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Part 1 Mindset: Self Leadership Tip #13

Mindfully Develop Habits—Model the Way

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Tip 13: Mindfully Develop Habits—Model the Way

Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.
- Shawn Achor

Sow a thought, and you reap an act. Sow an act, and you reap a habi. Sow a habit, and you reap a character. Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
- Samuel Smiles

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
- Aristotle

Habits modeled my way. During my early years in dentistry, I was a mess. I smoked. I overate. I gambled. I had no money, I was overweight and I was had high blood pressure. Eventually I became a diabetic. Something had to give. I was a wreck because of bad habits. Today, all of those bad habits are gone. Replaced with some pretty good habits that I believe are responsible for what has become a wonderful career in dentistry. It didn't happen overnight, but slowly I changed.

Change is hard, and it begins by creating good habits. The good habits come down to behavior, first at a personal level and then at an organizational level. Once I cultivated good habits, it seemed that people became more aligned. They looked at me differently.

Author Gretchen Rubin in her book, Better Than Before, says, " The habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself." Through the years I established many good habits and broke many bad habits. I became quite adept in the field of habits. Nothing is more important for your success than creating good habits. In time, as Aristotle says, your practice will become excellent as it becomes your habit to be excellent. A habit is defined as any behavior that is recurrent, and it happens without much awareness or conscious intent, and it is developed through frequent repetition. Because habits are relegated to automaticity, we never have to think about them, freeing our minds and energy to take care of other things like dentistry and all of the decisions that are necessary to create a successful life and practice.

According to Rubin, "When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then (and this is the best part) we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits."

When I decided to change the first place I started was with my physical condition. I stopped smoking. I began to run. Smoking was cold turkey. Gambling was immediate, but running was gradual. I remember running two blocks and getting winded. I went back the next day, and the next day…on and on every day. I never became a marathon runner, but at my best I was running five miles three days per week, and going to the gym the other four days. Through the years I built the habit of physical fitness. I learned a lot about habits back then. If you want to know more about the how's of habits, I recommend Rubin's book as well as The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. You will find that habits are a key factor in "knowing yourself" and knowing your enemy.

Habit formation is complex. It requires a process of monitoring, scheduling, creating a base of keystone habits and some level of accountability. Many consultants will tell you that what gets measured gets managed, so monitors will keep you honest for tracking purposes. Scheduling your behavior and writing down your actions is also instrumental. When I first started I did it all by myself. Today I would use a coach to keep me accountable. Another key is to find the habits that make the biggest difference. Running, for me, made a huge difference. This may not work for everyone, but it became my keystone habit.

Extending the idea of habits into my practice, I realized that the first place to start was in the physical nature of the practice. Just like me, the practice had to survive. Just like me, the practice was sick. So I started by making sure the practice had enough money to operate properly. I had to create habits that would improve my relationship with money. Most people would think that if the practice were having problems, the first place to start would be to produce more dentistry…by hook or by crook. That strategy wasn't working. It actually created more problems. I had to become more fiscally responsible. I had a whole slew of bad financial habits. Too many to even discuss. The first place I looked was how I was spending money. So, for the first time in my life I got into the habit of following a budget. I went from indiscriminately cashing checks for frivolous things from equipment and supplies and extravagant lunches to watching every penny that left the practice. I paid all of my bills on time. My suppliers began to like to do business with me.

We only ordered what was absolutely necessary. Our financial policies slowly cleared up in every area of the practice. The staff was aligned. They began to take ownership of the systems. Everyone had responsibility. In truth, the discipline was no different than going out to run every day. I began to feel better at a personal level. The reward for successfully cultivating good personal and practice habits was the culture I created. And it lasted for years. As a matter of fact it will never change back again because habits have the potential to last forever. These days I create habits as their own reward…just for the sake of excellence.

William James once said, "All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits (practical, emotional and intellectual) systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny." In other words, all of our habits create the systems in our life that lead us toward or away from success. Organizationally these systems are responsible for our office culture…and culture trumps everything in practice management.

One more comment: Habits are paradoxical. They are surprisingly tough, and they are surprising fragile. Through the years I have had many issues trying to keep my good habits going. A good example about your "enemy" when it comes to keeping habits is like trying to get our patients to floss. When I ask a patient if they floss and they say, "yes," I always ask them how often. Generally they say a few times per week. I then ask them specifically what days and what time. Then they turn and know they've been caught. We both smile, but the lesson is that habits must be done every day. No exceptions. It takes sixty-six days to develop a habit. There are no loopholes or workarounds. If you are serious about developing a great practice, start with habits. Start with your behavior. As Gandhi said, "become the change."

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