Category Archives: Habits

How to Boost Your Performance through Rituals with James Lipton

How do you prepare yourself for a new activity? I didn’t put too much thought into this until I was at a conference a few years ago. I can’t remember the topic but I distinctly recall standing at a urinal when a guy walked into the bathroom and shouted at the mirror, “You are Lizard King! You can do anything!” He then left as quickly as he had appeared.

Ten minutes later I was shocked as the “Lizard King” was introduced as the keynote speaker. After the presentation, I asked him about his display. He wasn’t embarrassed, although he claimed that he didn’t see anyone in the bathroom. The keynote stated that it’s simply his pre-speech ritual. “It must psych you up?” I asked. “It use to,” he responded, “now it’s just something I do to center myself before I stand in front of a crowd.”

Similarly, in a recent interview, Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton discussed his pre-show rituals. It begins with the hours of meticulous research Lipton conducts on the person being interviewed. This can take months and Lipton prefers to do it by himself. He then transcribes his notes onto his trademark blue index cards and marks them up with post-it tabs and highlighters before they are neatly stacked in a 10-inch pile on his desk while taping the show.

My nightmare, somebody steals my cards.—James Lipton

Rituals like Lipton and the Lizard King are more than simply superstition or habit; they have been shown to have a positive affect on performance. In a study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Alison Woods Brooks found that many top-level performers use rituals to help them prepare. These rituals significantly reduce anxiety and produce a higher quality work product. By mitigating the distracting, disruptive indicators associated with anxiety through pre-performance routines, Brooks concluded, “although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.”

The lesson here is that we need a consistent ritual that precedes our stress-inducing events. You can go big (like screaming into a public bathroom mirror) or more subtle. Drink a glass of room temperature water. Read a poem or inspirational quote. Click your heals three times. Whatever you can do to center yourself and jumpstart that inner “on” switch. I’m sure Lipton would even be okay if you used index cards, although maybe you can find a color other than blue.

New Year’s Resolutions: Why You Need One and How to Ensure Success

Once again, it’s the end of the year. A time to reflect on all we’ve accomplished… then, feel inadequate and vow to do better next year. This typically involves some grand resolution that will begin on January 1st. I’ve written about my cynical outlook regarding New Year’s Resolutions; however, if you’re ambitious and need a jumpstart, there are worse ways to expend your efforts.

Recent research compared people who set ambitious goals to those who set more conservative goals. The study found that those with bold goals are happier in the “long run.” They attribute this to the result—if you set a conservative goal, you get a conservative outcome; whereas an ambitious goal has a substantial outcome.

The moral of the story is don’t sell yourself short. Aim high.—Cecile K. Cho, Assistant Professor of Management and Marketing

There’s a caveat to the “ambitious goal = happiness” theory. In order to achieve this happiness, you need to achieve your ambitious goal. Otherwise, all you did was set yourself up for failure, which is demoralizing and will negatively affect your chances of creating future ambitious goals. Thankfully, there is a solution, and it may not be what you think.

Whenever we talk about resolutions and goals, the importance of self-control is often stressed. There is pressure to muster the willpower to stay on task, persevere through the hard times, and ultimately win. But what if there was more to it than self-control?

A study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that individuals who experience fewer temptations make more progress toward their goals than those who concentrate on flexing their willpower. In practice, avoiding temptation means ducking the candy machine when you’re hungry, or turning off your phone notifications when you need to focus. The idea is to not exert any mental energy into resisting your prior bad habits.

The connection between temptations and goal attainment can be explained by emotional exhaustion. People who experience the most temptations report feeling mentally depleted. And this mental depletion is linked to a gradual diminishing of self-control until goal success is nil.

Don’t be part of the 92% of the population who give up on their resolutions before the end of the first month. Self-improvement begins with setting ambitious goals so you can make big things happen. Then resist the temptations that are trying to take you off course. If it works, happiness and a sense of self-satisfaction awaits. If not, there’s always next year.

Why Leaders Should Be More Like Ebenezer Scrooge: A Five Step Process

a_christmas_carolThe story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of my favorite holiday traditions. As much as I’d like to say that I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year, in truth I read it once, really liked it, and have since made a ritual of watching Scrooged with Bill Murray. With every viewing of this movie plus the multitude of other renditions, I wonder why calling someone a “Scrooge” is such a bad thing.

As leaders, we should strive to be Scrooges. If this sounds wrong that’s because you are focusing on the pre-Christmas Ebenezer. That guy is a selfish, egotistical miser who says things like, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be…buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” But this is not the message of A Christmas Carol, it is simply the beginning.

A Christmas Carol is the story of self-improvement. It’s about learning from your past, having foresight into your future, and making the changes necessary in the present. This is not a feel-good self-affirmation; it’s a motivator to introspectively pick apart our flaws and work towards becoming a better person.

We can’t be forced to change our ways. There is no Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come to serve as a catalyst for evolving. Our fate will not be on display to pressure us into an epiphany. All we have is inner drive. Unfortunately, the determination to change is not enough; our bad habits are too embedded into our psyche. Therefore, according to Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model, we need to follow these five steps to make positive behavioral changes that stick.

  1. Precontemplation. In this first stage, we are Scrooge on December 23rd–making a change has been the farthest thing from our mind. The signs have been all around us, but we’ve fought or just ignored them.
  2. Contemplation. In this stage we’ve begun to think about the need to change a behavior. The impetus is different for everyone. For some it takes a particular event to wake us up, like Scrooge’s surprise visit from his deceased business partner Jacob Marley. For others it involves years of deliberation.
  3. Determination. Now we begin to mentally prepare for action. While Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning with a new outlook on life, we may download a new calendar app or buy running shoes. This stage involves mapping out our plan of attack and scheduling a start date. This culmination of willpower is the resolve to change and the fuel needed to attain your goals.
  4. Action. Time to activate your plan. Give Bob Cratchit a raise. Get medical assistance for Tiny Tim. Start moving!
  5. Maintenance. Day 1 of a new behavior is easy; true change takes persistence. Scrooge wasn’t just a more virtuous person on December 25th. As the book states, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more… He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man…” Maintenance involves continuing to chase your goal every day, with every decision, and every deed. It requires that we uphold a high life-condition where our changed belief continues to manifest as action. Create short milestones so you can appreciate the sense of accomplishment and reward yourself along the way.

Want to be a better leader? Be a Scrooge—remain in a constant state of self-improvement. Want to be a better leader? Be a Jacob Marley—guide others towards elevating their skills and performance. And if you really want to be a better leader, be a Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come—foster a culture where people can learn from their mistakes, understand the repercussions, and make changes before its too late. Or say, “Ba-Hum-Bug” and suffer the consequences.

Weekender: Mickey Rourke on the Value of Excessive Effort

mickey-rourkeWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a round of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just one round? Because it’s the weekend!

When discussing ways to be a better leader, we cannot undervalue the emphasis placed on hard work. Becoming “the leader” often involves competing with other capable peers who want the role just as badly as you. So the question becomes, who is willing to put in more effort to get it.

On the podcast Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin, famed actor and screenwriter Mickey Rourke was discussing his early days in acting. Rourke had recently retired from boxing and was finding his way in his new career.

I use to see Al Pacino at the [Actor’s] Studio and Chris Walkin and Harvey Keitel, guys I really admired, [so] I said to my acting coach, ‘Can I ever be as good as Al Pacino?’ And she said, ‘You have to work harder than the rest.’ And I could understood that in relation to boxing.

You don’t win the fight on the night of the fight; you win the fight the 10-12 weeks that you do your road work… So with the acting, I would go to the Studio late at night, I had a key. What I would do, there’d be a bum on the street, and I would pay him $5 to read lines with me… and I was there every f—king night and I would work and I would work harder and harder.

Rourke is naturally talented. Like you, he was born with a gift. But a lot of other people are, too. Determination and some long hours are all that will separate you from the competition. Think about that the next time you take an extra long lunch or start binging your next show or decide to do a little extra shopping online at the office. No one is stopping you, but while you’re relaxing, someone else is getting the edge on you. As Rourke said, you win the fight in the time leading up the match; if you wait until it begins, it’s too late.

The Business Case for Giving Thanks

thankful-cartoonMy favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. It’s the one day of the year where I am able to slow down. Other occasions provide an opportunity to unwind, but on Thanksgiving I can consistently achieve this goal without effort. While I credit the quality time with family and the incredible food, there is something to be said for a present-less celebration whose only purpose is to take stock of all you have and give thanks.

This may sound like an idealistic, “aw shucks” sentiment, but researchers have dedicated a great deal of time to studying gratitude over the last few years. Their findings show the many benefits both for individuals and for organizations. Here are a few recent studies that will improve your workplace and make you a better leader.

Self-Esteem

Gratitude reduces social comparisons. This allows us to appreciate other’s accomplishments and feel less resentful, which is a key factor in self-esteem. A study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that athletes who expressed higher levels of gratitude toward their coaches had more self-esteem than those who weren’t as openly thankful. And the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that people with neuromuscular diseases who kept a “gratitude journal” had a greater sense of well-being and more positive moods.

Mental Strength

The ability to recognize what you are thankful for, especially during traumatic event, fosters emotional buoyancy. It helps you bounce back quicker and maintain an optimistic outlook. A study in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that veterans who experienced higher levels of gratitude were more resilient, more willing to forgive other, and less likely to experience post-traumatic stress. Similarly, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following terrorist attacks.

In the household in which I was raised, the themes were pretty simple. ‘Work hard. Don’t quit. Be appreciative. Be thankful. Be grateful. Be respectful. Also, never whine, never complain. And always, for crying out loud, keep a sense of humor.’—Michael Keaton

Relationships

Displaying gratitude is more than just being polite; it can help you build your network. A study published in Emotion found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship and has an increased potential for a “high-quality social bond.” This display of gratitude can be as simple as saying thank you or writing a short note. In addition, a slightly older study from Cognition & Emotion shows that gratitude promotes social affiliation and strengthens relationships, which is helpful when facilitating teamwork and group activities.

Teamwork

People who express gratitude are more likely to engage in “pro-social” behaviors. Research in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that “gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and concern for others.” These individuals display significantly greater empathy and sensitivity. They are also less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. Another study found that people who express more gratitude are more likely to help others, a key ingredient when working with a team.

Still not convinced that your organization needs a boost of gratitude?

  • Gratitude reduces turnover, fosters employees’ organizational commitment, and aids in “eliminating the toxic workplace emotions, attitudes and negative emotions such as envy, anger, and greed.” (International Business Research)
  • Gratitude positively influences the relationship between managers and their direct reports, affecting subordinates’ sense of feeling trusted, improved performance, and overall satisfaction. (Journal of Psychological Science)
  • Individuals who feel more grateful demonstrate greater patience and delay making hasty decisions. (Psychological Science)
  • More gratitude leads to increased loyalty from employees and clients. (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology)
  • Daily gratitude exercises result in higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, and energy. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

At the age of 18, I made up my mind to never have another bad day in my life. I dove into an endless sea of gratitude from which I’ve never emerged.—Patch Adams

To be a better leader, be a more thankful leader. Find reasons to show appreciation to your team. It’s inspiring, motivating, and as per the numerous research, it is good for business. To kick off this new initiative, start the holiday season with a gratitude list. If you feel it’s making a difference, keep it going through the new year. It is cheaper than buying everyone a turkey and its positive effects will last much longer.