HABITS are a funny thing. We reach for them mindlessly, setting our brains on autopilot and relaxing into the unconscious comfort of familiar routine. Not choice, buthabit rules theunreflecting herd,William Wordsworth said in the 19th century. In the ever–changing 21st century, even the word habit carries a negative connotation.
That’s why it seems a bit illogical to talk about habits in the same context as creativity and innovation. But brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.
Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try and the more we step outside our comfort zone, we canbecome inherently creative, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.
But don’t bother trying to get rid of old habits; once ingrained into thepsyche, they’re there to stay. Instead, creating new habits and ingraining those into our psyche can help us create pathways that can bypass the old ones.
All of us work through problems in different ways. We may not even be aware of some of those ways. Researchers in the late 1960’s discovered that humans are born with the capacity to approach challenges in four primary ways: analytically, procedurally, relationally (or collaboratively) and innovatively. My primary way is to approach problem–solving collaboratively, yet, over the last few years, it’s become clear to me that I also use the other three approaches interchangeably as the environment calls for.
If you’re asking how I discovered allthis, it was during the early part of retiring from my first career that I became interested in the Charter School concept and co-founded the State’s first such school here in NWA. It was then known as the Benton County School of the Arts. Now all these years later, as it’s grown from a k–8 to include a high school, it’s known as the Arkansas Arts Academy. I’vealways been fascinated by alternative forms of education and really dug into learning as much as I could, especially about how we think cognitively.
One thing that’s always driven me crazy about public education is the continuing emphasis on standardized testing, which highlights analysis andprocedure. As you’ll note, only two of the scientifically identified approaches to problem-solving are being used by our kids. It was the case for me, for my kids and still the case today. This flies in the face of a major fundamental of the American belief system, which isanyone can doanything. It encourages mediocrity, not excellence, which is knowing what you’re good at and then doing it.
This is where developing new habits comes in. If you’re an analytical or procedural thinker, you learn in different ways than someone who isinherently innovative or collaborative. Figure out what has worked for you when you’ve learned in the past, and you can draw your own map for developing additional skills and behaviors for the future.
Simultaneously, look at how your friends, peers, or direct reports approach challenges. We tend to believe that those who think the way we do are smarter than those who don’t. That’s a common misperception and a fatal one, particularly for leaders who surround themselves with people who think like they do. If seniority and promotion are based on similarity to those at the top, chancesare there will be a significant lack of intellectual diversity.
This is another reason I really like the Merit Profile™, the best assessment tool I’ve ever used and trust me, I’ve taken or tried them all. This is the first and only one I’ve used that not only identifies an individual’s leadership style by measuring character and behavior, it identifies the habits onedefaults to in times ofeither comfort, stress or crisis. Only by identifying what thoseold habits are, can webegin to create new ones.
For example, try lacing yourhands together. You’ll notice that you do so in only one way every time. Now try doing it with the other thumb on top. Feels awkward and even confusing, doesn’t it? At that moment is when the brain begins organizing the new input, ultimatelycreating a new synaptic path if the process is repeated enough.
You’ve heard the old saying that a new habit takes about 21 days to incorporate. The reason it’s an old saying is that in today’s challenging environment, it takes about 66 days.
Truth be told, only by identifying old habits, can we begin to create new ones.