By Kevin Bailey, CEO
“Habits are surprisingly tough, and habits are surprisingly fragile.”
I’ve long been fascinated by books on habits because of how central they are regarding big and small behaviors. These day-to-day habits also play a large role in nonprofit leadership and success.
I recently finished Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits. It is a great synthesis of previous research (e.g. James Clear’s Atomic Habits) but what I loved about Rubin’s take is her concept of ‘knowing thyself.’ I think this is a crucial starting point and what makes the book a great read.
Rubin breaks things down into four basic types of people:
The little things add up and it’s interesting to see what is holding us back from working towards our organization’s mission.
Another strategy the book covers is identifying intrinsic motivators. I think these can shape how we design ways to build positive, reinforcing habits that help us get to where we want to be in life and in our nonprofit work. Rubin cites seven intrinsic motivators that rise to the top: Challenge, Curiosity, Control, Fantasy, Cooperation, Competition, and Recognition.
Many who work in nonprofits have strong motivators, but those everyday tasks that don’t seem to be deeply connected to the mission can be tricky. Finding your other intrinsic motivators will help you stick to those not so fun processes.
From my experience in leadership roles, I have learned that if we are not proactive, then things happen to us. Take scheduling for example. If I don’t take ownership of my own calendar and block off specific times for myself to do deep, focused work or to explore strategic ideas, then other people will fill up my calendar with their immediate needs.
This is a habit I still haven’t mastered, to be sure. I can spend my whole week bouncing from one thing to another and postponing my larger projects. The work is in the preparation. Taking the time to actually block off a few hours will help me manage my calendar better and get to the exciting initiatives that drive our mission.
Similarly, if starting a morning workout routine, the work is in preparing your environment the night before – laying out your jacket, shoes, shorts, etc. – so that when you get up, it’s as easy as possible to get out the door and stick to the habit. I will set myself up for success by preparing my calendar for uninterrupted time.
There’s a lot to digest in Better than Before but it’s well worth a read for those interested in exploring the ways habits are fundamental to the types of progress we make as individuals and as organizations.
How have habits shown up in your leadership journey? Leave us a note in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope you find these resources beneficial. We welcome suggestions on how we can improve this section. Contact us at