American writer and philosopher Will Durant once wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
As much as we all want to live and lead with excellence, some habits might seem too daunting to start. That’s why it’s important to start with the small, attainable changes that can give your life and leadership a significant boost. In fact, many of the most successful leaders we know got where they are by implementing simple disciplines that take just a few minutes each day or week.
We asked our executive coaches and CEO mentors to share the practical habits that are paying off big for their clients. Here’s what they said.
1. End the Day Well
“Take 30 minutes at the close of each day to prioritize and plan for your evening and the next day’s actions. This enables you to switch to ‘personal mode’ without the distraction of wondering what your priorities are for the following day. This is especially helpful if you commute, because then you can then focus on decompressing on the ride home and being intentional for yourself and your family when you get there.” —Executive Coach Ross Stonecipher
2. Prioritize Relationships
“My most successful clients are very goal-oriented and make a habit of planning their days to maximize their time and energy. Secondly, they schedule time each day for informal contact with customers, colleagues and staff, either by walking around, calling, hand-writing a note or sharing a meal. They recognize that leadership is foremost about relationships and they don’t let their task list keep them from connecting with people.” —CEO Mentor Gavin Kerr
3. Evaluate Yourself
“The greatest habit I see my most successful clients do is taking downtime to reflect and assess where they’re at personally and professionally on a regular basis. They are constantly evaluating, learning and staying humble and curious in the process to ensure they’re on the right track. It’s less about questioning themselves and more about taking the time to simply think things over.” —Executive Coach Greg Harkavy
4. Calibrate Your Day
5. Take a Break from Communication
“To be able to lead effectively and focus on your most important tasks, I recommend turning off email for chunks of time... same with turning off the mobile phone.” —Executive Coach Michael Regan
6. Practice Listening
“Listen, listen, listen. Leaders who don't listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say. Conduct annual one-on-one, face-to-face meetings with as many employees as possible at all levels of the organization. Listen, and then act on issues as warranted.” —CEO Mentor Tom Brewer
7. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
“When I think of “success” for anyone, what immediately comes to mind is not beating yourself up in the name of consistency. What my more successful clients realize is that missing one or several opportunities to practice a habit will not ruin their chances of establishing that habit long-term. They have learned to not beat themselves up.” —CEO Mentor Raymond Gleason
8. Stay Present
“My most successful clients make a habit of staying present. They keep all distractions out while they’re face to face with people. No phones, no computers, just eye-to-eye, listening and being completely engaged with the person they’re with at the time.” —Executive Coach Greg Harkavy
9. Try the 52-Hour Challenge
“Take one hour per week — thus 52 in a year — and commit to one action for those 52 hours. For example, this could be calling a dealer each week to discuss business. It can be anything, but it should be focused and scheduled so that it becomes a habit.” —CEO Mentor Tom Brewer
10. Do a 90-Day Review
“The one high-payoff activity that I see transcending industries and various leadership roles is the discipline of doing a 90-day review of your self-leadership and team leadership. This discipline includes celebrating the successes, identifying the challenges, and committing to actions that will help you live and lead with excellence in the next 90 days. Many of my clients use a variation of the Keep, Start, Stop exercise to guide them through the reflection process. They ask themselves: What do I need to keep doing to help me live and lead with excellence? What do I need to improve doing to help me live and lead with excellence? What do I need to start doing to help me live and lead with excellence? What do I need to stop doing to help me live and lead with excellence?” —Executive Coach Dan Foster
11. Make Time to Think, Plan and Recharge
“My most successful clients prioritize one or all of these five habits:
- Weekly "white-space." They take a 1-2 hour block of time to sit down with pen and paper, with no agenda but to think — not allowing themselves to be consumed by "to-do" lists. This is a chance for people to stop running, pull up out of the weeds and think high-level.
- Weekly planning time. They evaluate the week — what went well, what could have gone better, what needs to change for next week — and then do a big-picture time block for the next week.
- Daily exercise rhythm.
- Daily meditation or prayer rhythm.
- Regularly scheduled (weekly or bi-weekly) leadership meetings.” —
12. Go at Your Own Pace
“My consistently successful clients have come to the full realization that we don’t all acquire habits at the same rate; everyone is different. I often chuckle when I see books that make a promise within a given time frame (e.g., “25 days to Washboard Abs”). My successful clients are acutely aware of the reality of their weaknesses — their limitations. As such, they do a better job of working to eliminate these limitations at their own pace, which sets them up to take more self-responsibility for the habits they want to implement or get rid of.” —CEO Mentor Raymond Gleason
13. Keep Looking Forward
“Never complete a vacation without the next one being scheduled. (Always have something to look forward to.)” —Executive Coach Bill Hart
14. Defend Your Schedule
“I think successful leaders are good at priorities, opportunities and people. And what distracts us from that is a schedule that’s so demanding that there’s never a moment when you have time to think or reflect or maintain that perspective of priorities, opportunities and people.
So defend your schedule. At least twice a day, try to find 10-30 minutes where you can close the door and do any number of things. If you’re a spiritual person, you could pray. If you are into meditation, you could do deep breathing and relax. If you have the opportunity, you could take 15 minutes and just walk around the block and observe flowers, leaves, birds and life. This is a chance to center and refocus yourself in the midst of what can be very chaotic days. It helps you be able to do your job, to identify and stay focused on priorities, to see opportunities — not obstacles — and to really focus on the development of your people — not their limitations.
Defend your schedule by putting this refocusing time on the calendar so it’s always there.” —Executive Coach Gerrit Cormany
15. Remember the 9 Most Important Minutes
“For living well and ensuring a balanced life, remember the nine most important minutes of the day: the three minutes when the kids wake up; the three minutes when kids get home from school; and the three minutes right before they go to bed. If you think about it, in those three times we are often negative, telling them to make their bed, do their homework, brush their teeth and so on, when we should be bonding with them and making it a positive connection. Change the paradigm; change your habits.” —CEO Mentor Tom Brewer
16. Stop Keeping Score
“One of the major habits I encourage my clients to break is keeping “score” in their relationships. Over time and with varying degrees, all of us generate our own internal (often subconscious) Little Black Book which keeps track of past transgressions and builds up our own ego. This is a really, really bad habit that, left unchecked, can evolve into pure manipulation of relationships. Instead, my clients work on becoming more vulnerable, having authentic dialogue and building relationships based on trust.” —CEO Mentor Raymond Gleason
17. Review Your Calendar
"For most of my clients, time is their biggest pain point. So creating a time block of their ideal week and then doing a weekly review and a 5-minute daily review allows them to go through their calendar and figure out how they want to be spending their time. That way, they’re not showing up to the office each morning and just moving right into that whack-a-mole, reactive mode of trying to manage everything that’s being thrown at them. By building the daily and weekly review into their schedule, they can get to a place where they’re controlling their calendar rather than their calendar controlling them." —Executive Coach Laurel Emory, PhD
Changing your habits is one of the simplest ways to change your life — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Whether you’re looking to form a new habit or kick a bad one, our Building Better Habits guide will help you check your readiness and make a plan to follow through. That way, you can learn to live and lead better, one step at a time.
Using the Building Better Habits guide, you'll learn how to:
- Create simple and specific plans to change your habits.
- Evaluate your motivation and identify potential barriers to success.
- Learn how to hack the "habit loop" and rewire your brain to leave bad habits behind.