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Graham Birkenhead, August 11 2020

Creatures of Habit

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in why people do some things and why they don't do other things. Why some people achieve a little or a lot – seemingly regardless of how big or small they think.  The nature of luck - is there such a thing or do you make your own luck? And, the roles of motivation, challenge, power and fear, culture, belief, conditioning, example and expectation. While I can see many patterns, there seems to be as many exceptions as there are explanations.  We humans are indeed complex creatures.   

One thing we do as humans is to try to identify patterns in what we see, to come up with explanations so that we can model the world so that we can know it better and so respond to it and navigate it better.  But our mental modeling is pulled in many different directions by things like fear, culture, belief, conditioning, experience and expectation.  And, no matter how well thought out and researched our mental models are, and we can convince ourselves that they are entirely rational and correct, they are still probably at best a crude approximation of reality. BUT we like, or rather need, the feeling of certainty these models provide.  Unfortunately, the more uncertain our world becomes, the more we tend to desperately try to cling to what ‘certainty’ we have; this often appears as increasingly entrenched positions or views.  

As the progression of time relentlessly takes us into the future with circumstances provided us with many new challenges - and so opportunities - we also have many new opportunities to learn more about ourselves whether personally, as members of a community or team, as a company, or a nation.  To do that though, we must be prepared to challenge some of our existing models. 

A quote, often misattributed to Einstein, defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the result to be different.  Regardless of who said it first, it is a common human behaviour. We have other sayings too like ‘stuck in a rut’ that indicate a regular behaviour pattern that limits how we respond and ultimately what we can accomplish. Psychologists know this effect as cognitive fixation where we spend too much time concentrating on one idea or often the first idea.  In a world where little changed, this thinking kept us safe while using relatively little mental energy.  But in a world that needs new ideas, solutions, ways and approaches, this natural human trait could be a key barrier to the creativity that we need.

So, what can we do about that?  Try these:

Recognise it’s happening to you.  Spend some time looking for all those instances in your day where you apply the same thought processes, responses or actions to situations.  Especially where, upon reflection, they may not make sense.

Recognise the drivers.  These will be different depending on where you are and who you are with.  In a group, it could be a person who speaks first or a dominant person whose idea is not challenged – both causing the group to go down a particular route.   As an individual, unless your approach is to question and challenge everything, you will probably have a standard approach, which may include an amount of procrastination.  Identify all the things you do the same every time you are faced with a situation, challenge or a question. 

Do something – and do it differently.  There is a saying that ‘it is better to do something imperfectly than do nothing perfectly’.  We often fear imperfection – or not getting it right – or not doing it well enough.  The result is nothing changes. But it doesn't matter what you do differently – just get your mind out of its extreme comfort and familiarity zone and set it up for success:

 So you may ask, after a life of watching people and their behaviours, what key understanding have I come to?  Well, other than recognising that people are hugely complex and diverse yet in many ways similar, we are fundamentally creatures of habit.  We have standard behaviours in response to situations.   In a world where little changes, the mix of those behaviours across a population creates a natural order and a normal way of things.   In a world where change is happening fast, the habit or behaviour of constantly re-evaluating your mental models of the world and adjusting or adapting your behaviour to suit, may just give you the edge. 

If you want more ideas about creating an environment where you and your people can thrive, let me know.


Written by

Graham Birkenhead

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