The Trick to Making Changes That Stick

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Over the last year I’ve written on various aspects of effective leadership, including leading with warmth, tackling difficult conversations, following your inner compass and practicing gratitude.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we move from setting an intention—whether it’s to get fit or to tackle difficult conversations—to sustaining that change over the long haul. It’s hard for me to make a lasting change, and I’m guessing it’s hard for others. So I wanted to share some of what experts say about how to effectively set goals and give yourself the best chance of maintaining them. Here is some what what I’ve learned:

1. Identify a goal, make it specific, don’t make it too big, and write it down. “Studies have documented that individuals with clear, written goals are significantly more likely to succeed than those without clearly defined goals,” according to several experts, and research cited in this paper. So, instead of “I’ll lead with more warmth,” as a goal, you might decide, “I will take a moment to say hello, ask a warm question, or offer a note of appreciation in at least half of my email correspondence.”

2. Learn how to develop a habit. Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit offers a scientific explanation for how our habits are formed, and a model for how to create new habits. Duhigg writes, “All habits—no matter how large or small—have three components, according to neurological studies. There’s a cue—a trigger for a particular behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward, which is how your brain decides whether to remember a habit for the future.” He talks more in a video about how to use this information to form or break a habit on his website.

3. Be patient while making a change. According to several studies, it tends to take around two months of practicing a new behavior before that behavior becomes habitual. This suggests that we should put in our greatest effort at changing our behavior in the early weeks. So if we can work hard to maintain our New Year’s resolutions until the beginning of March, they will have the greatest chance at becoming changes that stick.

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