Breaking habits

 Habits stabilize our behavior.  They allow us to act efficiently and concentrate on the tasks we choose to focus on.  If you had to ponder which shoe to put on first when you got out of bed, then how to brush your teeth, hold your comb, dress yourself and so on, you probably wouldn’t have time to do much of anything else.

But habits also often box us in.  Face to face with an obstacle, your mind may fill with the strategies you always try — and only those.  Used to merely exchanging pleasantries with your gasoline station attendant, you may never discover he grew up in Bora Bora, a marvelous new destination for your adventure travel business.  Stuck in the notion that food is for eating, you miss the chance to notice that the chef’s arrangement of food on your plate points the way toward a better design of your company brochure.

    Fresh winds begin to blow when you start to separate the habits that are merely well-entrenched from those that serve you.  When I was in the military, I wondered why the protocol for firing an artillery round required two soldiers to stand behind and to the left of the gun.  To me, the soldiers served no discernable purpose.  Tracing the function back with the help of military historian, I learned that these two soldiers once had a function — holding the horses.  To make sure you’re not wasting energy on horses when there are no horses to hold, try the following:

  1. VARY YOUR DAILY ROUTINE.
    Making even the smallest changes builds flexibility that allows you roll with the punches more easily.  It makes new ideas less frightening, helps you be more open to other people’s suggestions and enhances teamwork.  Change your habits.  Try the following:  Take a different route to work.  Sit in a different chair when meeting with visitors.  Use a fountain pen to sign letters.  Have curry or falafel for lunch instead of soup and a sandwich.  Take a bath instead of a shower.  Watch a different television news broadcaster.  Make new friends.  Shop for groceries in a different supermarket.  Read a different newspaper.  Listen to a different radio station.  Exchange cars with your spouse or some other family member for a week.  Instead of driving to work, take a bus.
  2. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED WAYS OF THINKING.
    Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” declared the White Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, and she was certainly original, wasn’t she?  Try listing solutions to a current sales problem that are impractical, illegal or impossible, and then find a workable variation of the absurd idea.  A consultant friend of mine tried this out on the question of how to book more workshops.  He came up with the dubious suggestion “bribe sponsors.”  He worked this into the practical idea of hiring an agent to market the workshops for a commission.  A service station owner wanted to double his business.  He thought of the impractical idea of persuading his customers to park their cars at his station.  He worked this concept into the idea of offering to store his customer’s regular tires for free when they have their snow tires installed.  Customers are virtually guaranteed to come back and have regular tires replaced.
  3. PAY ATTENTION
    How often do you drive past your intended turnoff because your mind is on automatic pilot?  When habits rule, we tune out potentially stimulating aspects of our environment.  Pursuing what Buddhists call “mindfulness” helps us cultivate creativity as well as inner peace.  In Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s native tradition, people stop what they are doing whenever they hear temple bells and just enjoy their breathing: “Every time we get back in touch with ourselves, the conditions become favorable for us to encounter life in the present moment.”  People in the West can use the telephone’s ring or a car’s seat-belt buzzer as reminders to wake up to their surroundings, he says.
  4. PARTICIPATE IN AN ACTIVITY THAT IS UNCHARACTERISTIC FOR YOU.
    Creative people frequently say that inspiration hits when they are doing something else.  To the extent that your “else” is limited, so are the odds of a stunning insight.  Repeated encounters with an alien realm of experience open you up to provocative new viewpoints.  A sales manager recently told me that she recently joined a sculpture class.  After she finished shaping her first mound of clay on a swivel tray, her instructor advised her to turn the sculpture around and look at it from several different viewpoints.  The idea of looking at something from all sides was a revelation to her.  Now whenever she works on a sales problem, she looks at it in as many different ways as possible.

Deliberately program changes into your daily life.  Make a list of things you do by habit.  Most of the items will probably be those little things that make life comfortable, but also make it unnecessary for you to think.  Next, take the listed habits, one by one, and consciously try to change them for a day, a week, a month, or whatever.

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