Making Changes Stick
In this blog, I will tackle how to sustain making changes you want to, so you can make rapid progression on your career goals.
My hypothesis, which I elaborate on in this writeup, is that we are all product managers. You are the product. Your organization is the customer and the organizational needs are the “jobs to be done”. Your job description can be based on what your manager overtly states as your job, and you can strengthen your role by discovering additional unmet customer needs (e.g. you might discover that the organization could do a better job at inclusion, and you start a task force to help with this).
A successful product is not built with one magical launch. Most products get to success iteratively. You pick a market and hypothesis (e.g. budget-conscious users will prefer user experience over more features) and then iterate over multiple product launches, using customer feedback to make the product better.
Similarly, we as career professionals are work in progress, iterating over feedback (e.g. performance reviews) and becoming better (work) versions of ourselves. Performance reviews are not the only source of feedback of course. Strive to understand how the organization perceives you, even if you disagree. Master the right way to receive and process feedback.
Vision without execution is hallucination. Figuring out what to do is usually the easier part. What we more commonly struggle with is how to keep those changes going on a sustained basis. Will power and determination are not enough, you only have so much of that and we all need more than willpower to bring about sustainable change.
Nailing the changes you need to make is critical for continued career progression. Here are a few things that worked for me.
Permanent Change = Planning + Making Changes + Sustaining Changes
Planning and Execution
James Clear’s excellent book, Atomic Habits, has a ton of pragmatic, useful ideas that you can put into practice right away. I loved it so much that I bought copies of the book for my entire team as my Christmas/Holiday gift in 2020.
Here are a few that I have used:
- Adjust your mindset. Shift to Identity vs tasks. For example, an area that I struggled to get better at was being more direct with colleagues in unpleasant situations. I initially thought of the task “direct communication”. That worked okay and not great. It typically required a lot of prep and mental energy and found it was not sustainable. I then adjusted my mindset and incorporated speaking directly as part of my identity. I am an individual that is both direct and empathetic. I mean what I say, I say what I mean, and don’t be mean when I say it. Aspiring to be this person every day made it a lot easier for me vs treating it as an activity.
- Schedule time on your calendar. People often overestimate what they can do in the short term, but underestimate what they can do in the long term. So work the human behavior over the long term to work in your favor. I had a co-worker that wanted to get better at networking and identified 12 behaviors they would embrace. For example, one of the activities was to have a monthly lunch with a coworker that they wanted to build a stronger relationship. Another was that for every meeting he went to, he would sit next to someone he did not know at all or know well. The brilliance of this co-worker was that he scheduled one habit every month. He spent time every week spending time only on that behavior. So he had one goal (a better networker) — 12 actions (e.g. monthly lunch, sitting next to unfamiliar people in meetings) and he scheduled one behavior for each month and solely focused on that one behavior for that entire month. He did not spread it out. So pick your 1 (habit) x 12 (activities) and stick with it for a period of time. Even if you are inconsistent in executing on the 12 activities, you would have made progress in one year over that one habit. Schedule your priorities and explicitly having time allotted on my calendar has been my personal secret to make sustainable changes.
- Start small and make incompletion work for you. I wanted to create a stronger writing habit. I got better by scheduling time — I write on Saturday mornings. But after a while, I started running into writing blocks. So to break around this, I did a couple of things: (a) I scheduled 30 minutes of think time on Thursday to identify a topic (b) I started leaving sentences or paragraphs incomplete when I wrapped up a writing session. When I would get back to my writing session, finishing that incomplete sentence gave me a warm start and it got easier to write and write more. For example, this blog is a combination of three different writing sessions with lots of incomplete sentences for me to finish during those sessions.
- Habit stacking. Starting a habit is hard to do. What is a lot easier to do is to add one more task to a habit you already have. For example, I wanted to write one highlight in my journal every day. I didn’t do it consistently when I treated it as a new habit. I make my bed every day. Keeping my writing journal on the pillow after I made my bed — one more task layered on to a habit I already have — made it sustainable. Then at night, I would write one highlight. The journal was right there. No special effort needed.
- Think iteratively. It is perfectly okay to start small. If you can do even one thing, you should become more successful in executing the desirable changes. E.g. when I wanted to start blogging, I started by finalizing a blog title and authoring a single line. I then promptly patted myself for it. The hardest part is usually getting started. The brain does not like incomplete tasks, so it gnaws at you until you complete them. By breaking my goal into steps, and taking that first step, I improved my chances of success.
- Find the reward. I set mini-milestones for success and celebrated it. For example, I wanted to get to 10 blogs and when I hit that goal, I made a big deal of it. I didn’t just celebrate the fact that I had written 10 blogs, instead, I gave myself permission to assume the identity of a blogger. I started telling everyone that I am a blogger and a coach. Achievement unlocked!
Let’s get to the harder part, sustaining those changes. Especially when you mess up.
Let’s say you had a goal (e.g. be a charismatic speaker) and you worked hard on a big presentation. And for some reason, the presentation did not land well. This was an important step for your career. Should you stop practicing to be a better speaker?
It is easy to say, keep going. Don’t give up, Yeah, we all know that. But how?
There are three things in play here — your thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is a critical moment. At this moment, we are mostly overtaken by emotions. We are feeling down and frustrated. Our thoughts may be drowned in self-doubt. Inspirational messages feel flat. What we do next will entirely determine who we are as a person and the progress we will make in our lives. A fork in the road. Are you going to get back on track or give up? The key to changing our mindset, and seizing the moment, lies in actions. The way we start feeling better again, start thinking positive thoughts again is through action. Have a go-to routine that you definitely enjoy doing. Take a walk. Listen to music. Clean up your desk or room. Phone a friend and check in on their day. Exercise. I know people that lift weights, and with every rep, shout out “I can do this” as a way to pump themselves up. Help a stranger with their groceries. Do something. Anything. You will automatically start both feeling better as well as get back to positive thoughts. I thought thinking positive thoughts was the way forward. I was wrong. It is action. Action leads to changes in your thoughts and feelings. Try it. It is cathartic.
Do more of what you just failed at. Confidence and belief come from results. We struggle at something because that muscle is still being developed. And the way we get better at something, develop a new muscle, is only by actually doing more of it.
At key decision making moments, the best action is to do the right thing. The next best action is to do the wrong thing. The worst action is to do nothing.
I hope you find this helpful. Do you have a tip on how to stay on track and sustain changes you want to make?