Practice Makes Purposeful Habits: Three Essential Practices for Lasting Change
Leading change, whether systemic or individual, requires strong habits. Last month I had the opportunity to chat with Greg Carlson, Founder of Leading Well, about how to create purposeful habits, and how strong habits can help one move from reactive and ad-hoc motions to strategic and lasting practices. From our conversation came three essential practices which together create a framework for lasting change – whether working to improve the physical and mental wellness of a single educator, or to create a thriving culture in your school system.
At Education Elements and Leading Well, we believe that through alignment to purpose, consistency, and continuous improvement we can continually strive to realize our goals. What follows is a synopsis of our reflections on leading change through purposeful habits.
Aligning our work to our purpose ensures that we are headed in the right direction.
Education Elements: In Start with the Why, Simon Sinek says that all organizations operate on three levels: what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. He explains that most people focus primarily on the what and the how, but that great leaders focus on the why. Taking the time to articulate the why provides clarity of purpose.
Regardless of whether you are embarking on strategic planning, establishing a strong data culture, or working to transform your school into a more responsive organization, the critical first step is to define a clear and consistent Why. For example, in school districts with an aligned data culture, there is a clearly articulated purpose for using data. District leaders, school leaders, and practitioners at every level know that purpose and use it to decide what information they need and how they should use it. As a result, data are used in a more cyclical (rather than linear) way – both to identify the most pressing barriers to student success and to monitor the impact of efforts to solve for those barriers.
Leading Well: Even before the current pandemic, educators reported experiencing high degrees of stress. Today, burned-out educators come to me feeling exhausted, hopeless, and disembodied. Many educators have understandably internalized a need to put others above themselves, which can lead to compensatory behaviors like skipping meals, working late, forgoing bathroom breaks, and holding on to stress. They expect to “fix” their bodies or energy levels with some combination of intense workouts and dieting. Instead, I invite clients to explore their values, priorities, and purpose. Knowing our Why helps us consider how our bodies can support us in achieving our hopes and dreams. If our goals include our effectiveness in the short term or health in the long run we need to optimize stress reduction with kind, sustainable practices in exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle.
Check out this interview of Greg Carlson, founder of Leading Well, by Anthony Kim, our founder and CEO!
Taking action consistently – no matter how small each may seem – yields compounding results over time.
Education Elements: We believe one of the biggest threats to sustainability is turnover in leadership. When one leader is driving the work or when data systems live exclusively within one data team or data scientist, the entire operational culture depends on how long that person or team remains in the district and stays passionate about the work. However, if responsive strategies are consistently practiced to ensure that everyone understands and shares the larger mission, the purpose of specific initiatives they are working toward, and the part they play as individuals in serving that mission, we believe a thriving school culture can weather even the most persistent turnover in leadership.
Leading Well: While intensity may bring about some short-term results, consistency is what enables us to reach our goals in the long term. For my clients with hydration goals, we might start with a commitment to drink only ten ounces of water each morning – almost certainly not enough. The key, however, is to make the new behavior manageable in service of the habit. Daily routines to signal ourselves to shift out of work mode, such as putting on different clothing, playing music, or moving to a new physical space, can help us relax and improve sleep quality. Consistent movement, nutrition, and resilience habits aligned to your Why can bring significant increases in your energy and fulfillment.
Continuous learning enables incremental improvements over time.
Education Elements: At Education Elements, we believe deeply in the power of helping school districts become more responsive organizations. We believe that schools that are responsive to the changing conditions around them can better respond to the educational needs of their students. In order to stay competitive and seize the opportunities presented by new ideas and innovations, school districts must reinvent how they work and embrace organizational models that allow for continuous innovation, learning, and change. This means more distributed authority, getting comfortable with experimentation and a “safe enough to try” mindset, planning for change instead of perfection, sharing information more openly, and focusing on being learning organizations.
Leading Well: Forming a plan that works for each individual and their unique needs often requires trial and error. With a journal, thought partner, or coach, build a plan that progresses over a long timeline. The list of potential improvements may be robust, but like in teaching and strategic planning, you can’t tackle everything all at once. If you try to focus on everything, you will accomplish nothing; instead, focus on one to two things at a time. Once that habit is formed, move on to the next thing. As you go, reflect on what’s working and what’s not. At Leading Well, we adjust our programs incrementally every week based on the progress clients have shown and their learnings along the way.
Creating habits lets us move closer to our goals every day. This approach is effective, whether the aims are systemic, individual, professional, or personal. In the short run, sometimes it requires support; in the long run, an approach built around consistency and incremental changes to practice promotes greater autonomy and effectiveness. Happy habit-forming!
About Katie Rediger and Greg Carlson
Katie Rediger is a Partner at Education Elements with a background in both public health and education. After more than a decade in the field - from working as an elementary classroom teacher to leading large-scale research studies with school districts across the country - Katie has seen firsthand that schools grow when people grow. Greg Carlson is the Founder of Leading Well. After 13 years of teaching, leading, and designing schools, he established Leading Well to empower fellow educators in improving their physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being so they can show up for their communities.