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CPA Now
Apr 17, 2019

Building Powerful Habits

John ParkBy John E. Park, DEd


In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg provides a framework that can serve as the foundation for identifying and developing what he terms "keystone habits." Keystone habits are the patterns of behavior that control how we live our day-to-day lives: from brushing our teeth in the morning to that afternoon candy bar, these patterns can move us in either a positive and productive direction or a negative and self-destructive direction.

Two employees talking at a deskFor leaders of professional services firms, establishing positive keystone habits can help address important competencies, such as being an "active listener." When an employee walks into your office, do you focus on the individual you are communicating with and give that person your undivided attention, or do you stay focused on your computer screen? Do you move away from your computer or mobile device to truly listen to the team member? “Active listening” is a great example of a keystone habit that many of us need to focus on and improve.

Keystone habits can also address complex issues, such as personal and business values. Core values that have been at the foundation of a business, such as great customer service, can become lost as businesses transition from one generation to the next. Maintaining keystone habits related to core values takes time and focus. Leaders must engage team members in discussions related to the importance of the values and their impact on the success of the business.

Duhigg discusses how habits also can become barriers to our growth and future success. Our habits become more critical as we transition from an operational role to a leadership position. Habits that may have been appropriate as you rose through the ranks may quickly lose their relevance; in fact, some may be holding you back. But letting go of old habits and creating new ones can be challenging.

Duhigg provides a four-step process for building keystone habits that begins with identifying the routine that is the root cause of the habit. Do you head for the office refrigerator when you are stressed? Is it the ice cream that you enjoy or is it stepping away from your desk and talking to your friends or colleagues along the way to the refrigerator? Understanding that the real reward is the break you take is the second step in the process. After you understand what the routine consists of and what is the “true reward,” then you have to determine what the cue or trigger is. Once you understand the components of the habit, you can develop a plan to modify the habit. So, back to the snack example, if it is the break or the socialization in the afternoon that really motivates you, finding a friend for a five-minute check-in call or walking down the hall for a quick discussion on a current event may help you to eliminate unwanted afternoon calories. You may not be able to avoid every snack, but cutting your snack consumption in half can have a noticeable effect on the "waist line" if not the "bottom line."

Habits, regardless of whether they move us in a positive or a negative direction, can be difficult to change. Derek Jeter, the former New York Yankees star, has said, "You don't get to the World Series by accident." And successful leaders don't continue to grow and develop without constantly evaluating their own performance to determine if their habits are moving them in the right direction or holding them back.


John E. Park, DEd, a director at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP, focuses on leadership development, emotional intelligence, enterprise risk management, and strategic planning. He can be reached at john.park@bakertilly.com.


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