In Change Management, habits are often regarded as the enemy to lasting change as people easily slip back to their old ways. However, discoveries in neuroscience and behavioral studies show that habits can be harnessed to effect lasting change.
The Makeup of Habits
According to psychologist and author, Wendy Wood, 43% of our daily behaviours are performed out of habit. The more we repeat these behaviours and actions, they become imprinted in our neural pathways, making it harder to break bad habits and form new ones. Hard but not impossible.
Habits have been defined as routine actions or behaviours that are performed regularly and often subconsciously. They are necessary because they reduce the mental load required to make decisions and yield desirable rewards. Habits are mental shortcuts to repeat what we did in the past that worked for us and got us some reward. They tend to follow the pattern of cue, response and reward. For instance, if stress is a cue, and you had the options of either binge watching Netflix, over-eating or spending some time on the punching bag, you are most likely to go for the easiest one. Building habits requires understanding cues, facilitating an easy response that leads to a satisfying outcome and repeating that over and over until it becomes an automatic response.
I am currently reading James Clear’s book Atomic Habits and there are so many powerful insights for anyone trying to build good habits or break bad ones. As a high school athlete, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that took him almost 9 months to recover from. His recovery required building on small habits because he didn’t really have a choice. In his book, Clear describes habits as the compound interest of self-improvement. The effects may appear imperceptible but as they compound, they gather momentum and become unmissable. For example, choosing a big Mac meal over a healthy salad in one lunchtime will not make a difference to the scale or waistline but repeated over time, the effects will become visible.
Motivation Behind Habits
The desire for change is a common motivation for building habits. This is why the beginning of a new year, a relocation, a job change are times when we feel compelled to develop new habits and ditch bad ones. It is also why the current lockdown due to COVID19 has triggered a desire for new habits because our way of life is changing. These triggers are incentives to start a habit, but they are seasonal. Lasting behavioral change is about identity. If in lockdown you have exercised more or spent more time with your family or trusted your employees to work from home, is that all going to change when lockdown eases? Or would you like to be an active person, a present parent and a trusting employer? Knowing that all your actions are casting votes either for or against an identity, considering the type of person/ organisation you want to be is a prerequisite for building any habit.
Factors that affect Habit Formation
Singularity of focus is significant in building habits because focus simplifies things. Clear touches on this when he explains the choice of the title Atomic Habits. Just as atoms are the smallest part of ordinary matter, habits can be viewed as the smallest possible unit of behaviour. In habit building, focusing on the smallest unit of the behaviour creates an opportunity to execute and with repeated execution comes the opportunity to add on the next layer and eventually to optimise the habit. Packing a gym bag the night before can be one small focus point to prompt you to go to the gym. Charles Duhigg, another author on the subject of habits, cites the example of Paul H. O’Neill. When he became CEO of Alcoa, in 1987, O’Neill knew there was much to change across the company but he decided to focus solely on worker safety. He fired any managers who didn’t report accidents and a few investors lost faith in what seemed like a narrow-minded approach. The impact of focusing on this one area was widespread. In the effort to prevent accidents, communication improved, procedures changed and a responsible culture was established. It turned out that as safety dramatically improved so did performance overall. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion.
Environment is another important factor in determining the success of a habit. Without the right structure, habits cannot be sustained. If you want to curb time spent on social media, turning off your notifications till the weekend can be helpful. If you want employees to adhere to a clear desk policy, provide adequate storage for their personal effects. Companies like Google and Facebook have created a workplace environment (with sleep pods, free restaurants, showers) where their employees are happy to spend long hours on site, which will no doubt impact performance. Clear states, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems”. The social environment also matters, being around people for whom your desired habit is normal increases your chances of success. As social creatures, we inevitably imitate the behaviours of either, the close, the majority or the powerful. This is why change initiatives need the engagement of the leadership to succeed.
There are many theories of the time taken to build a habit, various researchers recommend 30 days, 90 days or even 100 days. While this is true, it is not advisable to think of habits in these terms as they imply an end point. Remember the premise that habits are sustained when linked to an identity? Although it takes time to build up the evidence of your new identity, every action casts votes for or against that identity. Therefore, the important measure is the frequency of action. Of course, there will be times where we might fail to keep up with a habit because we are human. However, the frequency of completing a habit should far outweigh the number of misses because the action with the higher frequency inevitably becomes the habit.
Developing habits are a continuous improvement process, with a view that the small actions repeated overtime will result in something significant. With this approach in mind, the removal of complexities makes habits easier to perform and with repetition comes the opportunity to optimise.
The author would like to reference the following books:
CLEAR, J., 2019. ATOMIC HABITS.
Duhigg, C., 2013. The Power Of Habit.