It’s time to describe the system I use which helps me make changes in my habits and my relationships with others, while allowing me to strive to achieve my strange goals and plans.
“this semester we’re not going to lectures”
Have you ever made any “new year’s resolutions”? I’ve made more than a few, but the one I remember best comes from one of my last semesters at university: a friend and I resolved “this semester we’re not going to lectures”. We were almost 100% successful in implementation of this plan (in contrast to earlier declarations such as “we’re going to attend lectures”).
I think that each of us has made several attempts at forming new habits or eliminating old ones. In spite of a lack of success, we try every time to do it the same way we did the last time in the faith that the effects will be different. NEWSFLASH: they won’t.
We think that we are aware and intelligent beings …
Changes in the behaviour of an adult individual come about with great difficulty. First and foremost we must understand what defines our behaviour. About two years ago I dove deeper into the subject of decision-making. At the time, I sought the best means of taking a decision that would be free of the baggage of emotional and psychological influences. This led me to a certain conclusion: a very small portion of our decisions and reactions is fully conscious. We think we are conscious and intelligent beings, but every time we let ourselves get cornered in the same traps (“I’ll just take a glance at Facebook, only for a second…”), we react instinctively, without reflection.
If this is indeed the case, how can we consciously impact our subconscious and automatized habits and behaviours? The answer to this question was found ages ago. The oldest mention I have been able to locate was in the “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the “Daily examination of conscience”. The same approach was applied by Americans during World War II, and then transferred to Japan as it rebuilt itself following the conclusion of that conflict. Presently it is referred to as Kaizen. As for more recent “implementations”, we must yet again refer to Marshall Goldsmith. While he is not well-known in Poland, generally he is the best coach of high-level managers. In his book “Triggers”(PL, ENG) he describes the approach to change that he applies to his clients, and to himself as well. If this method was successful when creating an order whose members were able to accomplish incredible things around the whole world, served as the foundation for the quality assurance system designed by Toyota and used today by the best managers of the largest corporations, then I think it should be good enough for me too.
Enough intro, time for something specific
Ok, enough intro, let’s get down to details. The method is very simple and does not require much time (otherwise it probably wouldn’t work). It boils down to a daily review of the aspects we wish to control or change.
Everything begins with a definition of the areas we wish to engage. This could be improvement of relations with a given acquaintance, or perhaps the desire to eliminate a certain behaviour (for example, reducing the number of hours spent in front of the TV), or developing a new behaviour (entering daily expenses into an application for managing your household budget).
When we have this ready, we need to create a list of questions that we will use to determine if, during a given day, we have behaved as the “I of my dreams” should behave, or whether we have not. Some of the questions can take on a very simple form:
- Did I write my expenses down?
- Did I pray?
- Did I watch TV before 9pm?
However, with other questions we need to be careful about the form, because it is in the structure of the question that the method’s strength is to be found. Details here are of key importance. If you wish to achieve far-reaching change in your behaviour, you won’t succeed in doing it from one day to the next. What you need to control is your engagement level, and not the final effect. Instead of asking “Did I have a goal for my work?” you should ask “Did I do everything in my power to have a goal for my work?” This form is important. It helps make you aware that responsibility is with you, and it depends solely on you whether you go through your day with a specific goal in mind, or whether you are waiting for someone to give you a task and a goal to achieve.
Creating a list of questions is a very important element, yet in my opinion an iterative approach can be taken to this task. I put off my attempt at starting to work with this method for over a month because I wasn’t able to find the time to prepare a proper list. One day I decided this was a poor approach, and in 5 minutes I had made my first list. After a week I figured out what questions were inapplicable to me, and which areas I wanted to add to the list. Now I’m regularly adding, changing and subtracting things. New questions appear, and the ones which are no longer relevant disappear.
My “trigger” that ensures I respond to the questions is my telephone.
Once we have our questions, then we have to choose the approach we will use to force ourselves to answer them regularly. The act of answering takes only two minutes, but without the right habit it is easy to forget about. What’s most important here is to find a method that works for you. Marshall Goldsmith went the full nine yards and hired someone just to call him every evening and ask him the questions from a list he prepared himself. I use a method more similar to the “daily examination of conscience” developed by St. Ignatius, and I do it myself. My “trigger” that ensures I answer the questions is my telephone. The relevant entry in my calendar tells me every day that it’s time to fill in my survey (a link to which is on the home screen of the phone, to make the process as quick as possible). The survey contains all of my questions. Of course, this isn’t an ideal solution. The more in a rush I am, the more important it seems to set the right hour for my “reminder”. If it goes off at a moment when I can’t get away from whatever I’m doing (such as bathing my child), the chances are 90% that I won’t complete the survey for that day.
At the end of the week just sum up the points and we will know where things are headed.
The last element is to review the results (here we can invoke the Kaizen elements of plan, execute, measure, act). Of course, the less time this takes then the more likely we’ll get it done. My method is simple. Every “negative” response gets 0 points, and every “positive” response gets its own number:
- Did I read a book today? No — 0; Yes — 1
- Did I eat any sweets today? Yes — 0; No — 1
- Did I waste time at work today? A lot — 0; Not at all — 5; the other values are available to me if I wasted “a bit” of time on a given day
At the end of the week it’s enough to just sum up the points for each day, and we can see if things are going better or worse.
Of course, the mere fact of monitoring behaviour is enough for it to begin changing (this is a well-known fact in psychology), but regular, weekly examination of the results gives us an even better idea if we are headed in the right direction or not. It helps us understand if we are setting our priorities properly. I have to admit here that I am not particularly scrupulous. One way of improving this is to put a table with the results on my blog which I’ve just recently began keeping. This means that in the middle of some other activity I’ll be checking the results without even intending to (which, incidentally, is a very good way of forming new habits).
In spite of myself I’m starting to change the way I spend time
What are the effects of the method I’ve been following for several months now? I was most eager to see some of my projects moved from the back burner to the front. Before, it looked like this: every once in a while, in the course of my daily obligations, I would forget about those projects, and then after two weeks I’d think “Oh dear, I had such a fantastic idea, why did I just let it go like that?”. Since I started answering the question “Have you spent time today on project X?” on a daily basis, the situation has changed dramatically. In spite of myself I am beginning to transform the way I spend time so that I can work on the things I think are important. This has also increased my engagement in my daily tasks. I’ve finally found an answer to the question “What am I doing in this company?”, and I’ve begun striving to reach a defined goal. Lastly, my dog has made out quite well on all of this. In accordance with the rule “your dog is a small part of your world, but you’re the dog’s entire world”, I decided that I needed to spend more time with him. Our walks are getting a bit longer and we’re having a bit more fun. It’s a nice way to live.
That’s it. No more, no less. The method is simple and effective, but it’s not always easy to follow through. If there’s some area you want to work on, but you don’t believe the Daily Question method will work, just give it a try. Take the challenge: compose a few questions and try to answer them every day for 2 weeks. If it turns out that the method works, you stand to gain a lot. If it doesn’t, then you’ve only wasted 5 minutes on writing the questions and 30 seconds a day on answering them. I don’t see any reason not to try, and it’d be great for you to share your results in the comments section.
There’s no better day to get the ball rolling than “today”.
At the end I’d like to add that I will try to put together a short guide on preparing an online survey in 10 minutes and then put it on the home screen of your telephone, in order to make it as simple and quick as possible to answer the questions. If you’re ready to check out the method, don’t wait for that article (your motivation might die out by then), just take pen and paper and write something today. There’s no better day to get the ball rolling than “today”.
Are you wondering how my questions looks like? You can see them here (sorry, but only in polish)