“Nobody ever warns us about behavioural drift” .. Dr. Joshua C. Klapow
Every September I made the same vow. “This year will be different. I’ll be the ideal student, starting assignments the day they are assigned, ask for extra problems in Math, outlining “The Tempest” for English and practicing my Latin vocabulary. Long before Cal Newport wrote his first book for students, I had it all clear in my mind. If I acted on those plans, my high school career would have been stellar. But like many others with good intentions, I drifted and that fall ended pretty much the same way as the previous year did with a mix of Bs and Cs. Usually by early October I had abandoned the dream. It wasn’t until I was a university student that I learned the habits that deliver a consistently high GPA and ultimately earned an MBA.
For a label that describes my high-school pattern, I turn to Dr. Joshua C. Klapow, author of “Living SMART: Five Essential Skills to Change Your Health Habits Forever” Apparently, I was experiencing “behavioural drift, going back to my old patterns despite a genuine desire to make a substantial change”.
My inner careerist wants to do the right things, just as my inner A student did back in high school, but behavioral drift sneaks up and grabs my leg and pulls me back. The London Olympics pop up right in the middle of a big project and derail me. When the closing ceremonies are over, that project is far from the front of my mind. It takes serious determination to resume where I left off.
When it comes to putting in the hard work now to build what Cal Newport calls career capital, the delayed payoff is like steroids for behavioral drift. My inner careerist is fully aware of the long-term benefits but sticking with the program is a daily battle.
Stephan knows that he needs to upgrade his Microsoft Office Skills if he wants that next promotion, but just contemplating the evenings and weekends it will take to increase his mastery of MS Word from Basic to Intermediate and then to Advanced gives him a headache. And there aren’t any opportunities to practice those new skills in his current position. On the other hand, he’s been looking at some job postings on the internet and they are all asking for Microsoft Office skills. So he really should get back to it one of these days. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t.
Knowing that the dreaded behavioral drift exists is the most important part of preventing it, according to Dr. Klapow.
What can Stephan do? Taking some time to write out the benefits from increased career capital is a great start. Then he needs to think clearly and honestly about what is likely to distract him and trigger a drift away from his commitment.
That’s called “mental contrasting”. Researchers are learning that goal commitment is significantly strengthened when you hold in your mind the benefits of reaching your goal and the likely impediments you will encounter on the way. Just thinking about the benefits is daydreaming. Just thinking about the impediments is ruminating. Neither leads to action, but holding them both in your mind simultaneously strengthens your resolve. Try it. It just might keep you from drifting.
Your inner careerist will thank you for it!