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One of the main ideas to emerge from the Social Brain Steering group in year one of our project is that the dynamics of human behaviour are best captured in a three-part rather than two-part relationship.
We are not just a controlled system and an automatic system, in which our automatic and largely unconscious behaviours are supplemented and informed by occasional conscious deliberation. In fact our behaviour is mostly habitual.
Habits are important because they define who we are, but also because they can be changed. You breathe automatically, you see automatically, but you think, decide and act habitually. Confucius captures the point nicely when he says: ’Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.’
Habits are driven by our automatic (principally limbic) system, and often feel automatic due to the way our brains predict events, and reward us when those predications are accurate, principally through the release of the ‘feel good factor’ in the form of dopamine. But habits are acquired and conditioned behaviours rather than strictly automatic. They are second nature rather than first, and therefore amenable to the influence of deliberation and reflection.
You breathe automatically, you see automatically, but you think, decide and act habitually.
However, no matter how much knowledge, reflection, and deliberation you bring to bare, you need behaviour to change behaviour. Thought alone will rarely change a habit, because willpower is scarce and depletable, and rarely sufficient to turn the thought into action on an ongoing basis.
Yet the right kind of thoughts can help you to outsmart your automatic system. By using whatever conscious control you have, you can change your environment, such that your automatic system is not given the fuel of familiarity, and your habitual behaviour is not repeatedly reinforced. ‘Nudge‘ therefore seeks to change what we do by shaping the environment to make best use of what we know about our automatic behaviour.
You can also free yourself from your habits to an extent by shifting your goals and expectations. In this respect, ’Think‘ seeks to change our conscious thoughts, such that we change our sense of who we are and what we should want, and thereby recalibrate our habits by seeking out different kinds of reward.
The RSA Steer approach takes the best of both approaches. We seek to bring people’s conscious attention to the power and strength of automaticity,but we also respect the role of conscious deliberation. Changing habits is the main aim of this endeavour, which is one reason why the first principle of our Steer report is that ‘habit is king’.
We know a lot about how hard it is to change bad habits, but much less about how we form good habits. This asymmetry is perhaps in the process of changing, because a recent study authored by Phillippa Lally at UCL suggests that it takes about 66 days for a behaviour to become habitual, by which she means completed without thinking about it. Commentary on this finding can be found here and some ruminations about different numbers of days for different kinds of habits can be found here.
66 days? In other words it is not easy to form a good habit. You need repeated practice, and need to find a way to keep motivation high. As Canadian Magician Doug Henning once put it:
‘The hard must become habit. The habit must become easy. The easy must become beautiful.’