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When you want to change, work systematically

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

When you want to change, work systematically

Scott Miker

Years ago I attended a seminar on personal development.  The speaker explained that the little things are important.  From time management to sales, the speaker gave example after example of what not to do. 

He would reference a person he knows or a character from a famous TV show and explain their faults.  He would always say, “We all know someone like that, right?”

At the lunch break I was talking to a few coworkers and they started to share their opinion on the seminar.  One would say, “Didn’t that example of being unhappy all the time remind you of Julie?”  Another would jump in and exclaim, “Yes I was thinking the same thing!”

Over the next five minutes each person in the group took their shots at Julie and said, “I really hope she hears this and starts being nicer to us.”

I was a little surprised.  I was fairly new at this company but Julie was one of the nicer people I had worked with.  She was kind, caring, and she always took the time to help me out.   But I also realized that she was a little standoffish and you had to make an effort to initially break through some of her defensiveness.  Once you did you were able to experience the kind and selfless Julie that I had gotten to know. 

Over the next few weeks I kept thinking back about our conversation.  They said she never smiled, she attacked them verbally, and she never said hello.  I started to observe Julie amongst other staff members and I started to realize what they meant.

I noticed that as she passed others in the hallway, she never really looked up.  She kept looking down and even if she made eye contact would not smile or say hello.  Because I had worked directly with her I was able to get to know her a little more than others so I knew this was probably more from a lack of confidence than from a mean or upset mindset. 

Right around this time I noticed something strange between me and another coworker.  When I first started passing her in the hallway we would always say a friendly hello.  But lately when she passed she wouldn’t even look at me.  I started wondering if I did something to wrong this woman or what I might have done to upset her so much. 

I started to feel like I was in a Seinfeld episode.  I would talk to my friends and explain the situation.  We would try to guess what was going on. 

Finally I had enough.  I decided that if I couldn’t figure out what was going on, maybe it was all in my head.  The next time I passed her in the hall I made sure to say “hello Sam.”  To my surprise she turned and said “hello Scott how is your day going?”

Nothing much came of this discussion but suddenly every time we passed each other we said hello.  It seemed that all of the angst I thought came from her, was nothing more than my misinterpretation of a meaningless situation.  When I finally talked to her about it she said she thought I was avoiding saying hello to her and that is why she stopped saying hello to me. 

The reason that I am bringing this up is because both of these situations represent a repeated response that gets misinterpreted.  If we pass a coworker in the hall and they smile and say hello we probably assume they are a nice person.  If we pass a coworker that always has a scowl on their face we probably assume they are not friendly. 

But it isn’t the fact that they are or are not friendly that we get this impression.  It is because of our repeated interactions with them.  Sitting through a seminar isn’t going to help if you don’t take the insight and create a system around it. 

When I was in high school I remember having a conversation with a friend’s little brother.  He said he was surprised once he got to know me that I was so nice because I walk around the hallways as if I am upset about something.  He just assumed I was a bully and he would never approach me. 

I was shocked.  I never thought of myself as a jerk and yet that is how others viewed me.  I started to make a conscious effort to change.  I started to make it a habit to pass people in the hall and smile and say hello.  From years of doing this it sort of stuck and has carried me through to today.  In fact it is such an ingrained habit that I have to be careful when I am in a solemn situation (such as a funeral) not to act too cheerful. 

But sitting through a seminar isn’t going to change major aspects of our lives.  Instead we have to find simple behavior changes and do them repeatedly.  We have to turn those changes into habits.  Once we do, positive change becomes more than possible, it becomes probable.