by julia.hanigsberg | February 22nd, 2012
I’ve lately been fascinated by the various accounts I’ve been reading about the neuroscience of why we do what we do. Some recent examples that have gotten my attention are the book Willpower, a recent cover article from the New York Times Magazine “Hey! You’re Having a Baby” and a commentary piece the same week in the New York Times, “Building Self-Control, the American Way” by Sandra Aamodt and Same Wang, the authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College. What all of these have in common is an investigation into the formation of habits, and how we can use that knowledge both to form productive habits and (possibly) break destructive ones.
While the Times Magazine piece has gone viral because of its pseudo-creepy take on the ways that marketers can use neuroscience (e.g. to determine a woman is pregnant before she’s told anyone just by analyzing her buying habits), at least as interesting is author Charles Duhigg’s examination of what he terms “the habit loop,” in his case to try to break a pretty intractable chocolate cookie habit that was packing on the pounds. The loop is cue then reward. You can read the article to see the impact on cookie consumption of putting some conscious thought towards this (spoiler alert: he loses weight!), but the same cue/reward cycle keeps you addicted to video games that have rewards throughout them that sustain the player through multiple failures. Willpower and “Building Self-Control” emphasize the impact that practice can have on developing the sustainability to persist at doing something, a key building block to overcoming obstacles and learning things that are just plain hard: learning a new language, riding a 1000 lb horse over a course of jumps, conquering a level in Halo 2, learning a musical instrument, mastering rules of accounting (more on that later). For parents and educators this set of premises runs counter to the fashion of focus on building self-esteem whatever it takes. Is self-esteem the product of being told you’re smart (or pretty, etc), or the product of persevering with a task and overcoming its challenges to success?
So, what does this have to do with leadership? It can sometimes get pretty easy to coast in your comfort zone. Among the many issues and challenges you face in a day-always more than you can get done so choices need to be made-you can steer yourself to those that play to your strengths. And why wouldn’t you? They are more likely to breed success (rewards). Maybe I’m more comfortable with government relations than fundraising? For sure I’m pretty much always happier in Word than I am in Excel. But am I as good as I can be if I stay in my habitual zone? Can I be better at what I do and lead others to be better at what they do (and don’t do) by putting in the hard work and sticking to the challenge of conquering something new?
A couple of weeks ago I spent a week doing an accounting and finance boot camp. It wasn’t called a boot camp but, believe me, that’s what it was. My brain was doing pushups and had the cramps to prove it. Fourteen hour days focused on numbers, notes in tiny print, sharpened pencils and a calculator at my side along with annual reports and financial statements (and a healthy dose of tax law). And I also spent way too much time with Excel. This was hard work, involved some pretty clear failure, and required me to push through some mental pain (and occasional boredom too). The result? No fear that I’ll be taking over as CFO but I came home with a new set of analytic tools that I’ve put to use every day and a buoyed knowledge and self-confidence that allows me to delve thoroughly and deeply into things I was in the habit of skimming before.
Take the time to push yourself. Exercise your brain (and other muscles too!). Step out of your comfort zone and build yourself a new one. You’ve got nothing to lose but a bad habit or two.