We’ve already covered how distressing it is to go through life on autopilot. What is equally distressing is how much we act out of habit. That is, we do what we do today because it’s what we did yesterday. We get into ruts. We talk to the same people at the same time, and often about the same things. We dress the same way every day. And we respond to events with the same actions predictably and without thinking.
When you act out of habit, you throw away opportunities. You can’t leverage your actions to their greatest potential. This is not a “power of positive thinking” speech; it is a call to be “on” in your actions. Acting out of habit gives you just a random chance of getting the best value from an action. For example, if always sit in the same spot whenever you are in a particular meeting, you miss the opportunity to leverage your position to either take the lead or give it to someone else.
Acting deliberately doesn’t give perfect results, but it gives better results than random habits. Even slightly better results give your team a leadership edge toward success. That edge can be the difference between a good leader and a great leader. Those deliberate actions are each tiny manipulations of the world around you.
“Never mistake motion for action.”
– Ernest Hemingway
I’ve already given some examples of acting deliberately, such as dressing for the situation, and deciding where you should sit when you enter a room. It is difficult to notice when you are not acting deliberately, though. Those are the times you are not paying much attention to your actions. To make it worse, there is no practical way to evaluate and leverage every action. Imagine trying to think through every footstep.
So how do you recognize and evaluate actions to leverage more effectively? First off, you need to build the same habits here as you do in paying attention to everything. You need to start asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” If the answer is either, “I don’t know,” or “It’s just the way I always do it,” or “For no particular reason,” then you are not acting deliberately but out of habit.
Once you recognize a non-deliberate action, you need to think about whether it is worth changing or not. For that, you need to ask yourself the question, “Can I do this differently for a better result?” Typically, acting deliberately takes no more effort than acting out of habit. The difficulty comes from the stress of being “on” all the time.
One effective way to deal with this stress is to work on one or two things at a time. Of all the areas you could act more deliberately on, pick one to focus on. Your goal is to make acting deliberately in that area a habit. A bit ironic, I know. For example, each time you walk into a meeting deliberately ask yourself, “Where can I sit to the best effect?” After a while, perhaps even months, deciding where to sit will become habit.
Integrating new habits works best in smaller doses like this. When you try to take on too much, you can easily become discouraged and give up. You should still take every opportunity to act deliberately. But focus your efforts on making one or two things at a time into new deliberate habits.
Here are a few things for you to try acting deliberately on:
- Decide how busy you should look. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you have to look busy. When you look busy, team members don’t feel as comfortable asking you for help. To give the impression of availability, don’t act distracted when people come to talk to you. Don’t look at other work or your watch.
- Decide how patient you act. Even if you are impatient with someone, they may need your patience to make effective progress. Some people need to see your impatience to be motivated.
- Decide how attentive to be. While an attentive audience motivates most people, there are times where inattentiveness or even aloofness can be of value. For example, if you sit aloofly at the back of a meeting, then when you become attentive to a particular point, you can emphasize its importance.
Here’s one example of acting deliberately that I found particularly funny. I went to a pizza party in celebration of a product release for one of my groups. The party was supposed to last about an hour. I decided that I better leave the party very early, about forty minutes into it. There were three other times I could have left: a few minutes early, right on time, or a few minutes late. If I left a few minutes early, everyone else would have taken my queue and left. I didn’t want to end the event by leaving. If I left right on time, people might have seen me as holding a stopwatch on the event. That’s not a perception I wanted to convey. If I left the meeting late, I would be setting an example that was more casual to schedules that I wanted. I didn’t particularly mind if the event went longer, but I didn’t want to make it a norm by my example.
Deliberate actions allow you influence your environment for your own benefit and the benefit of your team. Instead of going through life on autopilot, be "on" and act deliberately.