The powerful lesson that shoveling snow can teach us about habit change.
One morning this winter, I was shoveling snow from my sidewalk. I found myself struggling tremendously to remove not only the snow itself but also a layer of ice that had formed underneath it. Taking a short break, I looked around. All of my neighbors’ sidewalks were clean. As is the case more often than I’d like to admit, I was one of the last people on my block to get around to this task.
It had stopped snowing about 24 hours prior. That afternoon had been relatively warm and sunny — an ideal time to remove the snow. For reasons I won’t bore you with, however, I had procrastinated and missed the opportunity. As a result, the warmer weather had only succeeded in thawing the snow enough for it to re-freeze overnight, creating the dense sheet of ice I was now grappling with. Putting my head back down, I continued the frustrating process of chipping away at the ice. As I worked, it dawned on me how many parallels there were between this now arduous task and the difficult work of personal and organizational habit change.
Windows of Opportunity
As anyone who has ever lived in a snowy state can attest, there is a window of opportunity when it comes to shoveling — typically, the task will be easiest if you can get to it right when it stops snowing. If you’re like me, you all too often drag your heels, allowing the snow to freeze in place first (for good measure, you might even drive over it a couple of times with your car to get it nice and packed down). In so doing, you transform a relatively easy task into an unnecessarily difficult one.
Similarly, the work of habit change is dramatically easier if you get the process started before the habits are hard-packed and frozen in place. This isn’t just anecdotal. Tremendous strides have been made in terms of understanding the science behind habit formation. Much of the current research revolves around a concept known as neuroplasticity — a fancy term describing the fact that our brains are constantly evolving.
Each time we perform a task or engage in a certain behavior, the neurological pathways associated with that action become a little stronger. As these pathways build in strength, the action becomes increasingly automatic, resulting in a powerful feedback loop. Just like a sidewalk covered in snow, these habits soon become frozen in place, making the task of breaking them that much more difficult. If we can catch these habits and correct them before this “freezing” process occurs, the work will be significantly easier.
Break it Down
Correcting bad habits before they freeze in place may be the ideal approach. But what about when it’s already too late for that? Often we find ourselves grappling with change initiatives that require longstanding habits to be rewired. Back to my driveway on that cold morning. After struggling to chip away at the ice for some time, it occurred to me that I might be overreaching.
The forecast that day called for more warm weather. I had a choice. I could stay out, banging away against the ice and eventually get to my desired outcome. Or I could focus solely on removing the top layer of snow first. The warm weather that afternoon would then soften up the ice, allowing me to finish the task when the work would be easier. It meant leaving my sidewalk covered in ice for several more hours, which was tough to accept given I already felt like the neighborhood slouch. Wisely, however, I accepted this tradeoff and saved myself a whole bunch of aggravation in the process.
When driving change, we often make the same mistake of trying to do too much at once. As a result, we end up exerting ourselves excessively for sub-optimal results. Work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes. Any habit you are trying to change or instill can be broken down into smaller parts. Let’s say you’re trying to drive conversions on a set of premium service and support memberships you have recently begun offering. Fearing the conversation may scare clients away, the topics of service and support have traditionally been more or less avoided. You’re now faced with the challenge of breaking this habit. This goal requires everyone on the sales team to adopt several new habits:
Include a premium membership in every proposal
Practice/refine their presentation/delivery of this critical topic
Require 100 percent of clients to make an explicit choice (i.e., opt-in or opt-out)
Track and improve conversion rates over time
You can try and tackle all of these habits at once. And you might even succeed…eventually. But the odds are good that you’ll end up like I did — banging away in a fruitless attempt get it all done in one fell swoop. Instead, you can save yourself a lot of frustration by breaking the problem down. Just like my removal of the top layer of snow was a relatively easy task that enabled the ice beneath it to begin thawing, the inclusion of a premium membership in every proposal is a great first habit to focus on. It is straightforward, easily measurable, and paves the way for the subsequent three habits. Once this first habit begins to take hold, it becomes the equivalent of the sun warming up the ice. Momentum builds. Early wins are achieved. Confidence builds. The ice has softened. Eventually, you find that the remaining work, which once seemed so overwhelming, has become substantially easier.
Thaw the Ice
Any time we are presented with a difficult task, there can be a strong temptation to put our nose down and plow forward at maximum speed. If the task is straightforward and well-defined, this approach may serve us well. Often, however, the challenge in front of us is anything but simple. This is especially true when it comes to driving change — an environment that is inherently fraught with difficulty, ambiguity, and uncertainty. In these situations, a headlong rush toward the finish line is foolhardy.
Remember, you are likely dealing with habits that are firmly frozen in place. So before you start banging away with your shovel, pause and ask yourself, “Can I find a way to thaw the ice first?” Trust me; you’ll probably save yourself a lot of aggravation.
This post originally appeared on Residential Systems