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).

The no caffeine and biking resolutions lasted all of 60 seconds (photo: iStock)
February 26th, 2016 10:00 am| by David Parkins

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.

Q & A

Taking credit
Q: I have a colleague who undermines my work and has even taken full credit for past projects we’ve collaborated on. I’ve spoken to her, but she denies it. I’m hesitant to discuss it with the company owner, but what do you think? ~ Ben
A: Talk calmly with the owner, provide concrete examples, and mention how it’s affecting you. You might be surprised – the owner may actually know more than you think and your conversation may be what is needed to make a change.

Habits are hard
Q: I want to go to the gym every day after work. I know the benefits, always start strong, but it never seems to stick? Suggestions? ~ Oliver
A: I’m not a life coach, but I have some ideas. Similar to computer background processes, habits help us handle complex processes automatically, so we can do other things. They can be changed but are designed not to, and it’s not a matter of willpower. All habits have three components: routine, reward, trigger. Clearly define and consistently do all three, and you’ll get what you want.

Recovering from stress
Q: I’ve been on extended stress leave and just started working again. Everyone is supportive and the work is light, but I’m feeling insecure. ~ Hans
A: Imagine breaking a leg. And then months later, the cast is off and you’ve just started jogging again. It takes time to rebuild … and mental health is similar as you’re rebuilding your work muscles. Take things slow and steady. Follow a work recovery plan with SMART goals. If they’re too easy, increase them. If they’re too hard, decrease them. Remember: aim small, miss small.

Failed performance review
Q: Recently I’ve had several personal crises and it’s impacting on my work (two negative performance reviews). I’m worried about my job and I feel this pressure is causing me to make more mistakes not less. ~ Eduardo
A: Worry is a fear of what might happen before anything bad actually does. Simply not dwelling on negative outcomes will reduce 90 percent of your worries. Strategically focus on the improvement points from the review, and plan, prepare, and practise them. Also, consider asking for temporary leave so that you can come back strong.


Have you run out of ideas? Struggling for inspiration? Need some motivation? Please send your career or company questions to contact@ep3.dk or