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October 18, 2023
According to research presented in “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, 40%-50% of what you do, what I do and what your employees do is habit. It's not the product of conscious thought; habits aren’t as involuntary as breathing, but they nonetheless recur consistently.
In this bestselling book, Clear utilizes the examples of two incredibly successful sports organizations that started out in a losing position—the British cycling team in the early 2000s and the L.A. Lakers basketball team—to demonstrate that marginal changes in habits over time add up to big results.
Clear’s definition of habit boils down to “a reliable solution to recurring challenges in our environments.” The conscious mind is a bottleneck; it can only handle one thought at a time. There are plenty of people who claim they can multitask, but not even computers can multitask—they simply alternate tasks more effectively than we do. They give the appearance of multitasking, but they don’t.
Since the conscious mind can only hold one thought at a time, we develop habits to free up mental capacity and provide the opportunity for better and more thinking. At their most basic, habits clear up clutter so your conscious mind can be more active and effective.
Clear offers step-by-step plans for building better habits. One of the big barriers to changing habits is that we tend to start with the big goals: “In 2023, I'm going to run a marathon!” But we neglect to also take into account the big hurdles, such as having not run a step in the last decade. Or you say, “I'm going to write a book!” having not written anything since high school.
Dave Brailsford came along to the British Cycling team leadership in 2003, touting a strategy called the “aggregation of marginal gains.” This means he focused on 1% improvements across all aspects of the team’s performance. They looked at everything: the bike seats, the tires, the team uniforms and recovery techniques. They even went so far as to provide heated shorts for cyclists so their muscles would warm to the optimum temperature for peak performance.
The cumulative results of these arguably minute improvements were amazing. Only five years after Brailsford’s hiring, the British cycling team dominated the 2008 Olympics. In 2012, they set nine Olympic and seven world records. British cyclists won the Tour de France five of the next six years.
Clear proposes something similar, boiling it down to the “two-minute rule”: When attempting to change a habit, any new behavior should take less than two minutes to perform.
For the marathon example, what could the two-minute habit be? “I'm going to put my running shoes and socks right beside the bed so that when I get up in the morning, my feet almost fall right into the shoes,” you could decide. That will be enough to get you started. One successful morning run turns into another, and soon you’re well on your way to training enough for a marathon.
These marginal improvements every day can produce lasting results.
Following a disappointing 1985-1986 season, L.A. Lakers coach Pat Riley implemented a program called Career Best Effort (CBE) and recorded the stats of his players from high school to the current day. Riley’s goal was to "improve their output by 1% over the course of a season."
In that sense, Pat Riley preempted James Clear by a few decades. As part of Riley’s CBE tactic, the Lakers measured not only hard numbers but also subjective areas including spirituality, mental and physical effort. If a player exceeded his career-best performance by just 1% throughout the season, then he had achieved his CBE.
Using this strategy, Riley was able to extract a bit more effort from his already excellent players, and they went on to win the championship and repeat in 1986-1987. Riley and the team didn't rely on talent alone, but instead on a program specifically designed to make the most of every player.
As business owners and leaders, we’re constantly reading about the importance of written, definable and actionable business plans. They represent your opportunity to have a CBE program like Pat Riley and the Lakers where you consciously try to pull out 1% more talent from your already talented people. What could you and your company accomplish if you focused on small improvements instead of shooting for the moon at the outset?
Clear writes that if you get 1% better each day throughout the year, you’ll end up 37 times better. If you get 1% worse each day, your performance declines to nearly zero. Focusing on improving small habits can produce huge results.
Co-Founder/President, Family Business Institute, Inc.
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