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The M Dash

Live with purpose.

This Year, Do One New Thing at Work

January 04, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

Whether you love to make resolutions or can’t stand them, it’s a good idea to think about the behaviors that are serving you well in your career, and the ones that aren’t. Taking stock of those habits can happen on January 1st or at any time during the year—and committing to making one simple, daily change can feel more manageable than “get a promotion,” or “find a new job.” Below, we explore how to make small changes stick through January and beyond. 

The start of a new year is when, if you’re like most people, you think about all the things you want to change in your life. It makes sense: Flipping the calendar to January is all about fresh starts—and that often includes something related to your job. While it might be easy to think of huge career goals for 2019, you might want to start a lot smaller.

“The biggest reason our attempts to make significant changes fail is because we never turn them into a series of actions that will lead to the desired outcome,” says Art Markman, PhD, author of Smart Change and director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at the University of Texas. “When goals are too abstract—like ‘have more influence at work’—it’s hard to know what to do to make them happen.”

A better approach: Acquire a new daily habit to help you get closer to your goal.  

Why are habits so powerful? They don’t take a lot of mental energy because they are automatic (after all, when was the last time you had to give yourself a pep talk to brush your teeth?). As a result, they free up your brain to focus on more important things. It’s win-win! And studies show that all it takes to create a new habit is repetition. “The formula for a habit is establishing a consistent relationship between a certain environment and behavior,” says Markman. “You have to do it every day and, if possible, at the same time.” To get started, aim to work your new habit into your morning routine, as researchers have found that it takes less time for a new behavior to become a habit if you do the task earlier in the day.

Now, consider your bigger goal. What new habit would be most helpful to achieve that goal? “Ask yourself what you want to accomplish and pick just one,” says Robert Schaffer, founder of Schaffer Consulting in Stamford, Connecticut. “Be honest with yourself about where there’s room for improvement, and create a new habit to help you get better in that area.”

If you can’t decide on the daily change you want to make, do some research. “Find someone who has accomplished what you hope to achieve,” says Markman. “Want to be a good public speaker? Sit down with someone who is great at it and pick their brain.”

Ready to go? Make sure you’ve chosen an actionable and concrete behavior to develop, such as taking the first 15 minutes of every morning to write out a game plan for the day instead of diving right into email. Then do that again, and again, every single day. Before long, you won’t have to think about it. How long will it take? That depends, says Markman. “Habits are really just memories, so the more distinctive the memory, the easier it is to create the habit,” he says. Use a visual cue to help: If you want to start each day by sending an email to five prospective clients, write your goal down on a sticky note and put it on your monitor where you’ll see it the moment you sit down.

Even if your new habit feels slight, you’re going to see results. And the act of creating a new routine can cascade into deeper change. “When you stretch yourself beyond old behaviors and accomplish a goal, it’s reinforcing,” says Schaffer. “You see what you’re able to do, learn from that success, and feel ready to go on to the next one.”

The impact grows over time. “Little victories are powerful—they often accumulate and lead to something significant,” says Markman. “You can psych yourself out with negative thinking—that the effort never works or you aren’t capable of doing anything differently. Once you experience smaller victories, however, you’re more confident when you need to make a big change, like going back to school.” Here’s to thinking big—but starting small—in the new year.