Habit: Good Servant, Bad Master

Habits get a bad rap, partly because people tend to talk more about the bad ones than the good ones. Truth is, habits are helpful. In fact, life without them would be a mind-crushing avalanche of relentless decision-making. How should I brush my teeth? How should I drive to work? What should I feed the dog? You get the idea.

Here’s how Gretchen Rubin puts it in her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Once we get it started, “We can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits.”

Sound pretty great, right? Not so fast, Rubin cautions. There’s a dark side to habits that keeps people stuck in some patterns of behavior that are not necessarily “good” for them. And just calling them “bad habits” doesn’t really get to the heart of the dilemma.

You see, when it comes to habits – and their kissin’ cousin, processes – most people assume they simply fall into two categories – good ones we need to keep, and bad ones we need to stop. With that frame of mind, it would be natural to assume we should simply change the bad ones and leave the good ones alone. And THAT is the biggest habit hazard of all.

As Jim Collins said in Good to Great, “Good is the enemy of great.” I take it a step further and say, great is the enemy of better. That’s one of the main tenets of Rubin’s book. No matter how good or great you are, there’s ALWAYS the potential to be better than before.

Summing up her point brilliantly, she says, “Habit is a good servant, but a bad master.” Well established, proven habits and processes make life a lot smoother and more predictable – and that’s a good thing. But if you stay stuck in them without continuous reflection, assessment and adjustment – no matter how good they appear to be – you will eventually become a slave to them. Rubin puts it even more emphatically saying, “Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own existence.”

So what’s a body to do?

Since humans are creatures of habit like all other mobile life forms, the only way out of that paralyzing trap is to create a habit to break the habit of doing things over and over again the same way. It’s the only way to ensure we don’t plod along without considering options and evaluating their potential to go farther, faster, higher and be better than we’ve been before.

So ask yourself and your colleagues this question. What’s your “continuous improvement habit?” If you get blank stares when you look in their faces – or in the mirror – you better take a long hard look at Rubin’s book before you become so content with how good your habits and processes are that you eventually become obsolete.

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Want to learn more about a systemic approach to creating a habit for continuous improvement?   Check out our free webinar. Then give us a call at 314-664-6497 or send us an e-mail, and we’ll show you how to get employees tuned in, turned on and eager to go above and beyond.

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