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Build Great Habits
by Dave Neal

Best-selling author, John Grisham, was a practicing defense lawyer in 1984 when he began writing his first novel (A Time to Kill). Because his job demanded 60 to 70-hour weeks, he came to work several hours early for three years to work on the book. Some mornings it was the last thing he wanted to do, and no one was forcing him (only his wife knew about it). Still, he did it, and three years later he had a book that no one was interested in publishing. By this point, he recounts, the habit of writing every morning was so strong that he started his next book, The Firm, the very next day.

Building habits, especially habits of excellence, are difficult. They take a great deal of time, effort, and self-discipline. But the rewards can be phenomenal. For example Grisham has written a bestseller every year since 1988 and was the top-selling author of the 1990s. Here are some specific tips for how to build great habits:

Connect with a purpose

Discover a personal cause that motivates and inspires you in the right direction. Help other people discover their personal causes, and create a common cause that all team members can rally behind. This will build momentum toward a great habit.

Start with you

Be honest about your own habit of excellence. Be an excellent role model to yourself and others every day. Expect a strong effort from yourself and others. Make decisions and try to satisfy your own motivational needs.

Be consistent and persistent

Like Grisham — as with any demanding effort to form a habit — you will be tempted to fall back into old comfortable ways, telling yourself, “Just this one lapse won’t matter.” Actually, every slip can take you all the way to the bottom of the hill, and you may find it difficult to start back up. In fact, the more times you allow yourself to slip, the less energy you have to climb. We are self-disciplined when we do what we know we should do regardless of whether or not we feel like doing it. Again, connection to your purpose is vital. The key to willpower is want power. You will do it if you want it enough. Go slow and take it one step at a time. The smaller the hill, the easier it is to climb. If you set out to climb a mountain before you are prepared, your chances of success dwindle. Make small changes over time. Focus on just a few things and keep it simple.

Get help

Tell people what you’re doing and what your goal is. The more people you tell, the harder it is not to do it. You can also use the support and influence of other people to help you achieve your goal. For instance, it’s easier to continue an exercise routine at the local gym if you have a partner to work out with you and motivate you to improve.

Mix it up

Continuously innovate your approaches to work. Break old habits by challenging how you do things. Experiment; enlist the talents and creativity of the people around you; don’t be afraid to mix things up and vary your routines; take a different route to work; make some boring task more fun.

By the way, maybe you don't feel that all of Grisham's 18 books have been excellent or that his writing improves with each effort. You may even find his books formulaic and mediocre. Regardless of your literary tastes, keep in mind that even great habits need to be challenged over time as we can become entrenched in ruts that limit our ability to adapt and change when needed.

Dave Neal has helped develop thousands of employees and managers in organizations around the world for over 15 years. He is a senior partner at 4th Street Training. Web: Email:


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