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Habits ... not a 'bag a mout'

Published:Sunday | July 17, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade

Francis Wade, Contributor

As professional adults, we have a problem: we don't know how to be trained to improve our productivity.

But it's not a Jamaican thing. Instead, this is a problem that afflicts employees in corporations the world over. It's one reason that so many corporate or national training programmes fail to make a profound difference, even if they are interesting, informative, and entertaining.

Apparently, the problem lies in the way we understand learning.

Think back to your days in primary or preparatory school. How did you learn long division? In your mind, you probably remember your teacher going to the blackboard and explaining the concept for the first time. In your memory, she did the teaching and you did the learning, and it occurred as quickly as it takes to pour oil into an empty lamp.

Unfortunately, our memories are faulty.

We did not learn long division without having some important things in place that today, are often overlooked: 1) the habit of doing practice exercises in the classroom, and at home; and 2) an environment in which these habits were encouraged.

It's more likely that your teacher spent an hour or two explaining the concept, and that you spent tens or even hundreds of hours practising long division and gradually improving your skill as time went along.

Fast-forward to the way in which we conduct productivity training today.

We as Jamaicans are quite good at talking, presenting, explaining, and storytelling.

However, as Nadine Sutherland and Terror Fabulous made it clear, "Action - Not a Bag a Mout" is what really counts.

Translation: it's not good enough to talk, we must also take action.

When it comes to personal productivity, however, not even action is enough.

Many of us have done the following actions at least once: cleaned out our email inbox; showed up at a meeting five minutes early; or crafted a schedule for the day before starting our work.

It is much more difficult to convert a single action into consistent habits that endure. Few employees at any level know how to do this effectively. In fact, our skills in this area are so weak that hardly anyone expects you to attend a two-day training programme and come back with new habits. Their assumption is that you are as weak at this as everyone else, no matter how smart you are.

In their book, Change Anything, Patterson, et al, go further and explain that we vastly overrate our power to change, in what they call the "willpower trap".

It's the tendency to think that once we have decided to adopt or unlearn a habit, it should be easy to make it happen.

It's a trap that causes us to under-invest in the two tactics we used to learn long division: repeated practice, and tailored environments.

Looking in the wrong place

It turns out that we are simply looking to make changes in all the wrong places. We don't need to be any smarter, or be able to understand fancy concepts more quickly.

I recently heard a story at the Stadium: When Usain Bolt comes to run laps in the pool he keeps going until he throws up. Then he runs some more.

I imagine that this level of practice is what is needed to become the best in the world, but we educated professionals often stop at understanding why pool-running is important, while never, ever allowing ourselves to actually get wet.

Instead, what you and I need to do is figure out what would get us to jump into the kind of tough exercises that build real muscle.

To do so, we need to be aware of two principles.

The first is that we are adults, and, therefore, need customised environments that might meet our individual needs.

The second principle is that physical practice is vastly superior to visual practice, which, in turn, is better than mere understanding.

For example, rehearsing a presentation in front of a colleague is the best way to ensure that your voice box and physical gestures are moving together to produce the effect you want.

Sometimes it's difficult to craft the right kind of practice environment, but that's not an invitation to surrender.

It's exactly what we need to learn to do so that we can not just learn, but actually get better and more productive.

Francis Wade is a management consultant with Framework Consulting.