Are your Habits Serving you Well?

by Trudy on February 28, 2014

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

I have been giving lots of thought to organizational habits. Organizational habits are simply a collective of individual habits. Organizational habits are way of behaving that we have learned, repeated, automated and give little critical consideration to. Changing habits is a difficult, but doable task if we are realistic and prepared and utilize the support of the group. It still needs to happen person by person, but the team can support each other through the process.

Habits. Every one of us has our own unique collection of them. Some are good for us, others not so much. We learn these habits when we have done something so repetitively that it permanently engraves connections into our brain that automates our behavior. We react instinctively, without much consideration. The positive side of a habit is that it is mentally efficient, saving us conscious effort, freeing up our mind to tend to other and new things. We establish the habit because there is a pay off for us, it does something for us that benefited us enough to keep doing it, over and over, and over again. The down side to habits is that even though there is a payoff in one way, it could be damaging to us in other ways. (French fries vs. vegetables anyone?).

This “context dependent repetition” is hard to break free of. In fact, researchers have shown that once engraved into the brain the habit never actually disappears, it only diminishes in its strength. Which explains relapses after 15 years of not doing….(insert your dependency here).

So how do we replace an old habit with a new behavior? Well, actually you won’t ever replace it. The best you can do is try to create another equally strong (or stronger) alternative habit.

And while I am bursting bubbles everywhere, that enduring belief that it takes 21 days to establish a habit, well it’s unproven. Really. It turns out this commonly trotted out guideline was never demonstrated scientifically. So in 2010 researchers Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, at UCL in London decided to put it to the test. What they found is that on average it takes 66 days for an activity to become automated. And with all averages, it is the neat way of saying some people were faster, some were much longer to automate.

Keep in mind, when you are working to create an equally strong alternative habit you need to be realistic about the effort and commitment required. If the old habit has been exercised daily for years, the alternative habit is going to take time to be strong enough to compete with it. If you are making a complete change in habit, it will take much longer than a small alteration (tying back to one small step at a time is easier). And finally if you are doing it alone, without support or reinforcement, it is harder. This is where the advantage of team comes in.

All of this is critical to keep in mind when instituting change in your organization. It will help to manage expectations of timing/results and encourage you to not give up too soon, or take on too much at once. Recognize it will be a slow start, there will be fear and discomfort, there will be incompetency to start, mistakes and set backs will happen. Just start and keep going. Time truly is your friend in habit formation, there is no quick fix.

Okay, so how will you install this new neural pathway? I read many articles and pieces of research and compiled what I believe to be a sensible approach.

  1. Know specifically what you want to do differently and when the habit occurs
  2. Know exactly what the new behavior needs to look like
  3. Clearly identify the pay off for the new behavior. It needs to be as strong or stronger than the pay off for the already established habit.
  4. Break it into small steps, and do one small step at a time. Start with something that will make an important difference. Then move onto the next so it is a gradual, gentle change that is not threatening or too uncomfortable.
  5. Create the environment for the new habit to happen and flourish, and to make the old habit harder to do. This breaks people out of their automation long enough to consider an alternative choice.
  6. Start. Just begin to behave in the desired way. Pursue it, commit to it every day.
  7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. And then repeat again. Consistency and frequency matter in brain engraving.
  8. Surround yourself with others that can help, support, make it easier.
  9. Create your own habit changing tag line to keep you focused. My learner who enjoys procrastination has a line he pulls out when he sees he is drifting off, “Focus and finish first, fun and fooling follows”. It often is exactly the mind shift he needs to keep him focused and keep the behavior an active consideration.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time. – Mark Twain

One thing for sure, keep repeating your new behavior, consistently, frequently, and it will eventually automate. When? Not sure. But you will know it has automated when you realize you are doing something without a conscious thought provoking it. (But then again you may not even notice that for some time!).

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