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  • Joanne Dalgety

There's an old joke about the aspiring jazz musician visiting New York and trying to find directions to Carnegie Hall. He stops and asks a jazz busker on the street how to get there, and the busker says "practice, man, practice".

Habits good and bad

A joke, but of course true! Habits provide a simple way to think about expertise: someone who can't play an instrument is in the habit of not being able to play, while a virtuoso is in the habit of being able to play. Habit governs the way we behave – think back to the last time you moved office, say from the 3rd floor to the 5th. How many mornings after the move did you habitually get out at the 3rd floor? Eventually the habit is changed from the 3rd to the 5th floor and the mistake is no longer made. 

All training is subject to the same principles. When you're trained to operate a new piece of software you find yourself continuing to use keystrokes appropriate for the old one but not for the new. What puts habits in place is repetition – the more you do something the more the habit becomes established. You do have to want to change, though! If there's some new procedure you have to implement and you absolutely don't agree with it that will be a major obstacle to change, and you'll end up with the bad habit of doing things wrongly. 

'Personality', from the perspective of the Challenge of Change Resilience programme, is primarily habit. These habits are assessed by the pre-training CoC Profile, which focuses on habitual behaviour like ruminating over emotional upset. No doubt there's DNA lurking in pretty well everything, but it's a question of proportion. Eye colour is genetic and fixed; rumination is mostly habit and can be modified with practice. The only clear exception in the personality domain is extraversion, which is primarily a biological and genetic predisposition that can't be changed. 

Fortunately, extraversion is not implicated in stress – there is no correlation between rumination and extraversion. There is no value-judgement attached to extraversion either, but there is to rumination: ruminating is a bad habit that self-evidently makes you miserable, and can shorten your life. How does it arise? Take a simple example: a child does something wrong, and is told to "go away and think how naughty you've been!" Parents would never say that if it was re-phrased as "go away and have a short miserable life for a while", but rumination is in fact the habit that is becoming established.

The Challenge of Change

Training is only really going to be of benefit if the lessons learned are subsequently practised. Forgetting is the enemy of training. To facilitate continued practice of the four steps in the CoC Resilience programme we've been providing tools to help: a comprehensive workbook, a record of scores on the CoC Profile which can be re-accessed to assess change, an audio CD of the mindfulness and relaxation exercises, and a series of action plans ('commitments') generated on the day and e-mailed out to participants a week later. 

What was lacking was a longer-term reminder. The Work Skills Centre was a Preferred Provider of training for the BBC in the UK prior to our move to New Zealand, and in response to requests from the BBC for a longer-term reminder, half-day follow-ups about three months after the training were trialled. However, it proved extremely difficult to extract staff for further training, and shorter 2-hour sessions grouped into 3 sessions spread over a day were then tried. These too proved difficult for people to attend, and work began on providing a video follow-up. That came to fruition this year in New Zealand, and there is now a web-based CoC Refresher course provided as part of the Resilience training for both the full day sessions and the half-days. The Refresher is divided into 3 modules, and can be accessed repeatedly over a period of a week selected by participants when they are available to attend to it. 

The Refresher was trialled by a number of HR managers with whom we work regularly, and the feedback was unanimously positive. There is a short 'taster' trailer available on the website for people to get a feel for the Refresher, you can view it here and further information can be obtained by contacting us directly.

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