillment from our jobs.