Why Habits Trump Goals and Resolutions

Why did Steve Jobs always wear a black turtleneck?

the many black turtlenecks of Steve Jobs

And why does Mark Zuckerberg almost always wear a gray T-shirt?

Mark Zuckerberg

There’s a good reason: it’s not about fashion, and it has more to do with what you accomplish in 2015 than you might imagine…

As a new calendar year approaches, it’s natural to reflect on our lives and our performance as leaders, and think about what we might do differently in the coming year.

I’ve never been much for resolutions, which tend to become wishful thinking pretty quickly.

But I do believe in the power of setting goals…if it’s done right.

Why Goals Matter

Too often, we set goals that are merely arbitrary numbers, either plucked out of thin air or extrapolated from last year’s goals.

When we have no theory of action for a goal, it becomes a wish—inspiring, perhaps, but not of any practical use.

And even if there’s a good reason for picking a specific goal, setting the goal doesn’t magically give you the power to achieve it.

But a while back, I stumbled onto their real power: goals help us focus on the right order of magnitude.

If I want to get more exercise, I might plan to go on more hikes. But that’s pretty vague. If I set a specific weight or fitness goal, I’m much more likely to realize that going on a hike once a month isn’t going to cut it. I need to be working out several times a week, not once a month.

Goals help us identify the areas in which we need to set plans in motion, and they help us scale those plans to match the magnitude of the goal.

If I want to truly move my school forward, doing two classroom walkthroughs a month isn’t going to make much of a difference. But four a day will.

Set a goal, and you’ll still have a mountain to climb, but you’ll know how tall it is, how much you’ll have to train, and how long it’ll take.

Goals can make a difference. But what about everyone’s favorite New Year topic, resolutions?

Why Resolutions Don’t (Quite) Work

Resolutions aren’t a bad thing, but they fall a bit short. They’re helpful, but incomplete.

Sometimes we don’t change until we get fed up enough with the status quo that we can’t stand not changing. The moment we resolve to change, our perspective starts to shift.

But resolve is a pretty raw emotion. It can get you started, but it’s not going to do the work for you.

YOU have to do the work. Every day.

And to be consistent, you need habits.

Why Habits Trump Resolutions & Goals

Resolutions get you fired up enough to get started. Goals help you aim high enough. And habits help you do the work.

The Power of Habit

Last year, I read a fantastic book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit, and another great book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister.

Both books helped me understand why the things I was good at were so easy, while they might be hard for others, and why I struggled with things that seemed easy for others.

It’s all about habit.

When you’re acting out of habit, you’re not using your willpower. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to decide. You don’t even have to have much energy, because habits let you work virtually on autopilot—not like a zombie, but like an airline pilot.

Think about an airline pilot, in a 747 on autopilot. The pilot doesn’t take a nap when autopilot is engaged; he or she is free to focus on other relevant matters, instead of manually adjusting the flight controls moment-by-moment.

We use habits for 40% or more of our daily activity—brushing your teeth usually isn’t too hard to remember to do consistently, even before coffee—but too rarely do we purposefully build habits around our key work.

The more you can get consistent about the majority of your work so it happens on autopilot, the more you can devote your attention to what most needs it—the exceptions to the rule, the tough situations, and the high-level decisions.

Steve Jobs wore black turtlenecks, and Zuck wears gray T-shirts, as part of a purposeful strategy of cognitive budgeting. They’re autopilot habits. If you’re running a multi-billion-dollar company, you don’t have time to distract yourself with wardrobe choices.

Every decision matters, and the more decisions you can encode into systems, the better.

I think of these systems for high performance this way:

  • Strategy is what allows us to do the right work and be effective
  • Tools allow us to put aspects of our work on autopilot and become more efficient
  • Habits are what enable us to be consistent—to execute with excellence, every day

Together, these three factors form what I call the High Performance Triangle:

It’s the basis for just about every strategy I teach for going from “I show up every day and do a great job” to “I’m performing at my best and maximizing my impact on student learning.”

It’s a subtle distinction but a big difference.

How To Form A Habit

Since my last PDF guide was so popular—more than 300 people have already downloaded my “Leadership, Simplified” PDF—I’m working on a new guide on how to form habits for high performance.

If you’ve already downloaded Leadership, Simplified, you’re on my list to get the habit guide. Stay tuned.

If not, click here, and I’ll send you Leadership, Simplified now, and the habit guide as soon as it’s ready.

→ Send me the habit guide as soon as it’s available ←

The Stress Equation

The Stress Equation

It’s no secret that school leadership can be stressful.

Kudos for having high standards and a great work ethic—that’s what your students need from you. But working hard and pushing yourself to do as much as humanly possible on behalf of kids can really start to weigh on you.

When you’re up answering emails at 11pm, even though you have to get up so early that you’ll be lucky to get six hours of sleep…

When you’re looking at that big, blank space on your calendar on Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon and thinking “Boy, I could really get some work done…”

When you’re emotionally exhausted from your own life and from the work you’ve been doing all day, and one more person comes in to see you, needing your care and concern…

…it can be stressful.

What is stress, and where does it come from?

Two Kinds of Stress

Psychologists distinguish between eustress—the positive pressure to get up in the morning and do something with your day—and distress—the more harmful, cortisol-stimulating stress that doesn’t do anyone any favors.

I think of eustress as simply motivation. When there’s a job to do, eustress gets you going and keeps you focused.

But when there’s far too much to do, and we start to get overwhelmed, we experience distress—or simply stress.

Which situation is the norm for most school leaders? Overwhelm. Too much to do, and not enough time. Too many challenges, and not enough research.

But stress isn’t a function of your school, or your role, or anything outside of yourself. Your stress level is something that you can control.

The Stress Equation

I believe it’s very simple: stress comes from the gap between the expectations we place on ourselves, and our ability to meet those expectations.

As an equation, it looks like this:

Stress = Expectations – Capacity

That’s it. Not “stress is proportional to the number of emails in your inbox” or “stress is proportional to the number of meetings on your calendar.”

Stress is about you: what you expect of yourself, and how well you’re currently able to meet those demands.

Why Zero Stress Isn’t Always Good

When the equation yields an answer around zero because your expectations and capacity are roughly equal, you’re experiencing eustress. You’ve got stuff to do, but you can handle it. Your self-efficacy is stoked, because you’re working hard and being successful.

But what if you have no stress because you have no expectations of yourself? We see this sometimes when people have given up—there’s work to do, but it no longer seems to matter. A drop in capacity can lead to a corresponding drop in expectations. Perhaps personal concerns are causing more than enough stress, so doing a great job ceases to matter. Not good.

If your expectations are far below what you’re capable of, your equation will yield a large negative value. That’s no good either—we need to be stimulated and challenged by our work, and our students deserve us to hold ourselves to high standards.

As humans, we need to do work that matters, and as high-performance instructional leaders, we need to work hard on behalf of students in order to create the opportunities they deserve in school and in life.

But that’s not the problem you face, is it?

The more common challenge in our profession is an excess of stress, because we have enormously high expectations of ourselves. Sometimes we need to balance the equation a bit.

Managing Expectations

How can we manage our stress by tweaking the minuend? (In case 2nd grade math was a while ago, that’s “expectations” in our stress equation.)

As a leader, you have multiple stakeholders, all of whom have expectations of you, whether stated or implicit. Those expectations don’t cause stress unless you internalize them.

And we need to be careful about internalizing all of everyone else’s expectations for us, because there’s no natural limit. No matter how hard you try to be a superprincipal, you’ll eventually burn yourself out if other people get to decide how heavy a burden you bear.

Hear me on this: work flows to the competent. If you’re great at what you do, people will give you more to do. They’ll ask more of you. They’ll expect better, because that’s what their experience with you has conditioned them to do.

At some point, you have to draw the line. You have to close the gate on expectations.

Castle Gate

The Castle Gate

I’m a bit of a castle geek. I love castles, love seeing them in movies, love reading about them, and love thinking about how they functioned during different points in history. And I think they can illustrate something important about expectations.

Castles have two fundamental components: walls and gates. The walls keep everything out, except for what the gates let in.

In a new leadership role, we tend to start with the gates open and see what comes to us. We don’t want to lock out an important constituency, need, or issue, so we let everything in.

But eventually, we reach our limit, and we shout, “Close the gates!”

If your staff sees that you’ve closed the gates and aren’t allowing anything in, you’re no longer serving as an effective leader. If you’re snapping at people about how busy you are, and flaking out when you should be following through, you’ve probably “closed the gates” in a desperate attempt to manage your stress.

But gates that stay closed all the time aren’t doing their job. A castle with gates that don’t open is a castle under siege.

The trick is to train the “guards” to let the right traffic in, and keep everything else out. How can we do that in our work as instructional leaders?

Your Leadership Agenda

If you ran a castle, you’d give your guards a set of instructions about whom to let in and whom to keep out of the castle.

As a school leader, this traffic isn’t people, but information and issues.

You can’t pay attention to everything, or you’re paying attention to nothing. You can’t focus on every issue, or you become completely unfocused.

Your best tool for determining what gets through the “gates” is your leadership agenda.

You probably have an agenda in your head, but I’d encourage you to start putting it into writing, ideally in a secure place like Evernote.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the main issues I need to be concerned with right now? In the next 90 days? In the next year? In three years? Consider doing a SWOT analysis by listing your school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (or challenges).
  • What hunches am I currently keeping in my head, unarticulated and untested? Commit them to writing, and seek more information to confirm or refute them.
  • Which staff members am I concerned about? (If you don’t have any concerns about health or substance abuse among particular staff members, for example, chances are you aren’t paying enough attention.) Encrypt this part of your leadership agenda, as it needs to be highly confidential.
  • What’s on my plate that I need to delegate? What’s keeping me from handing it off?
  • What actions can I take that will create the most leverage? How can I most directly and strategically bring about my priorities? (This should connect to your daily and weekly tasks)
  • What do I need to stop doing? What obligations will I not allow through the “gate” when they approach?

Your leadership agenda is your filter—your “gate” for determining what’s allowed to occupy your time and attention.

Be rigorous and clear about your leadership agenda, and you’ll be well on your way to effectively “gatekeeping” your workload and thus your stress.

What Is Capacity?

Once you’ve dealt with the expectations side, it’s time to look into your capacity as an instructional leader. What can you do to increase your capacity?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about different aspects of capacity:

  • Distributed leadership—who else is sharing the load with me?
  • Time management—am I scheduling my day to get the most important work done consistently?
  • Cognitive budget—am I avoiding unnecessary decision-making and fending off decision fatigue to preserve my willpower? (More on this below)
  • Tools and workflow—am I using effective strategies and technology to make my work manageable?

I have plenty of material on each of these topics, but I want to explain “cognitive budget” briefly…

What is “cognitive budget?” Essentially, it’s the idea that you can’t just make an infinite number of decisions every day, and you can’t perform an infinite number of cognitively demanding tasks without wearing yourself out.

(If you’ve ever tried to make a hiring decision after all-day teacher interviews, you know the feeling…)

There’s been some really interesting research in this field in recent years, which I’ve compiled into a guide with a set of reflective questions.

You can have this guide for free, but I want to gauge how much interest there is, so I know whether to keep creating guides like this.

To download my free guide “Leadership, Simplified: The School Leader’s Guide to Fending Off Decision Fatigue,” click here.

Click the image above to download.

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