By Dominic Irvine, founding partner of boutique leadership and development consultancy Epiphanies LLP
“What’s wrong with these people?” Frustrated at the drivers’ seeming inability to stop rescanning all the parcels prior to loading the vans, the IT director of a logistics company had his head in his hands in despair. In the cold light of day it seemed incomprehensible to him that they would continue to follow the same routine day in day out even though they had been asked to change. His conclusion was similar to that reached by many people in similar position - to question their intellectual capability.
Absent-mindedly he reached for another biscuit from the plate. Now here was a paradox. The IT director and I had talked about the challenges of losing weight and the seemingly endless struggle it involved and yet even though he knew he didn’t need the biscuit, he’d still taken it and eaten it. So how come it was unacceptable for drivers to fail to do what was required but it was ok for him to slip up and eat biscuits? And why did both the drivers and the IT director continue to do what they both knew they should stop? In this article and the next, I’ll attempt to answer these two questions and suggest some things you might want to do.
Life’s a habit
Much of our day is made up of a series of habits. From when we get up, the route we take to work and a lot of the things we do at work become habitual. I bet when you sit in front of your computer you open the same programmes (email, browser etc) and for the first few minutes do what you always do - probably without even realising it. David Neal and Wendy Wood have done some amazing research into habits. They define habits in essence as repeating the same behaviour every time you are in a particular situation. For example, always putting your bag down in the same place in your office, automatically seasoning your food at the table, or always parking in the same space at work. It’s the repetition of the same behaviour over and over again in the same situation that helps it become a habit.
More than a word
A habit is more than just a word for repeating the same actions. Research by Ann Graybiel has shown that as something becomes a habit - for example, parking on the drive at home - the part of the brain involved is different to that involved when you are doing something consciously to achieve a specific goal, e.g. working out where to park in an unfamiliar location.
The impact of something becoming a habit is that it is initiated by contextual triggers. For example, opening your office door might be the trigger that initiates you to drop your bag in the same place. It is no longer a rational choice, it has become a response. So powerful are these triggers that they will set you off doing what you always do whether you intended to do that or not. Sometimes they can overwhelm your intentions. For example, when my stepson was a youngster, I sent him to the bathroom to wash his hands before dinner. Instead he cleaned his teeth. The trigger of going into the bathroom had set off the habit of cleaning his teeth and over-ridden the desired behaviour of washing his hands. In the same way, the ping of an email can have you opening your inbox before you’ve realised it.
The stages of a habit
There are three stages in a habit.
1. The cue: In this case opening the bathroom door.
2. The routine: In this case cleaning his teeth.
3. The reward: Clean teeth, and probably more importantly feeling good that he had remembered to do what he was meant to do without being told!
According to Ann Graybiel, brain activity during the routine phase of a habit drops significantly when compared to doing something that isn’t a habit. In other words we simply aren’t thinking much about what we are doing. This is important because most of our efforts to change habitual behaviour are focused on getting people to change their routine - the precise point when the person is not really thinking about it.
Habits generally arise because we do the same things again and again because they get us what we need. They only become a bad habit when we don’t need what the habit delivers. The poor drivers cited in the opening paragraph have been rescanning loads for months, if not years because it was an effective way of ensuring an efficient route. It was, at one point - a good habit. Changes in IT now mean it is a bad habit.
Changing habits is a tough thing to do. It requires a great deal of motivation as well as being attentive to what you are doing, attempting to really notice what you are doing and to have to follow a new pattern of behaviour to follow when cue kicks off the old behaviour. It’s hard! Just as it is hard for the IT director to stop taking the biscuit from the plate in the meeting room. It’s become a habit. The difference between changing rational goal oriented behaviour and habits is that in the former you need to focus on the behaviour. This is pointless when changing a habit. Here the emphasis needs to be on being attentive to the cue that triggers the routine and determining what you will do instead.
Habits can be broken, but let’s not treat it as a workshy lazy response. Let’s recognise it for what it is, a completely different neurological response to a situation that demands a focus on vigilance and a focus on cues rather than on routines.