When I first uncovered the science of strengths – those things we do well and actually enjoy – I dreamed of spending more of my days in a blissful haze of fulfilling, joyful and rewarding work.
It all seemed so easy.
Discover what your strengths are – disturbingly only one-third of us can actually answer this off the top of our heads. Use them as you move through each day. Then luxuriate in the success and joy of doing what you love.
How hard could it be?
Turns out it was much tougher than I thought. You see between a job I didn’t really like, children to feed and a husband to tend, I just couldn’t seem to find the time to fit my strengths in. Despite my best intentions, after figuring out what my strengths actually were, weeks ticked by with no changes at all being made in my life.
Sound familiar at all?
Convinced the pay off of increased engagement, easier goal achievement, lower stress and better overall wellbeing was too high to simply give up, I became determined to find a busy-proof way of doing more of what I did best. I haven’t yet found a way to manufacture more time, but I did stumble upon a secret to using my time more effectively.
Researchers at Duke University estimate up to forty percent of our actions each day are not conscious choices but mere habits. That’s a little more than six hours each day we risk losing to mere routines.
No wonder William James, the father of modern psychology, cautioned decades before that: “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual— systematically organized for our weal or our woe, and bearing us irresistibly towards our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Pretty scary stuff right?
Luckily, researchers at MIT have found that our habits run on a simple loop of cue, routine and reward. So how could I harness this pattern to reap all those lovely benefits of strengths-led behaviors?
With my challenging schedule in mind, I decided to start small with an eleven minute daily strengths habit. Why eleven minutes? This was the busy-proof number that would fit into even the most hectic of days. No matter what was going on, I could always find 11 minutes somewhere.
Choosing to work first on using my strength of curiosity more, I committed to using the first thirty seconds to make it easy to cue up the habit and get it started. A cue can be almost anything, from a visual trigger to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or even the company of particular people.
Pulling on every tool available I anchored my habit to turning on my computer each morning and embedded it into my environment by setting my web browser to open at my favorite research sites. Then for good measure, I primed my brain with a “when/then” statement so my head would already know what to do when I found myself in a situation: “When I turn on my computer, then I will use my strength of curiosity to learn more about positive psychology.”
Once the habit’s started, routine can take over for the next ten minutes. A routine can be physical, mental or emotional, and it can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple.
My curiosity routine was to read the research that fascinated me and luxuriate in the joy of learning new things.
The last thirty seconds – perhaps the most important of all – are to reward yourself for the use of your strengths. A reward can be anything that produces a natural rush of dopamine – the feel good chemical in your head – that gets you craving more of the same behavior.
I celebrated by writing down one thing I’d just learnt (yes I’m a nerd). Then at the end of each week I’d package these ideas up into an email for my boss.
And my eleven minutes were done. Cue. Routine. Reward.
It took just days for this strengths habit to become the highlight of my work. It took just months for this email to spread virally through my office until more than 100 people were receiving it each week. And it took almost exactly one year for my boss to move me out of the job I didn’t like and into a new role where my strengths could truly shine.
So what eleven minutes strength habit could you design to prioritize the changes you really want to see in your life?
Michelle McQuaid, a born and raised Australian girl, is a best-selling author, workplace wellbeing teacher and playful change activator.