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New Year, New Stories, New Habits

Q. My 2020 goals were disrupted by Covid-19 and beyond. As I go into 2021, what habits can I leverage to reframe and achieve the goals I want to in the classroom and beyond?

A. I remember staring 2020 in the face with new hopes, desires, and resolves. I couldn’t help thinking it would be the year of improved vision. Little did I know how true that would be. This past year was most definitely a year where we’ve all learned to see our environments, our world, and ourselves through new lenses. If last year was the year of VISION, then 2021 must be the year for ACTION.

Each year, we all begin anew with commitments for improved health, strengthened relationships, better behaviors, increased skillsets—new habits. For some those resolves are realized, but for many (if not most) the goals never materialize.

How do we make sure this year isn’t a repeat of years past? One of my most often shared quotes of Joseph Grenny is, “The central skill for taking control of the quality of your life and the quality of your relationships is the ability to master your stories.” We use this in our Crucial Conversations training to make sure we manage our emotions prior to beginning a conversation. Emotions are a key driver to all behavior. If we want to change our behavior, we have to change our emotions. If we want to change our emotions, we have to change our stories. In doing so, we increase our ability to change our lives and the lives of those around us.

The same is true for new habits. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit teaches us the science behind habit formation. He introduces us to the three components of the habit loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward. A habit is something that starts out as a choice and then becomes nearly an automatic pattern. Leveraging the right cues and the right rewards creates the automaticity.

One of my most powerful takeaways has been the idea that “what is rewarded is repeated.” A reward is what signals the brain that a certain routine is worth doing again, and again. A key ingredient in creating the right reward is creating the right emotion. And where do emotions come from? Stories. A reward story is the story you tell yourself in the moment you do the routine that creates a positive emotional reward.

Let’s see how stories not only impact our behavior, but also how we can revise them to get the desired results we seek. One behavior that has persisted in my life and that has probably contributed to many of my failed new years’ resolves has been my sleep habits. Retracing back to my high school years, I have survived on five to six hours of sleep each night. You are probably wondering where lies the reward? What could possibly be telling the brain to do that again? The answer is clear: my stories.

You begin to revise your reward story by first RECOGNIZING what stories you have been telling yourself that makes your current behavior rewarding. I have long subscribed to the stories that sleep is overrated. I don’t need sleep. When you are sleeping, you aren’t doing. Therefore, I am more productive. This creates a powerful emotion because I value contribution and mastery. That emotion is a cue to continue this habit loop and propels it forward.

The next step is REFUTING those stories. What’s wrong with them? Or what’s a truth that could contradict them? Recently, I participated in a virtual training course based on the book, “The Power of Full Engagement” by Loehr and Schwartz. One memorable quote was, “Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.” Most Americans require seven to eight hours of sleep each night to function optimally. Less sleep may contribute to more time, but it also leads to diminished energy.

With your stories refuted, the final step is REWRITING them. What is a new story you can tell yourself that is more accurate? Sleep is not overrated. With proper sleep, I am able to contribute with more energy and with higher performance and capacity. I actually get more done when I am rested and renewed.

As you look to make 2021 the year of action and add new habits – tell new stories. Remember the 3 Rs of revising your rewards:

  • Recognize: What story are you telling yourself right now that makes your current behavior rewarding?
  • Refute: What’s wrong with that story?
  • Rewrite: What’s a different, more accurate story you could tell yourself?

In the words of the Athenian philosopher Plato, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” So, let’s begin a new year with new habits and new stories.

Scott Robley

Scott Robley is a speaker and Master Trainer at VitalSmarts. With more than twenty years of experience in education, training, and public speaking, Scott is the ultimate professional, a master storyteller, and committed to changing the world by changing behavior.

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