Sometimes points are best made by telling a story. In this case, the story below is what led me to writing about the topic of unconscious habits.

breaking unconscious habits
Me & Mom

Ever since my mother moved in with me, I find myself feeling a little bit more tired than I used to feel. Considering I didn't sleep much before, and I'm sleeping about the same now, you would think there wouldn't have been a change in that area.

Because of my feeling tired, I find myself going to bed earlier than I used to. I used to go to bed between 3 and 4 in the morning, and now I find myself going to bed around 1:30. I did that with the expectation that, by going to bed earlier, I would sleep longer than I used to.

It turns out that's not how things actually work. Instead of sleeping longer, I wake up earlier and have trouble getting back to sleep. It seems that I have established an unconscious habit of only being comfortable being in bed for so many hours, regardless of what time I go to bed.

It's not just me. When my mother was living by herself, I used to wondered if she was getting enough much sleep. Both of us have always had bad sleeping patterns, and Mom had taken to staying downstairs in the family room with the TV on pretty much 24/7.

When she moved in with us, we established a pattern where she goes to bed by at least 10PM, and by 11 she's usually asleep. I thought she would probably sleep at least 8 hours and life would be good. That turns out not to have happened.

Although mom gets the bed earlier and falls asleep easier than she used to, she usually wakes up around 4 to 4:30 in the morning and starts yelling at the TV; it's just something she does. My wife is able to convince her to stay in bed since it's still dark, but except for some spotty dozing Mom's pretty much done sleeping for the night.

However, every morning after my wife helps her get cleaned up, sits her in the living room and gets her to eat breakfast, she then falls asleep in front of the TV and, except for when I occasionally wake her up for one thing or another, sleep for about 4 hours. I find it strange, though it's possible that's what she was doing when she was living on her own.

There's a strange thing about habits. There are tons of articles that give advice on how to change one's habits. I wrote an article about changing habits a couple of years ago where I said that the only reason people change their habits is the will to want to do it.

I still believe that, but I'm wondering if there are some habits you can't change because you're not fully in control of them. I still don't sleep all that many hours even when I go to bed early, and staying in bed doesn't help me fall back asleep.

"Moses" by Ivan Mestrovic

This prompted me to do some research on unconscious habits and ways to change them. The problem is that all the habits these brilliant scientists, psychologists and whatever discussed were those that address things we do when we're awake that we're not thinking about.

For instance, Stuart Lichtman talked about the concept of self-supporting unconscious habit patterns and how to turn them into self supporting habits. The concept involves getting the attention of the habit, then instructing it in a new way of responding to a bad habit.

Then there was an article by a guy named Kyle Colley who wrote an article titled The Psychology of a Habit and How You Can Change Them where he stated that habits are consciously started, and subconsciously finished. He added that old habits do not disappear, but are instead replaced by better ones.

Those are both pretty good in highlighting the concept of habits... but do nothing when it comes to talking about unconscious habits like sleep. I guess I'm out of luck in that area... but not in the area where leadership is involved. 🙂

At a certain point, most managers notice that the people in their departments are going through the motions. They're either not progressing or are missing critical parts of the work they're supposed to be doing.

In my case, it always came down to my billing personnel working more on the things they liked or the high dollar accounts instead of the accounts that were harder to fix or those with extremely low dollar amounts... which were the bulk of outstanding balances.

It wasn't intentional; it was the normal habit of billing personnel, as I'd seen this same thing happen at 3 different hospitals. People are people; we all gravitate to what we like, although that doesn't mean it's always easy.

I usually let the employees decide what they were going to work on, because overall they did good work and were trained well. Sometimes I had to shake things up though; there were other things we had to take care of.

What I did every once in a while was one of two things.

One thing I did was announce that for the next 3 to 5 days of a particular week, the first thing everyone was going to work on were the insurance types that weren't popular but still needed to be addressed. They had to work on these claims for at least 2 hours; they could decide which of the claims to work on.

For another week, the other thing I did was have all of them work on claims that were under $100 for 3 to 5 days. Many revenue cycle directors might have seen this as crazy, but what this did was bring down the number of outstanding claims and claims over 90 days, which made our numbers look better and were more accurate.

I alternated these things for about six months. I wanted to see if they'd pick up on doing these things on their own without my having to instigate it. I got lucky; it caught on, which I knew because I was a data geek; the numbers showed the process worked even after I stopped announcing it.

In essence, I changed unconscious habits that the billing department fell into because it wasn't something they thought much about. It was never about permanence; it was about efficiency. Yet, it worked because I'd brought it to their attention and gave it importance; they cared enough about it to continue doing it on their own.

Leaders need to be attuned to unconscious habits that negatively affect their employees overall work. Lapses cause businesses a lot of grief. Whether it's in production, customer service or anything else they're responsible for, waiting for employees to notice things and change them on their own is denying one's responsibility. Be alert, be proactive, and work on changing unconscious bad habits to good ones.

None of this will help Mom or I sleep better, but hopefully it'll make someone a better leader. 😉