What can you learn from your alarm clock about leadership? It turns out quite a bit. The scene is played out in almost every household across the nation each morning: The alarm clock goes off to alert you that it is time to get up. At that point there is a battle that takes place between the the rational side of you that wants to get up (and get a head start on the day) – and the emotional side that wants nothing more than just a few more minutes of sleep. I won’t ask you which one normally wins – or how many times the ‘snooze’ button gets slapped in your household. Suffice it to say that the fact that there is a snooze button tells us everthing we need to know!

Enter the Clocky, an invention of an MIT student by the name of Gauri Nanda. As you can see, it is no ordinary alarm clock. Once set, it will go off at the prescribed time just like any other alarm clock. But that is where the similarities stop. Once the alarm goes off, the Clocky rolls off your bedside table and away from your reach. Imagine how hilarious it would be to watch someone chasing one of these around the room in attempt to silence it! But wait – what on earth does this have to do with leadership? Well, I’m glad you asked…

It turns out that the Clocky is a perfect analogy for what happens in human psychology whenever we are asked to do something that we rationally believe to be beneficial, but that is in conflct with our emotional side. The unavoidable conclusion is that when we say we need to ‘make up our mind about what we need to do’ – we really should say ‘we need to make up both our minds’ – the rational and the emotional. Unfortunately the rational side is typically overwhelmed by the sheer power of the emotional side. The emotional side of you is the part that is instinctive and feels both pain and pleasure – and it tends to be governed by HABIT. The rational side of you is what we would refer to as the intellectual or conscious mind. This is the part of you that thinks and (in theory) makes decisions. The crazy part of this is that all decisions made in the conscious mind must first pass thru the filter of the emotional mind before we can take action. In order for the conscious mind to win there needs to be a crisis that reinforces the need for change, or a lot of repetition (hence the prevalence of the snooze button).

So how do we use this knowledge to lead more effectively?

While we all know that it is relatively hard for us to change our own habits, we tend to underestimate the lock that our employees habits have on their behavior patterns. Because of this we tend to frame logical reasons to our employees why they should change. While I am not saying that we should throw logic aside – it is without a doubt an important and necessary element of any change initiative – I am saying that convincing the rational mind of the importance of a change is actually the easy part. The harder part of any change is getting a person to change their habits.

There is normally only one time of year that most people give any attention to changing their habits: New Years Eve. Although many people have given up on the fruitless ritual of the New Year’s Resolution, others cling to the dim hope that the new year will help them overwhelm the power of habit and they will indeed change for the better.

How to change any habit:

Changing a habit is one of the hardest things you will ever do, however it does not have to be as laced with failure as it normally is. Here is a simple strategy that you can follow to help yourself or an employee increase the likelihood of success:

  1. Focus on the root cause of our frustration – which is likely a HABIT not a bunch of tasks that needs to be completed. For example, if you have a messy desk and it bothers you (I say this because it does not bother everyone!) – do not set a goal to clean your desk. It will only be messy again in no time. Instead focus on the HABIT that is generating the messy desk, likely that you tend to dump things on the desk rather than putting them away.
  2. Identify ONE habit that needs to change. This is of course not what we normally do – we normally get so frustrated that we identify a whole raft of changes that need to happen. This almost assures failure before we even start the process. Since most people struggle to change even one habit at a time we must find a way to focus them on that one change.
  3. Follow up relentlessly until either change occurs or you determine that the change will not occur. If you dtermine that this one habit cannot change and it is critically important to the success of the role, then it is immaterial if other habits change or not.
  4. Back out of the follow up cycle slowly ensuring that there is adequate positive reinforcement and then identify what needs to change next.

By following this strategy you can overwhelm the emotional mind with your consistency of follow up. In essence you have (for a short period of time) become a Clocky – a constant reminder of HOW the change needs to happen – but definitely NOT just a reminder that it has not yet happened.

Now let’s get started! What HABIT would help you be more successful? If you are unsure you might want to try reading our post “Are You Coachable?” as most people can identify (at least) one thing they rationally agree should change – even if they have not emotionally decided to do so!

Here’s to your success!


We have found that most leaders are frustrated that they experience the same problems day after day. At the LeaderShift Workshop we teach leaders a process that helps them create a Performance Acceleration Plan so that they radically accelerate their business results. To learn more click here or on the icon below.