Marshmallow Sunday

Changing Habits

By Tim McGaffic


If you’re reading this you’re probably at least acquainted with Holistic Management and hopefully a practitioner. Congratulations on finding a pioneering management process concerned with sustainable outcomes. I believe Holistic Management is much more than an effective management process for a sustainable future, Holistic Management is a good habit—one that changes how you think, and when practiced, will have far reaching unexpected consequences in your life.


Delayed Gratification & Success

Who are the people that practice Holistic Management? What particular qualities make a good holistic manager? These questions are fundamental to marketing our product, and for some, hiring managers or employees that fit into their holistic goal. In 1972 Walter Mischel of Stanford University designed and conducted an experiment to test a person’s ability to delay gratification. It was, and still is known, as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. The experiment was relatively simple. He studied a group of 4 year old children and gave each a marshmallow, but promised two marshmallows if they were able to wait for 20 minutes. The study continued and is still being followed to this day.

What they found was that a person’s ability to delay gratification was a reliable indicator of success in life. People that could delay gratification were better adjusted psychologically, more dependable, had better grades, and scored an average of 210 points higher on SAT tests. These successes continued into later life and this one test is considered one of the most reliable for predicting success in life at an early age. The Marshmallow Test looks at innate abilities that lend to the adoption of successful habits.

Although Holistic Management offers certain immediate results in terms of comfort, such as the gratification you get after completing your financial plan, in the long term, the psychological quality of being able to delay gratification is necessary to see results that practicing Holistic Management will produce. The holistic goal setting, testing, planning and initiation followed by monitoring and the feedback loop, essentially requires a practitioner to be able to delay gratification—to be able to defy conventional wisdom and not run to the local Co-op to buy the latest fix. For those that have gone through this and could resist the trip to the Co-op, the practice of Holistic Management rewarded their disciplined efforts with movement towards their holistic goal. This, of course, is reinforcing and creates a desire to continue.




Through our holistic practices and the monitoring of results, we are building qualities in ourselves that lead to success in other aspects of our lives. Much like working with the ecosystem processes that lead to biological health, those that practice Holistic Management are cultivating qualities that lay the foundation for success. During my training with Allan Savory, he often assured me and others that this whole process would get a lot easier as you continued to practice it. He admitted that in the beginning it took a lot of conscious effort but assured us that one day it would be easy; it would become essentially a habit. He was right; it has become a habit, a way of thinking. A habit, as defined in Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit is “a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, at which point it becomes a formula for our brain to follow automatically.”   With all the planning processes involved in Holistic Management, conscious decisions need to be made; however, the process of holistic thinking could be considered a habit—what Duhigg has called a keystone habit. Sound familiar?

Duhigg documents certain habits that are being termed keystone, much as we might do in analyzing ecosystems when we look for keystone species as indicators of ecosystem health. These habits tend to have far reaching consequences beyond why they were initially adopted. Exercise is one of these habits that affect other aspects of people’s lives. When a person starts to exercise regularly they start to eat better, become more productive at work, smoke less, and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use credit cards less frequently and feel less stressed. It’s not clear as to exactly why this occurs, but when one change triggers widespread change, it is a keystone habit. Another keystone habit that has been documented is families eating dinner together. In this case, parents raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence. Making your bed is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well- being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. These simple habits that have greater effects than intended are known by researchers as keystone.

I contend that practicing Holistic Management is a keystone habit. How many families that have embraced Holistic Management have started to eat dinner together on a regular basis, perhaps because of the shared holistic goal? Of course I have no data on this, but in my personal experience I believe that the shared holistic goal has given people much to discuss, a common purpose and the trust to be heard. Furthermore, the common purpose tends to satisfy their need to be valued, and have more control in their lives. This tends to produce some certainty as to what the future holds, and that is comforting.

As active participation grows, a feeling of being valued for one’s actions and participation is enhanced. The rewards this produces create motivation to work more towards the holistic goal for reasons beyond the original adoption of Holistic Management. Holistic Management not only creates functioning ecosystem processes, but it builds habits in people that are necessary for sustainable futures. These habits may be the most fundamental basis for creating sustainable outcomes. Shaping people with good habits creates a shared culture that manages the resource base more efficiently while looking to the future to ensure success for coming generations.


Changing Behaviors

How do we go about shaping behaviors? According to Duhigg there is a proven process that one can use to extinguish old habits and create new more desirable ones. In fact, to truly rid ourselves of an old unwanted habit we must replace it with a new one. This requires a conscious effort. First, make the decision that a habit is not serving you well, perhaps even detrimental and needs to be changed or eliminated. This is easier said than done as often we find changing our old ways very hard. With effort, almost any habit can be reshaped using the following framework:

  • Identify the routine

  • Experiment with rewards

  • Isolate the cue

  • Have a plan

Within each one of these categories there is a process to follow. Having a deeper understanding is essential but beyond the scope of this short article. However, considering incorporating habit analysis into Holistic Management processes may be useful. Why?

When Paul O’Neil took over the Alcoa Company he was able to change it in unimaginable ways by focusing on one habit he considered essential, safety (the full description is in Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit). By focusing on what he decided to be a key habit, it was proven correct; he was able to create one of the most successful organizations of the era. Duhigg gives many examples in his book to make the argument for changing key habits that go beyond what the conventional wisdom would expect and identifying the habits necessary for world class success. What habits in your life, business, or organization can be initiated to help you be a more effective holistic manager?

A study done in 2006 by Duke University documents that 40% or more of actions people take every day weren’t actual decisions, but habits. Once an action becomes a habit and is triggered, it sets in motion a formula for your brain to follow. Although I would argue we would very much desire to make holistic thinking a habit, the actual process of holistic decisions needs to be conscious and rational for the desired sustainable outcomes to occur. Since we are all just people, you as a holistic practitioner are running on those programs 40% of the time. Examining what habits are taking place and consciously deciding if they are desired could be considered fundamental to future success. Examining behaviors that may be ineffective in achieving your holistic goal may be something to consider.

Holistic Management already has the framework to incorporate this form of critical thinking. Since the brain doesn’t distinguish between good and bad habits, it is important to become aware of what we are doing (choosing the 40% of autopilot behaviors) and make changes as our level of awareness increases. Like Paul O’Neil defining the habit of safety as key, we need to examine what our habits are through better critical thinking skills.

The framework of Holistic Management, unlike other management processes, is set up to accept this as part of the plan of managing the whole. I’m hoping this will create some lively discussion as to where this would fit into the framework of Holistic Management.  As Paul O’Neil had predetermined the far reaching consequences of safety, a holistic manager may consider similar analysis. This may occur in planning while using the testing questions or creating criteria for effectiveness of pre-determined existing habits that are monitored or examined in the feedback loop. One habit that we already consider essential that is necessary for habit change is to record the data; write it down.


Write It Down

I have endeavored to use some examples that may be useful in setting up the critical thinking process that may help managers define good habits. The Marshmallow Test is just that, a test designed to measure an innate tendency that may lead to good habits. Other keystone habits such as exercise are well documented. One of the other qualities needed to change, which is fundamental to Holistic Management, is to systematically record progress; write it down. This in itself has a powerful effect towards self-awareness and the resulting change. Recording what you eat tends to work for diets (Weight Watchers etc.), because it holds us responsible to ourselves, as does the monitoring we profess as holistic managers.

Creating criteria beyond biological monitoring and seeking the changes in ourselves will most likely get us there faster than anything else we can do. If you believe you have unwanted habits, and who doesn’t, challenge yourself to find out the triggers and create new habits. The process Duhigg outlines in his book will show you the way, but you will need the habit of writing it down and monitoring it daily until you have the answer.

Tom Dorrance once said; “The change in the horse comes from the change in the person.” This has proven to be the case every time in my experience. When I hear that Holistic Management doesn’t work, like Tom, I know the people haven’t been able to change enough to adapt. They wanted to be right, not successful, or simply were looking for an easy solution for complicated issues, themselves. As Pogo once said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us”.

Small changes to key behaviors tend to have large effects, and adopting Holistic Management as a management process and the accompanying holistic thinking as a habit can be a powerful tool in shaping cultures. Many companies now have as part of their mission to shape culture. These include Google, Facebook, Starbucks, Twitter, Microsoft, and others.

 As the number of practitioners grows and the groups they form become larger, they will have an effect on culture and future generations. The habits that are taught by those currently practicing may be more important to the fundamental change for sustainable outcomes than we once believed. In short, the 40% of behaviors performed everyday by individuals, thus organizations and governments, need to be examined and incorporated so that the 40% are consciously chosen. By choosing good habits it is more likely we will achieve our desired outcomes. As Paul O’Neil pointed out, success doesn’t depend on getting everything right, but instead relies on identifying a few priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers as good habits.

As people concerned with change, let us challenge ourselves to examine our habits. If they are found wanting, then make conscious efforts to create new ones that serve us better and perhaps others as well. Ray Hunt challenged generations of horseman to examine themselves and not blame the horse. The revolution that has occurred in horsemanship because of his and Tom Dorrance’s efforts is profound. Allan Savory once accused me of sloppy thinking; he was right. Although it didn’t feel good, I now look at my critical thinking skills with Allan’s voice ringing in my ears. My point is rather simple. Examining your ecosystem processes, pastures, riparian areas and other aspects of your business may be rather easy perhaps even fun. Examining yourself isn’t nearly as much fun. Keep the goal in mind and enjoy the ride, while creating new habits of your choice.



Tim McGaffic is a Certified Educator who lives in Cave Creek, Arizona.

He can be reached at (808) 936-5749 or