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Five Minutes to Permanent Change

Yesterday afternoon I attended the inaugural symposium sponsored by the Atlanta Chapter of CEO Netweavers.  The first speaker, Tom Berger, former telecom exec and current president of RDK Consulting, told a story that I couldn’t stop thinking about. 

Change is really hard. Changing our ingrained habits is really, really hard. Habits—or what the author of Incognito calls “zombie subroutines”—are essential. Who wants to have to think about every turn driving from the office to home every day? Or have to monitor every movement of brushing our teeth? Much of what we do is slightly below conscious awareness (like my fingers on the keyboard), saving our big brains for more important and interesting things. 

But what happens when we have to CHANGE a habit? Our last move was to a house about a mile away from our old one, meaning that the drive from the office started off exactly the same. I can’t count the times I wound up at the wrong place. 

Actually, that habit was extinguished fairly quickly because the reward that kept it going, getting home, was no longer there.  Habits that are accompanied by a big reward—the bowl of ice cream at night, the 20 minutes on Facebook instead of at the gym, or the cigarette after a big meal—are even harder to change.

Charles Duhigg, author of one of my favorite books, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business, has a great summary on his site on how to change a habit, and it speaks to the power of intention and attention and the need to change rewards when tackling tough habits.  He also talks a lot about the power of small wins.

Tom Berger had a tough habit to break. He was a three-pack-a-day smoker, and, as he says, he “enjoyed every one.” He told us yesterday, “I quit smoking on February23, 1978 at 5:35PM EST, while driving southbound on Interstate 71 in Ohio near the Washington Court House exit.  I did not quit for one year, or one month, or one week, or even one day.  I quit for five minutes at a time.  When I felt the urge for a cigarette, I started the stopwatch function on my wristwatch watching the seconds tick away.”

Tom used the power of small wins—what he calls “tiny goals” —to stop smoking. He thought he could always wait five minutes, and he felt rewarded every time he heard the stopwatch ring. Why did he decide to quit? Because his then five-year-old son saw a Fat Albert cartoon explaining the dangers of smoking and asked him when he was going to quit.  He answered, “soon,” and his son frowned and said, “that’s not a very good answer.” I imagine that his son’s words were a powerful source of motivation. 

Tom now advises start-ups and growing companies, and he preaches the gospel of “tiny goals” to them too. Don’t focus on 300% growth in a year—focus on two more sales calls a week.

Maybe I’ll spend five minutes on the treadmill.

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