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Small Behaviors Can Lead to Big Changes

While the foundation of one of my leadership programs includes the idea that small behavioral changes can have big impact in a variety of ways, I didn't truly see it personally until recently. I took notice when I started to think more about delegation as the right of the leader. Not only are there things I outright shouldn't be doing on a day-to-day basis if I am going to reach my personal goals and helping my reports do the same, the list gets very long when I add the things that in an ideal situation I would actively choose not to be doing. I have written about it extensively in my leadership series, but that is just one aspect of the small personal shifts that have led to daily dividends for me and my team, even in a climate where everyone is understaffed, overwhelmed with current work, and still interested in growth and new opportunities.

Before I start listing small changes that have had an impact for me, I feel like some background is necessary. I lead a small team of IT professionals within the UW-Madison Libraries, who provide services from desks across campus that range from library technology support (think staff desktop support and staff and patron access provisioning) to computer lab operations (think technology circulation and poster printing). The services and needs are varied and a ground up rethinking of how we provide these services is on the horizon (more on that another day). Contextually, a small team dynamic often manifests in operational needs permeating the entire org chart, meaning I am the doer much more frequently than I would like. However, the program has allowed me to shift from viewing everything as "of equal importance" to a tiered system of immediate versus important within a delegation flowchart with a strategic focus. One must have a strategy to engage in the tiered system; that is where the small changes come in.

The following small changes are a mix of current practices (marked as CP) and future aspirations (marked as FA) that form the foundation of my personal shift over the course of the program. The FA items are behaviors I am in the process of forming.

Mornings are for settling into the day/week (CP)

  • I use the first hour of the morning to center myself on the work.
  • During this time, I check in with reports and coworkers, check my email (using my important lens to guide my actions there), review my to-do list for the day (including the items that I didn't get to the day before), and enjoy my cup of coffee.
  • On Mondays, I review my calendar and plan my scheduled thinking time (see list item below). On Fridays, I review the to-do items that I have fallen behind on and check-in with associated stakeholders.

My computer is a focus tool (CP)

  • I have an automation that opens all of my applications in the morning when I arrive at work.
  • As I complete my morning routine, I close the applications that are no longer necessary to my current objective, especially just-in-time messaging applications and email.
  • When I am writing, I have only the writing window (and associated research tabs when applicable) open.

Email is not my to-do list (CP)

  • I use a specific application for work-related task management.
  • I used to use my email as my sole reminder for things I needed to get done, but that means email is always open (see previous list item) and this isn't a good way to track the things that may need a future follow-up.
  • I shifted to using an application (Things) for keeping track of to-do items, along with setting due dates, priority, categorization, etc.

Intentional preparation time for meetings (FA)

  • I set aside thirty minutes to prepare for meetings, normally with at least a few days lead time.
  • I use this time to do things like set an agenda, bring myself up to speed with recent developments in the work, do some strategic thinking, or communications preparation for the group.
  • I have also set my default alert for meetings to 30 minutes before the meeting to enable a true shift in focus and travel time, when necessary.

Scheduled (and unscheduled) "thinking time" (FA)

  • I schedule calendar holds (ahead of time and in the moment) for deep thinking on a specific topic or project.
  • When a hold is set ahead of time, I include an agenda of how I am using the time.
  • When a hold is set in the moment, I use the time to read, learn something new, or reflect on recent work.
  • I am making sure that my reports know I have time set aside for deep thinking and share what I am thinking about when it makes sense. ("During my thinking time last week, this topic came to mind and I noted that...") This practice also models for my reports that work doesn't always have to be the mad dash to the next to-do item.

Notes are largely hand-written (CP)

  • I have struggled in the past to know where to keep my notes digitally, leading me to be in a constant state of flux that adds to the stress of taking notes and finding them after the fact.
  • I shifted to taking my notes by hand for better information retention (science!) and to be more intentional about the things I write down.
  • I am then able to transfer the hand-written notes into a digital form, further working to retain the information and as a second check on the information's longevity and importance, which should inform me better of where to keep the digital copy. For instance, if the notes I end up keeping are all action items, they go into my work-related to-do items or my ticketing system. If the notes are documentation, I might put them in the knowledgebase.

Consistent reviews of progress and goals (FA)

  • I am beginning to review my goals on a schedule for reevaluation and renewal.
  • The six month review of my program goals was enlightening to me, as I realized just how much progress I had made in some ways. I took the opportunity to double down on some, mark some as complete, and form new goals based on new information I didn't have before starting the program.
  • I have goals associated with my personal leadership journey, my strategic thinking, and my daily work; all of those should be used as tools and scrutinized periodically to ensure that they are providing the proper roadmap and motivation to help me progress in their associated area.

As I reflect more, I write more (CP)

  • A number of the above behaviors have led me back to my love of writing and a purpose in it.
  • Early on in the program, I decided not to do the expected "Weekly Reflection" exercise and to instead work on writing my thoughts down to share more broadly. As a product of that, I have written more in the last six months than I have in the last several years and posted it publicly.
  • Writing my thoughts down and publishing them serves multiple purposes for me: personal enrichment and catharsis, documentation and transparency, and intentionality and accountability.

I will admit that the above list is a lot, but as small behaviors take root, they become part of a standard approach; it took more time to write it all out than it takes to enact something that has become habit for me. I will also admit that it took me awhile to think through all the changes I had made (I may have even missed a few); one pitfall of behavioral change is that ingrained approaches become less tangible as they become normalized and internalized.

The reason the title reads, "Small Behaviors Can Lead to Big Changes" is that in the end, one of these changes taken on its own might have amounted to very little, but when taken as a whole these changes affect a large number of people and initiatives and the effective changes are greater than the sum of the behavioral parts.

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