Small Effort Gives You Big Payoff

Quote of the Week

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Small Effort Gives You Big Payoff

by Dr. Loren Ekroth

Small changes in your conversational skills can give you generous returns for the time and energy you invest to make the changes.

For a little bit of effort in breaking a habit or adding a new effective skill, you can realize a large reward. You will be leveraging your effort, and your pay-off can be at least 10 to 1.

Here’s an example of adding a practical skill that had a huge payoff for me. When I was in high school many years ago, I took a half-time class for one semester called “Personal Typing.” Practicing on old mechanical Royal typewriters, we had a goal of 30 error-free words a minute. By the end of the term, I was typing about 35 WPM.

My investment of time in class was less than 40 hours, but my payoff has been at least 1000 to 1. Consider some of my lifetime payoffs:

  • I was able to type my papers in college and graduate school and improved the quality of my work and my grades as well as saving lots of money I’d have had to pay a typist.
  • I earned an elite military occupational speciality when serving in the U.S. Army and got promoted quickly.
  • I prepared handouts and tests for students throughout 30 years of college teaching.
  • I typed a newspaper column for 10 years for a metropolitan paper. I’ve word-processed hundreds of articles and many training materials.

One of the conversation skills options I’m recommending can take as few as 3 hours to install and make your own. Then you’ll have this skill to use for a lifetime.

The top skills I recommend:

  • Give full attention to listening without multi-tasking.
  • Ask open and follow-up questions. (What, How, Why questions are open.) Follow-up questions ask for more detail.

An excellent way to install or improve a skill is to find a person who is a good model of that skill. For example, who is the best listener you know? Observe them and then do more of what they do. Want to improve your golf game? Watch Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstam.

When do you practice the skill? In everyday conversation, you focus on one skill at a time.

For a few days set the goal of attentive listening and practice in each of your interactions. Or, eliminate a bad habit such as:

  • “See me!” – grabbing the focus of attention
  • Interrupting – not letting others finish their thoughts
  • Rambling — going on and on at length

Habits are unconscious and automatic, which makes them hard to eliminate. Fortunately, some undesirable habits can be pushed aside by new behaviors. For example, if you give other speakers your full attention, you won’t be interrupting them.

Then, through practice, you’ll install the new behavior. It won’t take long. As the old story goes about the young man asking an elder for directions: “Sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”, the answer is always the same: “Practice, Sonny, practice.”

A simple method that helps break unwanted habits is to wear a rubber band around your wrist. Then, when you catch yourself doing that habit, pull the rubber band and give yourself a little “sting.” (Yes, this really works!) The rubber band is both a reminder and an enforcer of your desire to break the habit.

When we try to change in major ways in a short time, we are destined for failure. Our ingrained behaviors “kick back” against wholesale change That’s why I recommend one small step at a time in the direction of mastery. This is what the Japanese call kaizen – little incremental steps, each one making us better.

The options for change listed above are among the most common I observe and hear from readers. There are many other options, and you may want to start with one of your own. Whichever one you choose to start with, make sure it can have a big payoff. This reward will encourage you to try change #2.

Finally, a few related wisdom quotations:

From the Tao: “It’s always just the right time to begin.”
From Napoleon Hill: “It’s always your next move.”
From Karen Lamb: “A year from now you may wish you had started today.”
From William A. Ward: “Recipe for success: Study while others are sleeping; work while others are loafing; prepare while others are playing; and dream while others are wishing.”

Loren Ekroth ©2009, all rights reserved. Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. Contact at Complimentary newsletter, “Better Conversations,” at

Coaching Call to Action

Identify which behavior of yours you’d like to change? List the beneifts for making that change. What small action do you commit to taking this week that will lead you to a change in this behavior?