Habits: The Force Behind Success

By Blake DuBose, Mike DuBose
May 07, 2014

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an art, but a habit.” Good habits can promote greatness for both individuals and organizations; likewise, bad habits can stifle an otherwise promising person or business. The good news is that, although habits become ingrained in our minds, these patterns can be changed. Through conscious effort and determination, we all have the ability to break bad habits and adopt inspiring ones.

On a practical level, we rely on habits every day to steer us through tasks our minds don’t need to actively consider, such as driving to work. We can also cultivate wise habits to profoundly improve our productivity and effectiveness. Negative habits — such as smoking, unwise spending, uncaring attitudes, or chronic tardiness — can damage our bodies, relationships, and careers if we allow them to take hold.

In their book Habits Die Hard, Mac Anderson and John J. Murphy assert that the subconscious mind is “over one million times more powerful than the conscious mind.” Within the subconscious reside our instincts, which protect us from danger, and habits, those behaviors that we repeat to the point they become automatic. As explained by Psychology Today, “Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form. That's because behavioral patterns we repeat most often are literally etched in our neural pathways.” Fortunately, we can retrain our brains and replace old habits with better ones—as long as we believe it’s possible. According to Charles Duhigg’s bestseller The Power of Habit, “for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible.”

Individuals’ habits combine to shape who they are as people; in the business world, an organization’s habits unite to form its culture. Leaders’ work habits exert powerful influences over organizational cultures, and their personal habits set the pace for others. If leaders are arrogant, shortsighted, and unethical, the organization will absorb these traits; however, if they reinforce good habits like caring attitudes towards customers and staff, communicating openly, working as a team, and producing outstanding results, their organizations build healthy, efficient cultures. But how can you learn positive personal and organizational habits? Our experience and research suggest:

Conduct an assessment: Whether it’s your workplace or personal life, take an honest look at what’s working and what’s broken. Note the symptoms and then determine the root causes of conflicts, suffering, or problems you’re experiencing. For example, are there any actions or behaviors you perform repeatedly that tend to cause conflict? Although their answers may sometimes be tough to hear, ask colleagues, family members, and friends questions like: “How can I become a better person?” and “How can I improve my leadership skills?” Then, LISTEN!

Build a vision:
In Habits Die Hard, Anderson and Murphy write, “Experts worldwide agree that one of the most essential characteristics among successful people is the ability to visualize their future. This powerful practice elicits passion, and if the vision is shared it pulls people together and inspires teamwork.” After all, how can you know which direction to take if you don’t know where you want to go? After examining the present, outline some realistic personal or organizational goals for the future. Then, take calculated risks to move toward your vision. Expect failures along the way, but learn from your stumbles and grow.

Recognize fears and weaknesses: Our brains often reject new, positive changes and retreat back to old routines, which require less effort. That’s why many ambitious company initiatives fizzle out and, according to a 2013 Forbes article, 92% of New Year’s resolutions fail. Some people simply give up and say, “Well, that’s just me!” Others hesitate to try new strategies because they want to blame others, don’t want to “rock the boat,” or are afraid they will fail. However, failure isn’t something to dread. After all, it took Thomas Edison thousands of attempts before he invented a working light bulb!

Take an honest look at the fears and habits that are holding you back. Seeing them objectively is the first step in breaking their power over you. As theologian and author Jean Vanier said, “Growth begins when we start to accept our own weakness.” Then, follow The National Institutes of Health’s suggestions: (1) develop strategies to avoid unhealthy routines; (2) visualize situations or cues where you will be tempted by bad habits and how you will respond; and (3) replace negative routines or habits with positive ones.

Establish plans, but take it slow: Whether you desire to become a successful leader, break unhealthy workplace routines, or become a better human being, you can’t expect immediate success. Unrealistic expectations often lead to failure; rather, it must be a process of slowly moving forward. Psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Alex Vuckovic once shared helpful advice with us: “If you want to change behaviors or habits, take baby steps!”

Embrace change:
After temporarily going blind in 2006, Mike was inspired to reinvent himself as a person and leader, while also setting the goal of developing great organizations as outlined in Collins’ bestseller Good to Great. He began to make small changes to his life that allowed him to be a happier person and more compassionate business owner who focused more on his family than on making money.

Once you commit to improving, it becomes easier over time. It’s never too late! Although bad habits never entirely disappear from your brain’s wiring, each time you consciously choose a positive activity instead, the good habit gets stronger and bad habits gets weaker. Sometimes, because of our backgrounds or how we are genetically, physically, and mentally wired, professional counseling, medication, and/or medical treatments are necessary as well. Don’t refuse this extra help and suffer needlessly!

Celebrate large and small successes:
When we met Jack Welch, he stressed the importance of “winning.” Even small victories should be celebrated. When you follow through on good habits, rejoice! The positive feelings you experience will reinforce the habits in your subconscious. Similarly, if you see others demonstrating positive habits in the workplace, express your appreciation to them.

The bottom line: Anderson and Murphy open their book by saying, “We are all creatures of habit and if you make good habits, good habits will make you.” This applies to both individuals and organizations. Although it’s certainly difficult to break routines that you (or your business) have become used to over the years, we all have choices. Choose to follow good habits and eliminate negative behaviors, and you’ll live a happier, healthier, less stressful, and more successful life!

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, experience, success, research, and mistakes.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group. View our published articles at www.duboseweb.com.

Mike DuBose has been in business since 1981, authored The Art of Building a Great Business, and is a field instructor with USC’s graduate school. He is the owner of four debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and other useful articles.

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

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