Why we don’t do what we should

Traps - sUnpicking the habits that are holding us back…

With the exception of high days and holidays, I’ve been sending out these missives about around twice a month, for six years now. By my count, this is my 130th Profit on Purpose article, which totals something like 100,000 words of advice.

I don’t doubt that much of that advice won’t have been relevant to you at the time I sent it. But just by the law of averages, some of it will have been. The question is, when it was, did you follow through with it? And if not, what was the reason you gave yourself?

Marshall Goldsmith, one of my favourite coaches, did an in-depth study of his own outcomes a few years ago, and came back with a 70% hit rate. That feels about right to me – across all of my training and coaching work, I’d estimate around 80% of the people I work with execute around 80% of the actions they commit to, which would give me around 65% hit rate overall.

I have no problem with those numbers. I can’t remember anyone who wasn’t pleased, if not delighted with their 80%, and some outcomes have been genuinely transformational. But what about the other 35% of commitments?

Why is it, that even when we know what we need to do, and why we need to do it, we still don’t?

Having asked that question many times, I’ve found the responses fall into four categories: goals, plans, commitment, and courage. These are the four “traps” we need to avoid if we want to succeed. And we can tell which one of them we’re stuck in from the reasons we give ourselves.

The first is the “procrastination” trap. We have too much on, we don’t have the time, resources or headspace to commit to any new goal right now – too much pressure, too many plates to spin. We tell ourselves that at some point, in a few months’ time once things have settled down, we will have time to get to it. Of course, experience shows this isn’t true, it’s just a convenient myth we tell ourselves, but it stops us setting goals and committing to any plans to achieve them.

The second is the “over-optimism” trap. Change is harder and takes longer than we think, particularly when we’re in that positive frame of mind we’re invariably in when planning our own future. We forget there will be times when we’re tired, that unpredictable crises will happen, and that the habits we’ve developed will be hard to replace – and even harder to simply break. We expect too much and, as our plans start to slip, so does our resolve.

The third trap is “distraction”. This is typically where we get so overwhelmed by the challenge, or unsettled by the uncertainty, that we lose our commitment to the original goal. We let ourselves get distracted by other priorities, by comparison with other people chasing different goals, by the need for more information, or research, or planning, not because they’re needed, but because they’re easier and make us feel productive. As Edward de Bono once observed, the best way to stop someone getting from A to B, is to show them an easy route to C.

But there are times when we’ve done all of these. We’ve set a clear goal, created a pragmatic plan, and we’ve maintained our commitment – we still desperately want to do it. Yet still we hesitate. We fall at the final hurdle. We get caught in the “fear” trap.

We know we’re in this trap when we start second-guessing ourselves; when we feel a continual need to validate why we’re doing what we’re doing; when we’re stuck perfecting the first step before we can move to the second; when we start worrying about failure, about how it would look, and about how we would feel. Thus, the final ingredient is confidence: the belief in our ability to survive failure.

All four of these traps are normal. They happen to all of us. I know the signs of all four, and they all still happen to me. But 80% of the time I get through them with four simple steps.

I prioritise the time, however busy I might feel, to get really clear on the goal and deconstruct it into its component parts.

I make space to reflect and become more aware of the habits that I’ll need to replace, the changes I’ll need to make, and the beliefs that will hold me back.

I set out the first, small steps and use other people to hold me to account: friends, colleagues, my coach. As long I speak with them regularly, it doesn’t really matter who it is.

And finally, while I’ll pull apart the failures along the way, I’ll spend at least as much intellectual, and far more of my emotional energy, on examining the successes.

Self-talk is important. The way you describe your progress to yourself and to others has a huge influence on self-esteem and subconscious self-belief. But real talk, with other real people, is equally important, for encouragement, objectivity, and to provide the push that all of us need sometimes.

This is how we get from procrastination, over-optimism, distraction, and fear, to clear goals, pragmatic plans, accountable steps, and reinforced success. It is also why we have learning groups, it’s why we all need support networks, and it’s why virtually every one of the best performing leaders I know, have coaches.

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