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Why you (and your clients) need outside help to change

Automaticity means the ability to do things without thinking about it. It’s usually the result of learning, repetition and practice.  Much of what we do in life, including what we do at work, is automatic which is why our habits reflect a type of unconscious competence.  For the most part automaticity is a good thing but it becomes a significant barrier if we want to change our habits because they’re no longer serving us well.

Researchers have found that an important factor in changing habits to pursue a specific goal is what’s called “implementation intention.” They have found that the pursuit (and accomplishment, of a goal is more likely if the required behaviors or actions are precise and specific.

A group of students were asked to write a report on what they had done on Christmas Eve. Half the group were told to specifically state when they would do their writing and the other half weren’t. More than 75% of the students who indicated when they would write their report completed the task but only 30% of the other half did.

In another study, a group of chronic procrastinators who set a specific timeframe to complete a task were 8 times as likely as a control group to follow through.

And in a more complex study a group of people were asked to exercise for at least 20 minutes during the next week.  Only 20% of this group complied with the request.  A second group was given the same assignment but also given information about the positive impact exercise had on their health in an attempt to give them more motivation. 39% of this group exercised. A third group was asked to commit to exercise at a specific time, on a specific day at a specific location. A staggering 91% of this group complied!

Just think about this from your own personal experience.  If you specifically commit to someone that you will do something or be somewhere (e.g. go to the gym, every other day at 5am) most of us honor that commitment even if we are tempted to stay in bed because it’s wet and cold outside–do you get the drift? Commitment is a strong natural human connection characteristic and when combined with the concept of automaticity it is a key to enabling you to embrace habits that serve you better.

The implication of this is profoundly important for what we do at Principa and for what our Members do with their clients. We are in the business of facilitating change.  Change is not something humans naturally embrace, even though we’re actually quite good at it which explains why we sit at the top of the animal kingdom.

We have found that when our clients commit to do specific things (following our rule of three mandate) they accomplish amazing results and their patterns of behavior become habits relatively quickly. Precisely the same thing happens when they require their clients to submit to the same discipline.

Many times when we have to think about whether to do or to not do an activity we’re tempted not to for lots of “rational” reasons, most of which are distractions of various forms or fear-of-failure concerns.  The key to successfully changing behavior is to have a clear goal, be clear as to why that goal is important, know what you need to do to accomplish that goal, and if you lack a bit of self-discipline, commit to an outsider that you will do the things that get you to where you want to go.

I used the phrase “lack a bit of self-discipline” above.  In my view this is the biggest challenge small businesses have. It’s not that the owners are necessarily undisciplined but because they’re not accountable to anyone else such as a Board of Directors, shareholders etc. it is easy for them to “forgive” themselves for bad management behavior.  In a small professional service firm it’s even worse because the owners are often the major producers and while focusing on production i.e. working IN the business, they are ignoring the equally important activities that are needed to take their business to the next level which is the working ON part of the game of business

  1. Philip Arnfield
    June 6th, 2012 at 19:56 | #1

    Ric, your last paragraph touches on what, in my opinion, is the single biggest reason why small businesses underperform. Small business owners are not accountable. I believe accountability drives results and where there is no accountability results suffer.

    When I mention this at training programs I deliver the participants become a little defensive, upset even! However they settle down when I explain that it is not so much a criticism but an unfortunate and unavoidable result of the structure of most small businesses.

    A large business has shareholders who appoint directors and the directors set the strategic direction of the company. The directors appoint a CEO to implement the strategy. The CEO appoints marketing managers, operations managers, finance managers, sales managers etc to assist with the implementation of strategy.

    The managers are accountable to the CEO, the CEO is accountable to the directors, and the directors are accountable to the shareholders. In this environment the high level of accountability drives results.

    In a small business quite often, 1 or 2 people fill all of the above roles. There is no accountability as it requires very high levels of self discipline to be accountable to yourself.

    The way to overcome this problem may be to set specific goals. A better way is to use your (Principa’s) Sustainer System.

    If a business owners appoints a Sustainer and says such things as this…In order for me to be satisfied that I have successfully managed my business this year I expect to achieve the following results……

    By announcing what is a satisfactory performance level to another person in the business, or to a close friend or relative, the business owner is “putting out there” an expectation.

    When expectations are set down, accountability follows.

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