Swim Upstream or Float Downstream – Change Your Environment to Change Your Behavior
The situation controls your behavior. If you want to control your behaviors, look at changing your situation.
I hope everyone is having a fantastic holiday break. Taking a step away from things can be quite valuable. I like to think of myself as introspective. Yet when I was working, I would often surprise myself during breaks. I would look at a situation which had been stressing me for weeks or months, and the solution would seem clear, once I had stepped away from the constant short term pressure. As a simple example, I once had an engineer trying out management, and she wasn't succeeding. I was spending significant mental energy trying to coach her towards success. I was simultaneously trying to keep their team's morale up, as they weren't thrilled with their new manager. It took a long weekend for me to take a few breaths, and realize that I'd passed the point where I had given that pseudo-manager a fair shot. I now needed to pull the plug on their management experiment. The answer was clear once I wasn't in the thick of solving daily issues.
Speaking of taking a break, I've had a few people ask if I was going to take a break for the holidays as well. When I was working 40-hour weeks, I felt the need to take a break. I can't say the same is necessary when you're writing one article a week, answering some emails, and doing an hour or two of coaching a day. It's just not that stressful. 🙃 It mainly requires me planning ahead a little to ensure I don't have to step out of a family gathering to type for a few hours.
We live a lot of our life on autopilot. You get up to your normal alarm, get ready in your normal way, perform your work tasks as best you can, and it continues. Each day is different, but a huge percentage of your decisions are relatively automatic.
I've struggled with overeating my whole life. It has taken years for me to build up mechanisms which work for me, to (usually) protect me from myself. I'll occasionally eat 6k calories of pizza in a sitting, but these days I'm doing fine.
My turning point was when I first moved to the Seattle area in 2007. I'd grown up in the Midwest, with their fantastic Italian Beef sandwiches and deep dish pizza.
I had spent years wishing I could lose weight. Diets and exercise never stuck. After changing my physical location, I immediately found success. My situation changed, and my behavior changed with it. I began hiking, because that's what people did out here. Then I began rock climbing, because I was invited by a co-worker. Then I joined CrossFit, because that's what my co-workers were doing. The regular physical activity changed my relationship to food, and how I spent my weekends.
Within 6 months, I'd lost over 40-pounds. I could run a few miles without trying hard, certainly a new thing for me. While I'd love to personally take credit for it, I'd spent the previous 30 years of my life not being successful. Is it a coincidence that I moved, and immediately became healthier?
The key was that I stopped “trying to lose weight”, and instead changed my situation. My situation changed, which changed my eating and fitness patterns. Situation → behavior → result, instead of trying to change my behavior in a static situation.
I think we often have a mistaken assumption about good intentions in our lives. We think “I want to lose weight”, and we translate that into “I should eat less.” Planning to change doesn't work. We become frustrated with ourselves, and feel like we should simply try harder.
There's a saying at Amazon that I absolutely love.
Good intentions never work, you need good mechanisms to make anything happen. — Jeff Bezos
(if that's not his literal quote, my apologies Jeff)
Going back to my autopilot statement earlier, I believe that reacting to our environment is unavoidable. We can control our lives to an extent, but you will struggle if you're working against your environment.
Instead, consider what environmental changes need to take place to encourage the output you desire. It's easier to change your environment than it is to change your behavior. Or to put it another way, it's easier for me to stop at a sushi restaurant for dinner than it is for me to eat responsibly at a pizza restaurant.
Changing the situation at work
I spent years in a B2B publishing company. I slowly worked my way into management there. In no way would I say that my career was a wild success. It was fine, but nothing special. Then on a whim, I applied to Amazon, and made it in.
To say that Amazon was different is an understatement. I distinctly remember writing some of my past co-workers at home, and strongly encouraging them to move. I excitedly proclaimed, “I learned more in the last 6 months than I learned in the last 6 years!”
I think a lot about how my life changed. If I looked at my career and skill trajectory pre-Amazon, it was one pattern. If I looked at my trajectory once I moved to Amazon, I saw something completely different.
I didn't change. Amazon is many things, but it isn't excellent at training employees. Their training is pretty poor in my opinion.
When it comes down to it, I think that we naturally react to the situation we're in. If we stand instead of sit in the kitchen, we naturally eat less. If we work at a top-tier tech company with high expectations, we naturally improve our performance.
I'm not saying that everyone rises to the occasion at Amazon, or that our situations completely dictate our performance. Yet, I think they have an outsized impact on our behaviors.
I've interviewed plenty of employees who have worked 15-20 years at the same company, doing the same work. They explain that their career has been stagnant, and they'd like to see if they can cut it in a faster paced environment. Many of these people will experience a fantastic explosion of personal growth.