I am the director of operations for a growing medical equipment repair company. We fix home medical equipment, the type of stuff that a doctor would prescribe a patient and the patient would then use in their home – like a CPAP, oxygen concentrator, ventilator, etc.
One of the things I enjoy most about this is the fact that when I was brought into the company the new owners saw the need for better processes and systems throughout the company. Since this is the area of business where I feel most passionate, I was able to combine a need they had with an area I had been focused for years.
In the business we use processes to build out the steps that need to be taken to get things accomplished. Sometimes they are straightforward. Sometimes they are convoluted. Sometimes they are simple. Sometimes they are complex.
But focusing on the processes allows us to build the right systems to run the operations of the business. We can determine the best way to do something and then standardize it. We teach the staff how to complete the task in the proper steps and we document the process.
Then we build systems to monitor and track the health of that process. We can run a quick report to see how the systems are functioning. We can see if a problem is starting to develop by identifying patterns in the data.
This allows us to make sure things are running smoothly. There will always be problems and mistakes but this allows us to keep tabs on all of the numerous operational steps that need to be taken regularly.
Using this for personal improvement
So you might be thinking if this works so well in business, “what about using this technique for personal goals?” That exact question led me to question how we improve as individuals over time.
Even those who understand the importance of processes in business have a hard time transferring that understanding to their personal goals and objectives. It seems that most people can see the importance of processes in a 500-person company but don’t see the need for them individually.
But to me this is a mistake. We should still focus on building the right process, the right routine. The reason is simple. The more we follow the same routine, the more we change that behavior from conscious thought to automatic habit.
In Habit by William James, the renowned psychologist says (quoting Dr. Henry Maudsley) that when we follow the same pattern, “The next result is that habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.”
James then goes on to say, “One may state this abstractly thus: If an act require for its execution a chain, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, etc., of successive nervous events, then in the first performances of the action the conscious will must choose; each of these events from a number of wrong alternatives that tend to present themselves; but habit soon brings it about that each event calls up its own appropriate successor without any alternative offering itself, and without reference to the conscious will, until at last the whole chain, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, rattles itself off as soon as A occur, just as if A and the rest of the chain were fused into a conscious stream. When we are learning to walk, to ride, to swim, skate, fence, write, play, or sing, we interrupt ourselves at every step by unnecessary movements and false notes. When we are proficients, on the contrary, the results not only follow with the very minimum of muscular action requisite to bring them forth, they also follow from a single instantaneous ‘cue.’”
Imagine the possibilities here. If we can start to learn to form these structures, then over time we will start to do them automatically. We won’t require as much conscious effort. We won’t require as much muscular action.
I picture the professional basketball player who seems to be in the zone. They move fluidly and effortlessly but the result is a spectacular display of movements resulting in almost superhuman achievement.
Coaches see this in opponents and know that the key to stop this player is defense. By playing defense an opposing player can start to break that chain of events and cause the player to lose focus enough that they suddenly can’t just float through the motions effortlessly. As they have to think through what they are doing, the result is less effective.
But we don’t just see this in sports or learning some new activity. We can gain the value by tying various things together in our life.
An example of how to build out the process
Years ago I figured out how to tie together waking up in the morning with a series of steps that result in daily exercise and a nutritious breakfast.
Here are the A, B, C, D, E, F, G, etc. steps I take every weekday morning. I wake up, turn off my alarm, put on my pants and sweatshirt, put on my socks, put on my wedding ring, put on my glasses, use the restroom, grab my water bottle off my nightstand, grab my laptop, unplug it from the charger, walk to the basement, turn on the space heater, plug in my headphones into my phone, start the Pandora app, put on the headphones and start pedaling. Then I grab a book and start to read while doing this. After a set amount of time I do some strength training, return upstairs to shower and get dressed for the day. Post shower I go to the kitchen and eat the same breakfast every day, (oatmeal with one pack of instant and some old-fashioned oats added in).
While this may seem like a random string of events it isn’t. I originally just needed to start exercising in the morning. So I kept tweaking my process until I had an easy, automatic routine that I kept following without conscious effort. Then I added more and more and more. I adjusted when changes were necessary, like when my daughter started waking up early and wanted to eat with me. I had to change up the routine to account for the additional time to make her breakfast.
Everything is thought-out, but completely automatic now. You can do the same thing with almost any area of your life.
You can start to consciously build out the routines in your life and then do them enough that they become completely automatic. You will do them without even thinking about them in most instances.
Processes and routines for more complex areas
You can even start to get into more complex behaviors and routines. If I have to get up and speak in front of a group of people I follow a process that changes based on my nerves. If I feel a little nervous I simply try to slow down and take a deep breath in.
Sometimes that is all it takes for me to slow down enough to speak clearly without nerves impacting my speech in a negative way. But sometimes this doesn’t seem to help. If I am speaking to a larger group of people I don’t know very well, and I feel the anxiety starting to take hold, I try to slow down and take a deep breath first, then I start to adjust my thinking to become more positive. If that still doesn’t help alleviate the nervousness, then I start to push a lot of air out through my mouth for an extended period of time (almost as if I am blowing out an imaginary birthday candle). As I start to run out of air to push out, I will naturally and reflexively take a giant breath in. After a few repetitions of this my breathing will usually get back to normal and I will relax.
These processes or routine-based steps can be helpful in many areas of life. We can start to create the best possible process and then do it enough for it to become habit. As it transitions to automatic we will start to reap the benefits because we won’t even have to think about it to do it.
The downward spiral
But most people do the opposite. They develop patterns of thought and behavior that aren’t well thought-out initially. So they get caught up in having to use extreme focus to try and break away from poor habits.
Their habits start to follow a process that leads to poor performance and negative outcomes. They get bad news at work and their thoughts start to spiral out of control about how the world is unfair and they aren’t good at anything. They start to listen to depressing music and then turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their discomfort. This leads to a poor mindset, a grouchy mood and a lack of self-confidence. Then this leads to an even worse performance and more negative outcomes, which starts the process all over again.
In this case, not developing a good process or routine to deal with a letdown, they create a negative feedback loop that results in diminishing quality. In order to try and change that, they will need to push against the habits with willpower and conscious effort.
Use this to improve
The systems and habits approach to improvement is all about using this insight to change our lives. We start to create better processes and routines that result in positive outcomes. These, then, reinforce the process. We keep doing more and more and getting better and better, even though most of the work is done automatically through habit.
The real work and where we spend almost all of our effort is on developing and standardizing our processes. We do this over and over and keep improving and getting better. We develop systems to monitor and track our progress and to keep us tied in so we can immediately spot a developing problem. Then we can correct the problem before it even turns into anything major. We spot and correct problems before they become problems.
The power of habit and routine is available to anyone who wants to take the time to learn the techniques so they can improve. We can all reach much higher than we are today. We can bring more happiness and joy to our lives and the lives of others. We can accomplish what we set out to achieve and we can chase our dreams. This unleashes a new, empowered version of us that can start to listen to that little voice inside us that compels us to move in a specific direction. We can listen, because we finally have the tools to do what we need to do to follow the directions of that voice. But without this, we will all fall short of our potential and live a life constantly wondering what if.