Much of our everyday life is done by habit. In 2006 a Duke researcher found that more than 40% of our everyday actions are habits, not decisions. How can we use knowledge about our work habits to make programs and organizations better?
We are what we do. Our programs are what we as leaders do. A habit is fairly easy to understand with a few minutes of reflection; we all have them! I challenge you, the champions of youth programs; use your habits to make your program better.
Youth programs throughout Minnesota have champions that strive to provide high-quality experiences for our learners. We are succeeding and we also have room to become better. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, said, "Champions don't do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking...They follow the habits they've learned."
Duhigg's description of how a habit works is a great place to start learning about their power. Maintaining a habit is easy (especially the bad ones), but changing a habit or creating a new one can be hard. A habit begins with a trigger that causes an action. The action is our routine, our automatic way of doing something. We recognize the trigger and complete the action because of the final component; the reward.
Mark Twain suggested that a habit "... should be coaxed downstairs a step at a time." If you want to be a champion you can use the following strategies to make your program better. When you identify a few items that you want to change remember to focus only on one or two at a time. Small intentional changes will help your program mature to the highest quality possible.
Remember that changing a habit is easier than quitting one!Before you set out to develop new habits or quit old ones, reflect on the habits you currently have. Can you adapt any of your habits to result in an improved program? It is much easier to use the same trigger and reward while changing only a routine.
- Do you want to increase the use of reflective questions in a youth program? It's easier to incorporate this if your group gathers together at some regular time in your program. When your group is together, ask a few reflective questions. Make that your routine!
Invite an outsider to take a look at your programWe often fail to notice our own everyday actions, so invite someone to observe and share their observations. The University of Minnesota provides a deeper review using the Youth Program Quality Assessment tool. You too can use the process. For deeper information, check out the Weikert Center. The process we use to assess, plan and improve is valuable!
- Informal observations: I know it can be awkward to hear about things that need to be improved. It can also be affirming to hear about your program's strengths! At times we need to remind ourselves that we don't know what we don't know. Ask your learners, their parents or others connected to your program to share their thoughts. Ask for specifics.
- Formal observations: The YPQA provides a clear process, supports and specific examples of how safe environments, supportive environments, interaction and engagement can be improved in your program. This proven tool will help identify points where you can develop your strengths further or address an area where you would like to improve.
I challenge you to reflect, plan and share one strategy of how you can use habits to improve your program. Bonus points go to all of you who can tell a story of how they have done this already!
-- Mark Haugen, Extension educator, regional 4-H youth development programs
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