Using Habits and the Domino Effect to Achieve Lasting Professional Growth

How do people grow? Research suggests that about 40% of our day each day is spent acting out habits, rather than making decisions. Even the ways we think tend to be habitual, our thoughts becoming self-reinforcing due to confirmation bias. Growth, therefore, is almost always a question of habit change – people grow as they exchange one habit for another. In our work supporting faculty and staff, it’s helpful to reframe our thinking in terms of habits:

  • “What’s the habit this individual is trying to let go of?” 
  • “What habit are they trying to replace it with?” 
  • “What support do they need identifying the new habit, abandoning the old one, and adopting the replacement?”

The Domino Effect

The great thing about habits, as James Clear has written, is that they build on themselves in a Domino Effect. People who are successful in adding one new habit to their routine tend to feel more confident amplifying that habit or adding another new one. Adoption of new habits actually shifts our sense of identity – we start to see ourselves differently, which in turn makes it easier to take on other habits.

The key to achieving this virtuous cycle is starting small and easy, selecting small actions, building them into habits, and then enlarging them and stretching them. Start by running a mile each day and then work towards a marathon. Start by reading 10 pages per night of a non-fiction book, and work towards being the kind of person who reads 50 books per year. The human brain is naturally averse to working harder than it needs to, but we can trick it by making small steps and turning them into habits.

We get ourselves into trouble, though when our own layers of ambition, shame, impatience, and guilt drive us to aim for habits that are too large in scope. We aim to run 5 miles a day and then quit after a week because it hurts too much. We don’t read anything for a few nights and decide our goal of 50 books this year is impossible. “Maybe I’m not a reader after all,” we think.

Especially at a time when everything seems impossibly hard, leveraging the Domino Effect of habits is one of the most effective ways to grow or to support the growth of others. 


What it means for your Folio work

The growth goals faculty and staff set are often grounded in habits — the way they have been habituated to think (or not think) about DEI, their first instincts every time they design a unit or lesson, the ways they respond to tough moments in the classroom, the internalized patterns they have for who they call on in class, or the approaches they have towards tough moments in collaborative relationships. 

Here are some tips for bringing a habits lens, and especially a focus on the Domino Effect, to your Folio work:

  • In conversations with faculty/staff about goals, explore the link between goals and habits. Ask questions like… “How do habits come into play around your goals?” Or, “Is there a ‘hidden’ habit you could acquire or shake that would help you move towards your goals?”
  • Help colleagues select action items for each goal that are likely to succeed according to James Clear’s Domino Effect. Action items should be small, concrete habits they wish to adopt, which will build momentum towards bigger habits. They should feel almost too easy. “Make sure that the first question I ask in class each day is a randomized cold call,” or “Let four other people make comments in a department meeting before I speak up.” 
  • Encourage them to track their progress on their habits using Folio action items. Create an action item not just to adopt the new habit, but to successfully adhere to it each week for a period of weeks: “Did I do it the week of 1/21? The week of 1/28?” And so on… Design systems (accountability buddies, check-in time in department meetings, etc.) to help them think about their action item progress. Checking off these weekly habit completion action items creates a sense of efficacy, accomplishment, and an identity as someone who can change, grow, and succeed.
  • Help them scale up or scale back. Once they’ve gone a month successfully integrating the new habit, encourage them to think about what it would look like to take it up a notch, not to perfection but just to the next quantifiable level. And if they haven’t been successfully integrating the habit each week, how can you adjust the habit downwards to reach a habit that is consistently attainable? There’s no shame or judgment here – just find the right level to start with so that the habit change can become permanent and can build a sense of success.

We love habits, and think they’re a “missing link” to professional growth! Drop us a line today if you’re interested in talking more about the role of habits in your Folio work.



Sign up for our monthly newsletter to keep up on Folio events, what we’re thinking and reading and to supercharge your use of myFolio!