In my work I’ve become painfully aware of a pattern that many people, especially high achievers, fall into. It’s a pattern that hinders productivity, hinders implementation and execution, hinders creativity, hinders a sense of achievement and a sense of balance.

While it might not make your current situation any worse, it certainly doesn’t help improve it. If you’re overwhelmed by so many demands on your time and your ToDo List stifles rather than excites you. Then keep reading, you may have, what I call, a: Replacement Habit.

What is a Replacement Habit? Have you ever stopped, reflected and made the smart decision to drop a task or project for the sake of getting some breathing room back into your schedule? You have noticed that a certain task was now redundant so there’s no point continuing with it. Maybe you could see a routine activity that was not giving you a return on your time and effort so you dropped it to give yourself some strategic thinking time, or time to support your team.

Does this, or something like this, sound familiar? What a smart move and I applaud you for it.

… BUT …

[you knew that was coming, right!]

… within days, if not hours, you find that the time you just carved out for yourself is suddenly replaced with some other activity. If you’ve done that, then you might have a Replacement Habit.

There may be a valid reason for taking up a new activity however you do need to stop and think – to ask yourself – are you replacing or are you making an improvement. As a manager or leader you’re in that position to provide higher level thinking, to be the strategic guide for the team, department, business, organisation. And I’m confident that thinking time is the first thing that’s lost to other activities. So often that 30-minute time slot (okay, 5 minute time slot) you blocked out in your calendar gives way to someone else’s urgent that takes up more than 30-minutes of your time. You are left playing catch up for the rest of the day.

To give some context to how easily this habit sneaks into your day to day, here’s an excerpt from a productivity coaching session I had with a client:

Leader: Sally you’ll be so proud of me, I’ve taken all work emails off my phone, I’ve changed my work environment [other items were listed but are confidential], and I have an agreement with my partner to leave on time and my partner has agreed to hold me to account. I created space for myself to breath and think. I already feel less stressed by not having the emails on my phone: I was never required to have them on my phone in the first place, so I should never have started it.

Sally (Me): Well done. I know the decisions made and the actions taken to get to this point weren’t easy. I want to acknowledge you for doing that. You also need to acknowledge the shift you’ve made. What has having breathing and thinking space done for you?

Leader: I’ve seen this excellent mentoring program being run by my industry association. I have been thinking of offering to be a mentor.

Sally: What do you know of the program’s requirements?

Leader: It won’t be in-depth coaching like we have, I do need to learn more about it, but I think it would be a great networking opportunity.

[It’s at this point the replacement habit light bulb flicked ON for me.]

Sally: I have three questions for you and I want you to reflect before answering them:

1. How much time (or energy, or thinking, or any other measurement) have you gained by all the actions you’ve taken, i.e. deleting emails of you phone, workplace change, accountability to leave on time, etc.?
2. How much time will the mentoring program consume?
3. What will be the return on investment that will justify replacing all of those productivity improving activities for the new activity of mentoring?

[It’s at this point the light bulb flicked ON for my client ]

Leader: That’s it! I’m replacing one for the other, aren’t I? I’m always wanting and looking for more to “improve”, and improve is the word I use but it’s not really that at all. I think I’m really just refilling an already full glass. I can see a pattern now. When something has ended I’ve been very quick to replace it, and I didn’t really need to.

Sally: Just pause for a moment and check: are you replacing or will the mentoring actually serve you?

[Apart from wanting my client to be sure, I also wanted to be sure my new insight wasn’t clouding the conversation. After all, the new mentoring might not have been part of a replacement habit.]

Leader: Maybe I need to just get use to the current changes before I add anything new into the mix. Hmmm, I won’t write the mentoring off but I will research it more and delay the decision for a little while. I think

Have you got a Replacement Habit?

That is, you have a pattern of behaviour where you make changes in order to give yourself some relief, balance, time, or space only to find that you very quickly fill that time with something you really didn’t intend to do.

It comes down to the intention you set. If you want to carve out one hour to think, then make that intention come alive: book the hour into your calendar, set a reminder, be unavailable for an hour, let others know you’re ‘out’, treat that one hour like you’d treat a one hour meeting with the most influential person who could change your career! (BTW, that’s you!) #PonderThat

In the case of my coaching client, it’s not about never taking up the mentoring, it was about noticing a habit. In my client’s case, it’s the habit of always looking for ways to be busy and feeling as though they should look busy. This was driven by a need to achieve and to be needed and the culture of their organisation. These are not necessarily negative influencers, it’s the process one takes to achieve it that needs thought. In my client’s situation, burnout was just around the corner – the glass was already overflowing – so seeing the pattern or habit of replacement behaviour and making a more conscious decision about next steps was the healthier choice.

Reflection and a time and task audit are the first steps to diagnosing if you have a replacement habit. What have you let slip into your day to day that really should be dropped, delegated or delayed so you can be the leader your organisation needs you to be?