Tag Archives: Habit

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.

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.


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


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.


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.

Weekender: Billy Crystal on the Internally-Induced Rewards

billy-crystalWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a marvelous schpeck of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just a schpeck? Because it’s the weekend!

After a failed endeavor, I can be hard on myself. There tends to be a flurry of such overly critical reflections as “If only I had…” or “Why didn’t I think of…”. These lessons learned can be productive to a point, but there comes a time when you have to move on. That’s why I enjoyed Billy Crystal’s second-hand advice.

On WTF Podcast with Marc Maron, Billy Crystal was discussing an incident last year when he was visiting his long-time friend, legendary Hollywood manager Jack Rollins. Crystal’s new series Comedians was premiering that night and he was anxiously excited.

[Jack Rollins] grabbed my hand and says, ‘Are you happy with your work on the show? Do you feel good about what you did on the show?’ And I said ‘Yes, very much so.’ He says, ‘That’s most important because they can never take that away from you.’ I carry that around with me.

This guidance may not seem particularly novel, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. As leaders, there are few people who are going to congratulate you for your efforts. Most don’t see the struggle you put into your projects, while others simply don’t consider offering a boss the same support they would offer a co-worker. That leaves you to feel proud of yourself.

We need to get into the habit of discerning how we feel about the work we put into an accomplishment before knowing the outcome. That way, the self-accolades can seep into our psyche and help us brace for the subsequent result. It will ease the blow of defeat knowing we did all we could or, preferably, give us all the more reason to celebrate after the win. Either way, it seems healthier than tormenting ourselves on what should have been.

Weekender: Billie Joe Armstrong on Sustainable Effort

_3S21943.JPGWelcome to another addition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a boulevard of thought to start your weekend off on the right track. Why a boulevard? Because it’s the weekend!

For the more competitive leaders amongst us, our greatest and most frequent adversary is ourself. We may try to blame it on the opposing counsel of a contract dispute or that one VP who’s battling for our turf, but we are really trying to “win” because that’s what we do.

One way we own our conquests is by outworking everyone else. This is viable for a while, but as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong discussed in a recent Rolling Stone interview, its long-term sustainability is not as practical.

Armstrong started the band with a strict rule—each album and subsequent tour had to lead into the next. He felt that bands who took breaks were never the same when they returned. This led to 25 years of success until things (both personally and professionally) began to crumble. Now, coming off the longest break of Green Day’s run with a soon-to-be-released album, Armstrong has gained a new perspective.

You can’t be enthusiastic for the sake of enthusiasm. You have to get out of trying to outdo and one-up yourself all the time. [Green Day] had to break that habit, because suddenly we weren’t really being ourselves anymore… I was a little burnt out on being in Green Day. We needed to stop.”

I like his phrase enthusiastic for the sake of enthusiasm. It implies a need to prioritize efforts, work smarter (versus harder) and present a sincere version of ourself. It does not say that we need to lower expectations or embrace laziness, but that we need to conserve the fight for the times when fighting is necessary.

Weekender: Jeff Bridges on Practicing Good Habits

jeff bridgesWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a rug of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why a rug? Because that rug really tied the room together (and it’s the weekend)!

Would you describe your leadership style as discipline-based or more guided by gut reaction? If you choose the latter, consider what Jeff Bridges was once told by legendary actor (and his father) Lloyd Bridges.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bridges was asked what advice he wished he had received when beginning his career. He responded:

I got the advice — I just didn’t take it! My dad would say, ‘It’s all about habit, Jeff. You gotta get into good habits.’ And I said, ‘No, Dad, you gotta live each moment. Live it as the first one and be fresh.’ And he says, ‘That’s a wonderful thought, but that’s not what we are. We are habitual creatures. It’s about developing these grooves.’ As I age, I can see his point. What you practice, that’s what you become.

I’d like to think that a zen-like (aka Lebowski-like) style would be preferable in the workplace, but implementation and intent are not always congruent. Ad hoc decision making leads to inconsistent leadership, confusion amongst the team, and a lack of focus. If your staff cannot rely on a reliable message, they cannot help you follow through on any long-term objectives.

You and your staff are habitual creatures. Provide and practice habits that fulfill your grandiose vision. It takes discipline and foresight, but as Lloyd Bridges said, “What you practice, that’s what you become.”