Making Habits Stick

The month of December produces great anticipation in schools. Holiday parties, office potlucks, dress-up days, and the nearing of winter break are all reasons for excitement.


As the end of December draws closer, people start planning New Year's resolutions. Regardless if goals are personal or professional in nature, the turning of the calendar is the perfect time to start new routines and kick bad habits.


But as promising as January begins, nearly 80% of New Year's resolutions die by February.


School leaders often struggle to follow through on new undertakings. For example, many school leaders announce, "I'm going to get in shape this year!" only to see their aspirations fizzle after a few weeks. Similarly, many school leaders declare "I'm going to read 20 books this year!" only to see their efforts fade after a short period of time.


Who can blame them? Outside of running a school (!!), school leaders have family members to support, friendships to maintain, a home to preserve, bills to pay, and dozens of other responsibilities to prioritize.


Sometimes coming up with a new goal is not enough. Even the most ambitious individuals need systems to help kick-start - and sustain - a new habit. The following sections provide ideas to help school leaders stay motivated to spend a few minutes each day on personal growth.


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The first habit building system is fairly basic and is often referred to as the "Jerry Seinfeld" method.


Years ago, the famous comedian was asked if he had any tips for young performers. Seinfeld said the key to being a better comic was simple: tell better jokes.


So how does one tell better jokes?


"Write jokes every day," said Seinfeld. "Even on days when you don't feel like it."

To reinforce the habit, Seinfeld purchased a wall calendar and put a big red "X" over the days when he wrote new material. "After a few days you'll have a chain,” Seinfeld said. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain."


"Don't break the chain."


Most school leaders are not aspiring comedians. So instead of tracking the days when jokes are written, keep track of the days you devote time to personal growth. By writing an X each day a goal area is addressed, you generate a trigger motivating you to create a streak of X's.


While Seinfeld used a wall calendar, others have used a daily journal or computer spreadsheet. Beyond personal growth areas, the chain method can be helpful to track any habit you are hoping to initiate (or prevent).


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The second habit building system is more advanced and is often referred to as the "Jim Collins" method.


Years ago, the bestselling author wanted to start tracking his creative output, which he defined as, "any activity that leads to the creation of something new, and is potentially replicable or durable."


As a way to track his output, Collins started using a stopwatch to measure the time he spent working on his goals. At the end of each day, Collins opened up a spreadsheet and documented these minutes. Collins's overarching goal was to have a minimum of 1,000 creative hours per any 12-month period - or just under three hours per day on average.


Similar to Seinfeld, Collins uses this tally as motivation to stay focused on his goals, especially on days he doesn't feel like putting in the work. Collins has used this time tracking system for decades and credits its use to producing a massive amount of research and published work.


Another bestselling author - Cal Newport - is an advocate for time tracking. In So Good They Can't Ignore You, Newport said, "I keep a tally of the total number of hours I spend each month in deliberate practice. By having these hour counts stare me in the face every day I'm motivated to find new ways to fit more deliberate practice into my schedule. This is a different way of thinking about work, but once you embrace it, the changes to your career trajectory can be profound."


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In 2018 I discovered the "Jim Collins" method and began tracking my time engaged in personal growth. Using the ATracker phone app and a Google Sheets spreadsheet, I began recording time spent on the following activities: reading books, updating my website, writing blogs, and working out.


Small adjustments have helped me refine the system and produce meaningful data. Currently, I track the 7-day, 30-day, 90-day, and all-time averages for all four areas. Collins was correct in the effectiveness of this practice - I have found great motivation in sustaining my daily averages.


This system is especially helpful in a couple scenarios. First, I stay motivated to complete work on days I'm feeling especially lazy. Knowing my numbers will be documented at the end of the day holds me accountable for producing work - even as few as 20 minutes.


Second, there are some weeks when I think, "Man, I didn't get anything accomplished this week. What a waste!" However, upon reviewing my document I'm shocked to see how time added up over the past seven days. Realizing I'm still chipping away at my goals during a "down" week prevents further discouragement.


Just because I track these numbers doesn't mean I don't waste time. I waste a lot of time. It's not uncommon for me to spend many autumn Saturdays watching college football from 11:00am to 8:00pm. However, by tracking my time it is likely I completed three to four hours of personal growth prior to my football binge. Having this work documented allows me to enjoy guilt-free leisure time.


Collins's time tracking method has been hugely beneficial, allowing me to produce a large amount of meaningful work. Below were my results from 2020:

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Oprah Winfrey once said, "How you spend your time defines who you are."


Many people define themselves as "Lifelong Learners" but their time usage screams "Facebook MVP" or "Netflix GOAT."


With many competing priorities, saying "I'm going to read 20 books this year!" is not enough. Instead, school leaders who want to produce meaningful work must establish systems for staying focused.

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