Old Habits Die Hard

It’s easy to develop habits in one environment that don’t translate to a new environment. Here are some tips to keep old habits from holding you back.

Maya felt like she was on top of the world. After years of working with software teams that claimed to be agile and struggling through dysfunctional process after dysfunctional process, she finally joined a team that really seemed to “get it.” She spent her first few weeks studying how the team functioned, marveling at how smoothly their process worked.

But, when she finally jumped in, Maya felt unable to be as effective as she wanted. She struggled a bit with new technology and where to look for troubleshooting information. When she talked to her new boss about some of the things she was stuck on, her boss recommended asking the lead developer to pair for a short time. It seemed so simple that Maya wondered why she hadn’t thought to do it herself.

While working with her previous team, Maya had been discouraged from “interrupting” the lead developer. He would get grumpy and say that every interruption meant twenty minutes to get back on task. Maya had developed a reflex that automatically excluded that option. In fact, over time and through working with a few different teams, she had slowly buried many alternatives that may have been good first options.

Whether working with the same team for years or working with many different teams over time, many of us develop habits that restrain us in environments that are different from the ones we first developed the habits in. As we work through our daily tasks, we do things without even thinking about whether it is the best thing to do in that situation. Our brains have been trained to follow or avoid certain paths based on our past experiences. Many times, even when we find ourselves in a brand new situation, we forget to start with a fresh “beginner’s mind,” letting go of old habits and seeing every situation as a brand new opportunity.

What can be done to be sure that old habits aren’t keeping us from doing our best? Being aware that this is happening is an important first step. These choices have become habits because they have been done so many times that we no longer consciously think about them. When Maya was faced with questions about how to find troubleshooting information, she considered a few options. But, the options she came up with did not include asking the lead developer because habit had removed that possibility. When faced with any decision or problem, perhaps you can pause long enough to ask yourself, “Am I considering all of my options?”

Once you are aware that old habits may be blocking your ability to make the best decisions possible, how can those habits be broken? Awareness is only half the battle. The first great resource for thinking through breaking habits is to draw on your own experience. Are there things you have done that could be applied to your current situation? Even if those experiences don’t necessarily solve your problem, just thinking about them may lead you to some good options.

Sometimes, it helps to think about the situation objectively. Pretend that someone you know has come to you with this exact situation. What would you tell her? You might draw on your past experiences to find appropriate suggestions. You also might draw on suggestions others have given you—regardless of whether you’ve actually acted on them yourself. Looking at a situation as if it were someone else experiencing it allows new perspectives and ideas to blossom.

That idea can be flipped around, too. Think about people you respect or look up to. Can you imagine what they would suggest you do without even asking them? It may sound a little weird, I know, but have a pretend conversation with someone you respect deeply. Imagine explaining the details of your issue and asking for that person’s suggestions. When we are not seeing the situation as ourselves, with our old habits and restrictions, we can open up and allow things we already know how to do to surface.

The above ideas don’t require you to talk to anyone else, but don’t ever be afraid to ask teammates for their ideas. Their experiences will vary, and they will likely have new perspectives to offer you. Some of them may have deep experience with the software and its evolution and can offer insight based on what has been encountered previously. It’s even possible that your fresh perspective and questions will break them of some bad habits they have formed from past situations, too!

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