21st Century Alchemy: Swimming against the tide

21st Century Alchemy is a weekly Q&A column for career-minded professionals, entrepreneurs and small businesses written by David Parkins, a business (re)development specialist, company culture strategist, career coach, and IMCSA speaker (ep3.dk).

Several weeks have passed since the turn of the year, and some of you may already be struggling with your resolutions.

Breaking the bad
Unsurprisingly, you’re not alone. Everyone has tried to break the bad or start the good. And as experience has shown, success isn’t just a matter of commitment or willpower (try harder, do better). No, the real obstacle may not be a lack of determination – it might just be a lack of understanding.

The late writer David Foster Wallace once said: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He says to them: ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ The young fish swim on, but eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes: ‘What the hell is water?’”

Understanding habits
Wallace was reminding us that life is largely determined by the unseen: namely our habits.

Indeed, habits are a critical component of our lives. Similar to background computer processes, habits help us handle complex processes automatically so we can focus our attention on other things.

And even though they include everything from breathing and blinking to how we communicate and conduct business, every habit follows the same neurological loop: (1) a trigger, (2) a routine, and (3) a reward.

Transform yourself
Those who succeed in changing habits all follow this pattern more or less. They have a clearly-defined alternative response to the trigger: one that consistently nudges them in the right direction while preventing an unconscious return to the old. They also liberally use meaningful and immediate rewards when they succeed.

Additionally, almost all habits are malleable, regardless of their complexity or automaticity and irrespective of their size or scope (organisational or individual). The most dysfunctional workplace can be transformed, the most unreliable employee can become a star, the hopelessly late can arrive on time, and a high school dropout can become a successful executive.

So follow your SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time- bound) goals, be consistent, and celebrate even the smallest success. You do well what you do often. Remember: one step in the right direction is still in the right direction.

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