Never Too Old For New Habits


This is the third and final post on the theme of habits (at least for now.) To read the first two posts, click here and here.

one new shoe and one worn out shoe

All the pieces are in place. I have goals, some left over from 2012. I know what habits to change to reach them. I selected one keystone habit to change to instill positive momentum. All of this, and two weeks into 2013, I’m stuck.

Easy To Imagine. Hard to Do.
My experience in changing habits may be like yours. We know what we want to change. We know at a conscious level how to do it. But the deeply imprinted routes in our brain that direct our behavior about “what to do when” easily overwhelm our intentions. It’s one of many paradoxes about changing habits. It’s easy to imagine. It’s hard to do.

The good news is that while habits are powerful, they are not our destiny. We often hear habits described as “good” or “bad.” In fact, they are neither. Our brains can’t tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one. We are just wired to see a clue, automate a response, and get a reward. The outcomes may be good or bad, but that depends on the habits we develop, not the process.

The Key to Changing Old Habits is Creating New Ones
If we’re going to have habits (and we are), and we want good outcomes (and we do), then our challenge is to create new habits if the old ones don’t get us what we want.  Our habits never go away. Researchers who reprogram mice to run a maze by putting the reward in a different place find that when they remove the reward, the mice run the old pattern. Think you’re smarter than the mice? Change the reward of being able to fit into your clothes and see how quickly you’ll go back to your version of after school milk and cookies on the couch watching television.

Old habits will always be with us. But for new outcomes, we need new habits.
Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit, describes how we can make them. It’s sort of like this:


1. We experience some triggering event. It reminds us of a previous experience. The alarm is sent.
2. We retrieve our automated response. To change a habit, change the response.
3. We get a reward. To reinforce the response, reward it.

My Plan to Get Unstuck
So, if I am going to get my momentum back to reach leftover 2012 goals, I still need to change habits. I need to change them starting with the one key habit that will give me the greatest momentum: getting up one hour earlier.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll have the same trigger. Night will turn to day. (And, if that doesn’t happen, I have bigger problems.) But I will manage my clue differently. I will force myself to get out of bed to get the coffee I want.  (Note to dearest husband: No more whispering Are you ready for coffee yet? as I rest, eyes closed, curled around my pillow. Ignore my pleas. Forgive my reaction when you do.) Reward myself for getting up with a half hour of Italian lessons over cappuccino. (Now that’s worth getting out of bed for. Seriously.) The day after tomorrow, I’ll do the same. Soon, my new habit will be my old habit. That’s how it works.

The Work
Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility – to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012)

What about you? How will you leverage the power of habits? It’s not too late, and you’re not too old, to get to work.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and in Business.  New York: Random House.

The People Who Could


Slowly, the cars began to move. Slowly, they climbed the steep hill. As they climbed, the little blue engine began to sing: I Think I Can! I Think I Can! I Think I Can!…

Watty Piper –  The Little Engine That Could 

 In Chicago, the city where I live, 298 children have died as victims of violence over the past three years.  If nearly three hundred children had died in one horrific incident, it would justifiably draw our outrage with demands that something be done to ensure the horror never happens again. But because we’ve lost our children’s lives in single incidents as casualties of angry fists, retaliation shootings and stray bullets, our reaction comes in the slow drip of sadness and shaken heads. As the news moves on to sports scores and weekend weather forecasts, so does our attention. Those who miss the bright eyes of their babies never forget, but the rest of us move on.

Questions about how this tragic déjà vu continues evokes a complicated knot of responses that often include conditions of poverty, poor education, broken families, bad choices, the prevalence of drugs and gangs as communities of choice. It becomes convenient to think that it’s too much to change – too intricate, too entrenched, too overwhelming.

 Starting Up the Hill

Last week, five remarkable young Chicagoans proved to me once again just how remarkable we can be. Eric Parks, Davina Bridges, Brian Lane, Britney Evans and Da’Angela Shepard reminded me that gifted, strong, future leaders live in our urban centers. A loss of their talent would be a tremendous loss to us. Eric, Davina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela are the 2012 Youth Leadership and Scholarship Awardees from UCAN, a social service agency who lives its mission that children of trauma can be our future leaders.  These young ladies and gentlemen have recently graduated from high school (several near the top of their class), are active, positive leaders in their community, and are on their way to college next fall. Watch them tell their stories to understand why so many see leadership potential in Eric, DaVina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela.

So, what do these young urban leaders, and hundreds more striving UCAN clients, have to teach us about life, leadership and change. Plenty. These are the lessons they share at a young age gained from their remarkable stories:

1. Believe that you have greatness in you. You do. Regardless of the circumstances you did not ask for or those that you earned, you can still make positive use of your gifts. There is something in you that your loved ones, your community and the world needs. Let it shine.

2.  Think big and have goals.  It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you are, it matters where you’re headed. Set goals and watch your habits change. When your habits change, your decisions change.  When your decisions change, your life changes.

3.  Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Make your posse your cheering section. Hang out with others trying to make the same good choices that you are. Support each other, encourage each other, and love each other. There are people who believe in your greatness and long for your happiness. Find them. Nurture them. Listen to them.

4. One person can make a difference. The award winners from this year, as in past years, name the people who, in reaching out, sparked the flame of hope in their lives. We often think of societal solutions in terms of institutions, but I’ve never heard an award winner thank an institution. It’s not for lack of exposure. Instead, they thank people.  They name parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, clergy, UCAN caseworkers|counselors and mentors who initiated an outreach toward something that sparked their interest.

This is where you come in. If you want to make a difference, let your imagination be your guide. With minimal effort, you can find worthy organizations in your community, like UCAN, dedicated to building our future treasure. Get involved in any way that you can. Trust me, if you have something to offer – they will find a way to use it. You may never make a better investment of your time, dollars, talent or interests. If your experience is like mine, it’s an investment that pays back many times over. Often, it’s unclear to me who helps who more.

Getting to the Other Side

The long, hot summer is just starting in Chicago. Reports of more senseless loss will fill the space in the news between the headlines and the sports. These are no longer anonymous names to me. My mind will wander to the hundreds of UCAN clients who are working hard this summer to improve their lives and the dedicated UCAN employees who walk with them every day.  My heart will break that the treasure lost could not have been reached soon enough. My hopes will soar that leaders like Eric, Davina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela will change not only the trajectory of their lives, but of others they inspire.

And they did! Very soon they were over the hill and going down the other side. The little blue engine could pull the train herself. And, she went merrily on her way, singing: I Thought I Could! I Thought I Could! I Thought I Could!…..

Watty Piper- The Little Engine That Could

How To Develop Better Goals: Introducing the Five I’s


Want to get the benefits of goals, but the S.M.A.R.T. framework just doesn’t work for you? Me neither. Try the Five I’s to write better goals.

February is the month many people finalize their goals for the year. In a business, targets have been set, translated, and shared as the basis for performance goals. Organizations with a learning orientation also encourage employees to set developmental, or learning, goals, for the year. Regardless of the type, all are encouraged to use the same S.M.A.R.T. framework: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time bound.

If your eyes rolled and your stomach tightened when you got to the description of S.M.A.R.T., you are not alone. For many years, it was my responsibility to lead discussions on the framework, and I wrote dozens of communications imploring people to write goals in this formula. Yet, very few S.M.A.R.T. goals came back. Upon reflection, I think I understand the problem. S.M.A.R.T. speaks to the head; but goal motivation comes from the heart.

I believe in goals. They provide a true north to navigate the daily wild frontier of distractions.  I believe in writing goals down. It is an act of commitment to get ideas out of my head and make my intent public. I believe, like Daniel Pink  in DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, that the real motivation to achieve goals is neither the carrot nor the stick, but that voice deep inside that says I really want to do this. That voice doesn’t get out of bed for the analytics of S.M.A.R.T.

The Five I’s Alternative

So, I humbly suggest the alternative I will use to evaluate my 2012 goals: The Five I’s.

1. Does it inspire?
This is the price of admission to my list. Does this goal make me excited? Do I get energy just thinking about it? Does it prime my imagination? If it doesn’t, I’ll find reasons not to stick to it when inevitable obstacles arise.

2. Is it important?
There is a difference between can do and should do. Will the outcome make a difference to me, to my clients, to others in my network? Will I care if I reach it? Does it represent the best way I can use my time and talent?

3. Does it improve my capabilities?
Good goals build a capability platform for new goals, whether I reach them or not. What will I personally develop by pursuit of this goal? Does it allow me to leverage strength? Try out a new skill? Regardless of the outcome, will I learn things I can build upon?

4. Is it inclusive?  
With apologies to Secretary Clinton, it takes a village to reach a goal. If the goal is important and developmental, I’ll need the help and support of others. Do I know who they are? Do I have access to them? What’s in it for them? Is the goal big enough to accommodate things they want to learn, try and do?

5. Can I identify progress?
Identifying the signs of progress will keep me both accountable and motivated. What will I see, hear or feel to know that I am on the right path? How will I know when I achieve my goal? What will be different?  One of the problems with S.M.A.R.T. is that it can’t accommodate the evolving nature of learning or just getting better; it only marks arrivals.

What Do You Think?

If S.M.A.R.T. works for your goals, share how you make it work. If it doesn’t, how do you write good goals?  Can you improve upon the Five I’s?

Regardless of your preference, I hope your 2012 goals set the stage for meaningful accomplishments in the year ahead.


Pink, D.H. (2010) Drive: the Surprising truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin Group