Watch Your Thoughts…

Watch your thoughts, they become your words

Watch your words, they become your actions

Watch your actions, they become your habits

Watch your habits, they become your character

Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

We’re all familiar with those five lines, now beloved of Pinterest boards and posters everywhere.


But do they have any relevance for our businesses – or more particularly, for you and me, the people running those businesses?

I think they do.

Let me give you a simple example, courtesy of a Board member who’s put a very solid X in the ‘no publicity’ box.

I put my dinner jacket on, he said. First time for six months. Cripes, it was tight. ‘Right,’ I thought. ‘This is it.’ And for once in my life I said it out loud. And the next day I was walking round the industrial estate: not sitting at my desk with a sandwich. Three weeks later I can’t conceive of not walking round the estate at lunchtime.

There you go: thoughts – words – actions – habits. Hopefully leading to character, destiny and no need to buy a new dinner suit.

But what really struck me about that conversation – apart from the obvious need to take my own sandwich next time we have a 1:1 – was the time frame.

Because making a real difference – forming a new habit – in three weeks exactly chimes with my own experience. At times when I’ve really needed to make a serious change in my life, or if I’ve really had to turn something around, three weeks has been the crucial period. If I can do it every day for three weeks I can do it – period.

Is it the same for other people? It’s October next week and very shortly we’ll all be writing ‘plans for 2016’ at the top of a blank piece of paper. Some of the inevitable goals and targets will demand new habits: can you really create them in just three weeks?

I went off to do a little research…

Apparently everything we do (and think) is governed by impulses ‘firing across synapses’ – pathways in the brain if you like. When a behaviour or pattern is repeated often enough, the pathways get used to being accessed: it becomes easier for impulses to travel along them, and the behaviour becomes ‘natural.’

So does this happen in three weeks? Or could it take five days or six months? Sadly, there appears to be no clinical evidence for 21 days. The evidence is empirical – it’s based on experience, not on controlled experiments.   ‘21 days’ seems to have originated with Psycho Cybernetics, a self-help book written by Maxwell Maltz in 1960 – much like the accepted dietary wisdom of ‘Five a Day’ started as an advertising slogan.

But I can truly say, ‘it works for me.’ Anytime I’ve wanted to establish a new pattern of behaviour, from sales calls in my very early days to vastly improving my time management with Toggl, 21 days has been enough to turn an action into a habit.

So with that blank piece of paper looming and most of us needing to create at least one new habit, what’s the way to do it? Back to the reading and the research for some pointers:

  • Only try and create one new habit at a time. ‘I’m going to stop eating junk food, start exercising and cut down on the alcohol.’ No: just cut out the junk food – the improvement you feel from that will give you the impetus to exercise and to realise that Monday night does not automatically equal a glass of red wine
  • Track your progress. Yep, even habits can be specific, measurable, attainable and so on. And now you can track your progress on your phone, excuses are getting hard to find
  • Lastly, repeat the behaviour as often as you can. The more you do that the more those overgrown pathways in your brain become accessible: the more the behaviour becomes instinctive – eventually becoming not so much a habit, as part of your character.

With that I’ll leave you to the weekend: there seems to be an impulse firing across my ‘bottle of red wine’ pathway…


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