Changing Limiting Behaviors

Welcome to our ongoing series of FAQ blogs about the core principles of LaL’s methodology. In this FAQ, CEO Shayne Hughes discusses what prevents us from changing behaviors that don’t serve our goals.

Q. Most people know the pain of trying to change a behavior like being argumentative or procrastinating. Why is it so difficult to do?

The first problem lies in recognizing we even have an unhelpful behavior. We don’t tend to notice our own leadership and communication styles. And there’s such rampant conflict avoidance in the workplace, people rarely express their feedback to one another.

The second obstacle is when you do notice something needs to be changed, it’s not enough to tell yourself, oh, I should do something different. People need to uncover why they began the behavior in the first place. It’s not an accident that they’re repeating it.

Q. Can you give an example?

A. I used to be a pathological procrastinator. I’d have a report or a project to deliver and I would see the deadline looming off in the distance. I’d tell myself, start early, get going now. The days would go by and I would somehow find a way to avoid it until the very last minute.

I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted and I was very frustrated and judgmental of my inability to start early. It’s a great example of how knowing what to do doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll do it.

The explanations I gave myself only made things worse. I was suffering from character faults of laziness or lack of discipline that had been genetically passed on to me by my parents. I felt powerless to change.

As I began the work of LaL, I discovered that it had little to do with genetics; I was, in fact, committed to procrastinating.

Q. Committed? Why would anyone be committed to a counterproductive behavior?  

A. It’s a powerful concept. The light bulb moment for me around my own procrastination came when I realized I was committed to procrastinating because it was serving me in an unconscious way.

If we behave counter-productively, and can’t stop it, then we must be getting something very potent from that behavior. In order to make a change, you need to uncover what that is for you.

So, using the example of my procrastination, I was able to ascertain that behind this judgment that I was lazy and undisciplined, there was a layer of fear and anxiety.

It was the fear of being stupid. If I started early, did my very best work and then delivered something less than a stellar outcome, I would have to confront that I wasn’t smart enough to succeed at this new level.

I couldn’t deal with that. So my ego found a tradeoff. Put it off until the last moment, then whip it out in a fury of stressful productivity. If the outcome is mediocre, it’ll be due to my dysfunctional procrastination habit, not my intrinsic intelligence.

At LaL, we call that a benefit. I had an ego benefit which protected me from feelings of failure or inadequacy. In my particular case that benefit was so compelling, I was willing to behave in a very frustrating way to maintain it.

What I want to illustrate with my example is that by identifying your fears and “benefits”, you can get to the root cause of your choices. If I’m committed to a behavior I don’t like, what is my ego getting from it? How is it protecting me or making me feel more comfortable through avoiding things that might be unpleasant?

The unconscious reward I get from that behavior benefits me short-term as a survival mechanism. I’m trying to escape negative feelings in the here-and-now. If you were to ask, from a five-year perspective, is this behavior of benefit to you?, we would have a different answer.

Q. Once a person has identified the root cause of their behavior, what do they do about it? What’s the next step in resolving and moving beyond it?

A. Change requires rewiring the original driver. At some point in our formative years we learned that this kind of behavior helped us avoid unwanted feelings or experiences.

Let’s take conflict avoidance, another prevalent behavior. If I don’t say what I really think, others are less likely to get upset or shut me down. We’re less likely to have unpleasant conflict and more likely to have a harmonious relationship.

The relationships I do have might not be as deep as they could be. We might end up avoiding certain important topics. Some needs that really matter to me might not get met, but I’m successfully avoiding what I’ve learned in my emotional past should be avoided.

The problem is that now I’m in my 40’s, and this avoidance no longer serves me. But I keep on with it anyway, because that old memory of getting yelled at by my parents is still operating in the background, at an implicit level. In our seminars we teach people how to revisit these experiences, draw more mature emotional conclusions about them and then let go of what doesn’t work anymore.

When we’re able to rewire events like this we actually gain the ability to tell ourselves, it’s okay to risk that reaction because today I have the capacity to deal with it. I can respond skillfully if I come up short on a project or someone gets angry. When I was five years old, I couldn’t.

So you learn to bring your emotional presence to a more mature point and that allows you to make more conscious and effective choices around these challenging situations.

  1. bobbi owens says:

    Conflict avoidance for me is also a habit. Habits will continue unless I’m hyper-vigilant to recognize situations where the behavior generally takes place.

  2. Shelly Jackson says:

    Survival is my benefit of procrastination. I just have so many things to do that I never get to start anything early and I have to just keep putting things off that aren’t immediately needed. I would like to change, but not sure how.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I encourage you to scrape deeper into what is at play for you. Start with the hidden benefits. Two possible benefits that spring to mind with how you describe your procrastination are:

      a) you can’t do your best work at the last minute, so you avoid feelings of failure (built-in excuse); similar to what I was describing above.

      b) you avoiding making difficult choices about what you will and won’t do. If we try to do too many things, we won’t do some of them and others not very well. In either case, it is hard for others to reproach us. If I’m afraid of disappointing others by saying no, I simply ‘try’ hard at everything and then make unconscious choices.

      Subtle, but powerful. Look for what is the greatest discomfort. Our ego organizes itself around avoiding that.

  3. Janet Orion says:

    I tend to argue a lot with my spouse and even with my kids. I don’t see the behavior with coworkers, though. I know my parents were like this with each other and I have always felt it was a genetic or environment thing that shaped who I was. I didn’t think I would ever really be able to change.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      It’s a very interesting observation that you have seemingly opposite behaviors at work and at home. Without knowing you, I would venture that the root cause of these two behaviors is actually the same.

      I notice in myself, for example, that whether I argue or I hold my tongue, I always think I’m right, and don’t want to be wrong, weak or lose. In one case, I protect myself by saying little; in the other, I go on the offensive.

  4. Matteo Dambitsch says:

    I’m in my 40’s as well and I find it so hard to change. I keep telling my wife this is me, but she doesn’t buy it. She still insists I need to change some things. My problem is, when the situation arises, the new behavior that I would like to have, just never enters my brain.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I love how you say the new behavior “never enters your brain.” In another post, my colleague Marc-André talks about “pinches.” When we are in conflict, we feel threatened, and react in fight-flight. In this moment, the blood drains from our brain and goes into our body and nervous system. We think with our brainstem, or reptilian brain. As Marc-André likes to say, we literally lose our mind.

      So in that moment it is very difficult to access a more thoughtful response. The work of change needs to come before that. Otherwise, we are just acting out our survival system.

  5. Lisa DeChiara says:

    My wife kept working on this type of thing with me. I needed that constant positive support to keep me focused and now I think I have finally rewired a few things. It took a lot of work and effort, but well worth it.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      Support is key. I find it very difficult to change on my own. When we have relationships of support, they help us rewire, as you say.

  6. Lucy Bottorff says:

    I never looked at my own procrastination as having any benefit. Stress, yes! I will need to look at what my benefit might be in return from my own laziness.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      Let me know what you find. The benefits for me were really startling.

  7. Mark Cooper says:

    Working in leadership has taught me that the only way to be successful in front of your peers is to beable to take a look at yourself and evolve with the times to be more productive. Over the years some behaviors have been advantageous to my role as a leader whereas in today’s thinking, those same behaviors might be a liability. The key is to identify when you have something to change.

  8. Kehaulani Cosme says:

    Yes, recognizing we have an unhelpful behaviour is the key to effective change. We need to be able to see this, just as any other problem, before we can seek change.

  9. Nancy Stone Bourgeois says:

    You mentioned confict avoidance as a negative behavior. I would have thought that one could go the other way. Turn the cheek and walk away is what I learned as a kid.

  10. Natascha Tello says:

    Always knew that my procrastination fueled my ego. I have felt for a long time that I do my best work under pressure and I stay more focused on my work as time dwindles. I know it’s not the best behavior to have, but it seems to work for me for many things.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I would venture that you do your most ‘efficient’ work under pressure. I know I knock things out, I think quickly, I make decisions because I have to.
      Using stress to be focused is a controlled fight-flight response in which I funnel my adrenalin into delivering.

      In my experience, it is not a creative space — we repackage and exploit what we know, but we don’t break new ground of insight or creativity. So it may be our most efficient work (read: how long it takes me to get this thing done that I’m dreading), but it is rarely our ‘best’ work.

      Also, from a 40 something guy who is coming back from a severe case of adrenal fatigue, it wasn’t sustainable over the long term. Don’t wait until consequences hit you to make important changes.

  11. Sherry Marshall says:

    You’re right, I think a lot of the rewiring process is learning and knowing that we have the capacity to deal with these situations now, whereas before, we didn’t and the behaviors kept being duplicated.

  12. Keith Adams says:

    I’ve never been able to change long term. I have always thought that if I could do something over and over for a while then it would become second nature. But, I eventually fall back into the original behavior. Laziness? Maybe. Comfort zone? Probably.

  13. Dr. Michael Abelson says:

    I used to leave little notes on my computer to remind me everyday about what I needed to do to change (rewire) behaviors. Simple little things like asking how my husbands day was or noticing something different each day. These things never came to mind naturally, but I learned that they were important to him and thus important for me to change.

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