Merge's Blog

When things get tough, it’s easy to fall back to old habits

Last month, while at speaking engagements in Australia, I rented a vehicle.  Not so unusual, given that I drive rental cars in almost every city I visit in Canada, the United States and Mexico.  But there was one big difference here – I was in Australia – where they drive on the left-hand side of the road!  Given my North American inclination to drive on the right-hand side, things were a little bit awkward and uncomfortable to start.  For the first half-hour in the driver’s seat, every time I intended to signal turning left or right, invariably I would switch on the windshield wipers.  Sheer force of habit made me flick the lever on the left instead of on the right – and of course in cars “down-under”, the controls are reversed.  I consoled myself with the thought that at least all the Aussie drivers could tell that I was a foreigner and would give me a wide berth!  After about thirty minutes of driving, I finally got comfortable with the differences and began to enjoy the journey.  For much of my time, I traveled on divided highways, so the trip was pleasant and easy.  But then, towards the end of my first day, I drove into Melbourne, Australia’s second-most populous city.  Traffic volume increased substantially, and with it, so did my level of apprehension.  And as my anxiety grew, I found myself once again repeatedly turning on the windshield wipers when I really intended to signal a lane change.  When things got rough, I forgot what my logical brain knew to be true and fell back to old habits.  And in this case, my old habits could only lead me into trouble!

When I work with leaders, I normally encourage them to trust their instincts and follow their intuition.  “When in doubt, fall back to your first instinct and gut feeling,” I tell them.  “You know what to do, you have the experience and the knowledge to make decisions and take action.  Don’t second-guess yourself.”  But my recent driving experience in Australia gave me a reason to pause and re-evaluate this counsel.  It turns out that this advice only makes sense when you are in familiar surroundings where you can trust your past experiences. When you are in a new environment – such as a new organization or a new department (or in my case, a new country) – it may actually be more appropriate to fight your old habits and force yourself to evaluate each new situation based on its merit.  If you’re moving into unfamiliar territory – new job, new leadership team, or even new aspects of business – then it’s a perspective worth keeping in mind!

What do you think?  Are there times when you should not rely on your gut instinct, when you should fight the urge to fall back upon old habits? Do tell.

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