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Breaking Out of the Habit Loop of Working Inertia

By: Baltazar Benavides on November 13th, 2019

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Breaking Out of the Habit Loop of Working Inertia

Teams & Culture

Have you ever caught yourself working deadline to deadline without coming up for air? I have and I’ve sworn to myself it would be the last time, only to return to that place and wonder, how did I get here again? Inertia is a property of matter by which it remains in uniform motion within its existing state. I’ve seen many versions of “working inertia” in my time in education: teachers planning lesson to lesson, coaches jumping from PD to PD, leaders thinking from meeting to meeting, schools operating from year to year. While the scale of this phenomenon varies, the pattern is consistent: over time, our repeated habits slowly mold us into ways of working that don’t leave room to step out of ourselves, reflect, and question our approach. Wondering ‘how did I get here again?’ now signals to me that my working inertia has built up a disconnect between how I want to work and how I am working. It is in those moments that I can feel trapped in a habit loop of working, where I lose sight of my purpose and my pursuit of innovation.

What is working inertia?

Many factors can contribute to building working inertia among educators. For example, there’s always something to add to the to-do list and there’s always a student it can impact, usually more than one. Also, collaborating with peers in similar roles is hard and often made harder by inflexible scheduling, missing meeting protocols, and ambiguous co-ownership. Finally, educators inherently love to learn; this love of learning supports a culture of yes where we are ever tempted to pilot new projects, join new committees, and take on new roles. Each of these elements is readily experienced by educators but they also leave us less room to look up, step back, and reflect on how we are working. They leave us more likely to get trapped in a loop, unconscious of how we are working.

How does working inertia happen?

Working inertia often manifests in small loops first, and grows into larger habit loops over time. Take for example instructional coaches caught up in planning from one teacher observation to the next. While working to stay on schedule, they let go of the habit of reflecting on the effectiveness of their coaching approach. Acutely, they may stop making time to learn new tools being tested by other coaches (locally or nationally). As the year wears on, these coaches may be so focused on each teacher’s growth cycle that they lose track of their own. In what ways does their work align with their evolving long term professional wants? And in what ways does it not? Before they realize it, they might skip over potential growth opportunities as a result of being so wrapped up in their working inertia. They might not prioritize their own emerging professional wants because they didn’t have the reflection to raise their awareness of it.

Individuals aren’t the only ones susceptible to working inertia – it impacts teams too. Have you ever been a part of a team that routinely makes the same decisions, even though the data suggests no change? Has it felt like you’ve walked right back into the same meeting you just had? Did you, too, wonder, how did we get here again? As Tom Northup shares, “all organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting. If they want different results, they must change the way they do things.” For example, districts may introduce new initiatives but retain the same implementation flaws; teams may conduct a stakeholder analysis but exclude the same perspectives; novel leadership opportunities may surface only to be filled by the same teacher leaders. Without interrupting team working inertia, school systems are at greater risk of losing sight of their purpose and missing out on a culture of innovation.  

Related Resource: Check out the 5 Ingredients to Create a Culture of Innovation

Disrupting Bad Loops

It is important to note that not all loops are bad. Consistent productivity has its place just behind purposeful prioritization. However, all loops can benefit from a disruptive shock. If we take a break from our standard perspective we might have the space to ask questions like, is this exactly how you want to work? Are there any changes that could make the way you work better? 

It is equally worth noting that this reflection does not necessitate change. Many times this stepping back affirms our way of work. The practice of stepping out of your flow and examining your hardened habits simply offers the opportunity to revisit your purpose and expose your consciousness to innovation.

So what can we do about it?

Since true accountability rarely just shows up and hits us over the head, we have to build our own structures to break out of our habit loops. Forming habits of authentic reflection can help us to more clearly see ourselves and to raise our awareness of innovative approaches. Start with exploring your own signs of working inertia: what does it look and feel like? Then, consider some of the loop-breaking practices below.

As individuals

  • Assess your professional habits, goals, wants, and needs in the short and long term
  • Hold a recurring scheduled meeting with yourself to check-in
  • Connect with a mentor or coach to consistently talk about the big picture and pull out of the day-to-day 
  • Find a peer to collaboratively examine and build working processes together 
  • Examine your skills across the conscious competence model
  • Keep track of your working habits in a reliable and visible place

With our teams

  • Assign authentic roles and set checkpoints to revisit them
  • Commit to working protocols that disrupt the status quo of voices
  • Assign the role of devil’s advocate so that team members take ownership in challenging the working and decision-making routines in place
  • Bring new people with a diversity of perspectives to the table
  • Consult with a third party to serve as an objective mirror

There’s no “right” way to break out of habit loop, but there are probably a number of practices that are more right for each of us. What else have you tried to protect against working inertia? Regardless of what works for you, commit to continuing to try some of these practices and keep track of what is effective. Because after all, maybe – just maybe – as you think about ways to disrupt your working inertia, you’re also wondering if this reflection might be a loop of its own. Have we been here before?

Check out the upcoming book, The New Team Habits,  a step by step guide to making changes as a team. 

Check out the upcoming book The New Team Habits to learn how to create responsive teams.

About Baltazar Benavides

Baltazar Benavides is a Senior Design Principal on the Design & Implementation Team, working with districts and their school teams to improve the learning experience and educational outcomes for all students. He began his education career with Teach For America, teaching middle school math in Prince George’s County before coaching teachers as the department chair. Baltazar was recognized as a DC Regional Finalist for the 2014 Sue Lehmann Award for Excellence in Teaching. He continued teaching at The Crossroads School in Baltimore, where he expanded his support as an instructional data coach for the math and humanities teams. He is a lifelong learner, focused on team culture and passionate about adult development. He earned a B.A. in Psychology, Organization and Human Resources from Washington University in St. Louis. Baltazar also holds an M.S. in Secondary Education from Johns Hopkins University and an M.-Ed. in Education Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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