Habits became a big deal in 1989 when Stephen Covey published his still-widely-selling-27-years-later book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Proving my point about the continued relevance of this work, in the news just yesterday there were articles titled “7 Habits of Highly Engaged Organizations,” and “7 Habits of Highly Effective Developers.”
In fact, before 1989 the word “habits” was more likely to mean daily practices performed by a people and focused upon by anthropologists interested in understanding a people’s systems of understanding and belief. What becomes immediately apparent when investigating the impact of Covey’s work in the present is the following: not only did Covey get us thinking about habits for business success and self-development, but it seems, too, that he got us thinking in sevens.
In keeping with that tradition, I present you with four cases in which habit-formation can be particularly useful to us, followed by three cases in which habits are better off broken. Which totals seven. See?
Habits: When to make ’em:
1. When we are missing deadlines or stressing out about the possibility of missing deadlines.
2. When we sense those old, Saturday-mornings-in-college waves of laziness and of wouldn’t-it-be-great-to-do-nothing-all-day beginning to influence our daily decision-making and drive. I mean, Saturday mornings are Saturday mornings, but … when these become our norm, we become other than highly effective.
3. When they bring us joy. My uncle told me he read a book in which the author advised holding up each of our possessions and asking ourselves, “Does this bring me joy?” Which made me laugh, to be honest, but then I went home and recycled all those articles of clothing at the back of my closet, failing to bring me joy. And just doing so brought me joy. I now make demanding joy of my possessions and purchases a habit. Really.
Does watching the sun rise bring you joy? Then you should be up and waiting with your coffee. Habitually. Do cotton sheets and a serious case of bed-head at 11am bring you joy? Of course, we must consider the opportunity costs of all that we do. But we must think of costs in terms of joy as well as fiscal earnings. Following this, we can adapt, and we can adopt habits, accordingly.
4. When they are about becoming a person who is humbler, more respectful, and willing to forgive others their weaknesses.
& when to break ’em:
1. When they are interfering with who and what and where we want to be in this life, physically as well as spiritually and metaphorically.
2. Relatedly, when they are interfering with our confidence in ourselves and senses of self esteem. A decade ago a cousin told me she had seen an article on relationships that suggested writing into your calendar at the end of each day a smiley face or a sad face, according to how you felt about the state of your relationship on that day. The author then instructed readers to count up smiles and frowns at the end of the month and to invest in or abandon the relationship in fitting with those findings.
I remember thinking if one had to do this to determine the state of one’s relationship, one should probably just jump ship already. But here I am wondering if such a strategy would not be effective in determining the long-term potential of our professional relationships.
What if we think in smiley or sad faces for each of the days we labor, with the goal of evolving or advancing or adapting our positions accordingly? We want to love what we do, of course. But unlike our romantic relationships, our work relationships are meant to be complex, at times unlikable, and even challenging.
3. When better habits, the kinds that make us happy, effective, and humane, are available to us. Because, duh.