From wanting to stay in bed to dancing in September: how a small habit shift is having a big impact

Originally published in the Globe & Mail September 30, 2022

For many years, the song Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day has been on repeat in my head for the whole month. The weather change and post-summer wake-up call made me want to … well, stay in bed.

This year, I made a deliberate shift to change that tune to the more upbeat September, by Earth, Wind and Fire. I am choosing to embrace and celebrate all the newness. Now, when that feeling of being overwhelmed creeps in, instead of letting my stress fester, manifesting in unproductive ways, I blast September out loud or in my head. This small shift in behaviour is helping me reframe this month.

We don’t have to commit to major changes to achieve meaningful results. Simply making a conscious effort to adjust our response can be effective, according to The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier. “When (insert situation/trigger), instead of (current behaviour), I will (insert new, desired behaviour) because (insert why it matters),” he suggests.

So when encountering a trigger, in this instance, the feeling of being overwhelmed, rather than letting stress fester and manifest itself in unproductive ways, I will respond with the new, desired behaviour – in this case, by blasting out September, in order to refocus.

Here are three areas where commitment to a small habit change can lead to meaningful results:

Return to Office: I was recently asked why it was so easy to get everyone to go remote in 2020 and now it feels virtually impossible to get people back into the office. The answer likely has to do with urgency (in 2020, we were in a state of emergency, and had no choice but to work from home), clarity (we have moved the goalposts too many times, and employees are confused) and, perhaps most importantly, habits. According to a recent survey of about 50 Canadian chief human resources officers, conducted by Cotalent and Strategic Capability Network, 55 per cent of employees are in the office less than expected by their organizations, despite 68 per cent of the organizations providing incentives such as events, meals and gifts to encourage their return.

As Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School of Management, recently wrote in Fortune, the pandemic disrupted old habits of going to the office. When a habit is broken, he points out, its privileged position disappears and a new habit takes shape – in this case working from home. The subconscious gives privilege to that new habit and it quickly becomes the default habit. Encouraging a shift in habits requires more than mandates. Instead, consider prompting leaders and teams to find their own triggers (for example, a certain type of meeting) that would enact the new behaviour (coming into the office) instead of the current one (assuming virtual attendance is okay).

Culture: I recently came across a public-serving company that banned one habitual word from employees’ lexicon to drive meaningful culture change. The word? “Next.” As a customer, hearing someone say the word “next” is impersonal and does not inspire action or loyalty. Making this small change refocused front-line workers on the customer, as they were forced to choose language that inspired better human connection. I am trying to eliminate the word “busy” from my habitual language for the same reason.

Well-being: In a recent workshop, participants were asked to commit to one small behaviour shift that would affect their own well-being and that of their teams, in pursuit of more human-centred leadership: They were asked, when feeling overwhelmed, to commit to doing something for their own well-being (such as taking a walk or eating a healthy snack), instead of just powering through. This small effort would allow them to be better leaders for their teams, and in turn drive better results.

Staying committed to habit changes may be easier said than done – that is why so many of our New Year’s resolutions fail. According to behaviour-change technology company, Actionable, here are ways to improve the chances of making habits stick:

  1. Design your commitment thoughtfully: structure, relevance and duration are all important foundational elements to building new habits.
  2. Reflect on your commitment deeply and regularly: Build reminders to check in on your commitment into your workflow (such as using calendar notifications, alarms or post-it notes) at a time and in a way you know you will pay attention. Reflecting on how well you’re doing at a regular cadence (by rating yourself and writing down some observations) can help you stay committed to continuous improvement over time.
  3. Be accountable: Choosing a trusted partner to check in with on a regular basis not only makes the process more fun, but also helps improve the chances of staying committed and making the habit stick.

September represents the beginning of a new year for many – for those of us who are parents of school-aged children, for those of us who are of Jewish faith, and for those of us who start a new fiscal year or end a quarter. This year, many organizations are also (re)launching their new working models this month, attempting yet another return to office, in some capacity. It’s a great time to reflect on some of the habits we may want to shift to enable a better working environment for all.

As September comes to an end, I am feeling more energized and ready to take on the fall. Here’s to “New Year’s resolutions” that stick.