For anyone who has ever sat through one of my workshops, she knows that I harp on a core concept – developing the habit of personal leadership. It is a concept made famous by Stephen Covey, and this is how I explain it to my clients in the context of what they’re trying to accomplish. If you want to be effective and attain your goals (whatever they are), you need to identify ingrained thoughts and actions that get in your way and replace them with ones that work for you.
Easier said than done. Because what you’re really being asked to do is break well-established patterns and habits built up over a lifetime, and concentrate on building new ones that may be radically different. Which is where kids come in.
A week or so ago The New York Times published a very interesting article about programs designed to help children develop a skill that has its own buzz phrase: executive function. In other words, if pre-school children develop the skill of self-regulation (i.e. self control), they are able to train their minds to “avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task” at hand.
You can see where I’m going with this. Half of effective personal leadership is figuring out which of your well-worn mental habits (read: mental traps) time and again lead you in the wrong direction. What’s interesting is that this article makes a good case for a correlation between executive function at an early age and success in later life.
But don’t despair. Studies have shown that “practice helps; when children or adults (emphasis added) repeatedly perform basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation, they get better at it.” This is in a laboratory setting, which is difficult to translate to a classroom. The advantage you have is that you’re an adult, you understand why you want to eliminate your mental traps, and you’re motivated to do it.
So when you identify an inefficient mental pattern that you want to scuttle and replace it with an effective one, think of it as an exercise that builds new mental muscle. Overcoming procrastination, one of the most common time-wasting culprits, is the cognitive equivalent of replacing your daily stroll around the block with a muscle-building one-minute mile.
At the end of each of my workshops, participants write an action plan with three new habits they’re going to implement right away. Breaking an old habit and establishing a new one can take up to thirty days of consistent practice before it sticks. Thirty days can seem like an eternity when it comes to establishing a new habit, but no one seriously imagines it takes less than thirty days in the gym to get buff. Now, when anyone asks why it’s so hard and taking so long for you to get into a new groove, you have an impressive comeback. Just tell them you’re busy bulking up your executive function.