The science of behaviour change

"I love your newsletters Anneli. They are short and to the point and contain great insights for how to deal with my team of senior managers. One question: How do I transform these insights into new behaviours?"

Great question dear reader (you know who you are! J). The short answer is coaching… call me biased but that’s a big part of my work and there is a good reason that people hire coaches. People often know what they need to do but just don’t do it! A coach can work with the client to fatten awareness of what’s preventing them from achieving their result and build in support structures and accountability mechanisms to support real behaviour change. And most importantly coaching is tailored to your individual needs, and is not a one-size-fits-all approach to change.

But if coaching is not an option for you (yet J), then the answer lies in the latest research in neuroscience.

How to rewire your brain for a new habit

Let’s say you read the article   where I introduced the Meaning-Motivation cycle. You decide you want to stop judging your colleague Simon so harshly (which is driving your frustrated and snappy behaviour toward him) and instead you want to give him the benefit of the doubt and approach his behaviour with curiosity instead. How do you do it?

Here’s the formula to rewire your current habit:

  1. Decide – Be clear on why you want the change. Build commitment and clarity on the impact of the change. If it’s not really important to you it won’t happen. 

    A better relationship with Simon will result in greater engagement. If you continue your current behaviour you will drive him away and lose a great talent.

  2. Pause – Habitual responses happen on autopilot. The way to short circuit a habit is to create a space between the stimulus and the response. 

    When you feel yourself getting frustrated at Simon, take a moment and breathe. This gives your brain time to refocus on what’s important and stops the old habit from driving your old response.

  3. Refocus – Shift your attention to your new behaviour. 

    Become curious about Simon’s situation. What else could be going on for him to cause that behaviour? What would be different if you offered compassion and support rather than judgement and frustration? Just this change in attitude will pave the way for a change in your behavioural response.

  4. Repeat – Attention density is the term used by Dr Jeffrey Schwartz to explain the need for concentrated and repeated attention to the new behaviour. Once is not enough. For the new behaviour to become the new habit you must continue to consciously apply the cycle above until it becomes the new automatic response and replaces the old habit.

    Every time you interact with Simon, make a conscious effort to pause and reflect and refocus your attention to become curious. Do this every single time.

Practice makes permanent as far as the habit centre of the brain is concerned. Insight is not enough. Good intentions are not enough. Consistent and concentrated action is the key. Within time, it will become the new habit and you will no longer have to make a conscious effort.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
— Aristotle

Coaching tips:

  • What behaviours would you like to change at the moment?
  • How can you use the process above to achieve your goal?
  • What consistent and deliberate actions can you build into your daily schedule to keep your mind focused on your goal?
  • How can you make this action simple and enticing enough for you to actually do it?
  • What will be your evidence for success?
  • How will you celebrate your progress?

If you have any questions or comments on this article, please leave a comment on the blog and I’ll be sure to respond.