the habit paradox

One minute we’re doing so well.  The next minute we’re in the ditch.  The same can be said of our habits, but why? Call it the habit paradox.

You may have heard that “we are the sum of our habits”, but life’s calculus isn’t quite that simple…or fair.  Sure, good habits generally lead to good results, and bad habits generally lead to bad results.  But, in reality we all have both.

What’s more, you probably know that performance gains (in your job, your health, or your relationships) can be tough to sustain even when most of your behavior is positive or well-intended.  One little slip and it’s like we lose all of the progress we’d made…and sometimes more.

Two reasons.

1. Good habits are harder to create than bad habits.
2. Good behavior and bad behavior don’t impact us equally.

The first statement may be bold in the absence of proof, but some things are simply self-evident.  On the one hand, we are all capable of good habits.  We each possess infinite potential for greatness…there is no ceiling. But as the proverb says, our hearts are selfish and deceitful beyond measure and cure.  We are literally drawn to bad behavior like a moth to a light.

Unsure? When was the last time you accidentally found yourself making cold calls? …doing pushups? …or helping someone who couldn’t return the favor?  We simply don’t find ourselves developing good habits on accident.

What’s worse, while we instinctively know this about others, somehow we have to keep learning it about ourselves, day in and day out, setback after setback.  We want to believe that we’ve changed, that our new resolution will stick…and, then we blow it.

An example…

Let’s say you are trying to build rapport with your colleagues and grow as a servant leader. You resolve that one of the things you need to do is overcome your bad habit of drawing attention to yourself in meetings and instead stay focused on others.

For weeks you work on your active listening skills.  You applaud your colleagues.  You shun the limelight.  You keep unnecessarily critical comments in check.  You even practice being more grateful.

Then months later, you slip.  Someone floats a snoozer of an idea, and you can’t help yourself. You blurt out, “B-o-r-i-n-g! I’ve got a better idea!” …and off you go trying to top everything that person just said.  Sure, you could have said, “I like that. And, what if we also…”  But you didn’t.

You stole the thunder, and realized only afterward that no one else got a word in.  You feel like you wiped out all of the relational equity you’d worked so hard to build.

The truth is, you’re right.

Good behaviors do add up, but bad behaviors multiply.  We invest in dimes, and withdraw in dollars.  Why?

The answer may be as simple as “that’s life”, but I believe it goes a little deeper than that. From the moment we’re born, we are inherently selfish. We don’t come into this world seeking opportunities to help mom. We want what we want when we want it.

As we grow, we gain some self-awareness and a little etiquette, but we also discover pride, greed, lust, sloth…you know the list.

The good news is that we can change. We can grow. You can tap into the fruits of the spirit. A flawed human nature doesn’t mean we must mess up. It just means we need to be aware that all habits are not created equally. Neither are reputations.

Best of all, you get a fresh start with each new day.

Please comment. Have you ever developed a positive habit on accident? What have you done to reign in a bad habit or recover from a misstep?