Easy hacks for sustained behavior change

You have the project delivery all chalked out – daily tasks, team members involved, what to delegate, review before the deadline, and a celebration after submission. Fast forward to the completion week – your plans have gone awry. Incomplete milestones, teams out of sync, and a race against time for submission. What went wrong?

It can probably be pinned down to individual habits.

Time-management, communication and prioritizing are some workplace habits we strongly desire. The laundry list continues with work-life balance, getting to work early, taking breaks or even follow-ups. Some of us practice them, and some want to. Why is it challenging to build or sustain a habit that we know will contribute to our effectiveness? It’s because when we repeat a given behavior, like procrastinating, our brain creates a neural pathway that makes it automatic. Like a routine.

Habits are sequences of actions that are learned progressively, and are performed unconsciously. To replace old pathways, we need to train our brain to create new ones. Let’s look at how we can make this happen.

Start small. Stanford University researcher B. J. Fogg suggests breaking that one big habit we want to build, into tiny parts. Make them so small, that they seem trivial. A popular example is the habit of flossing our teeth. Experts recommend flossing one tooth each night. Gradually you’d feel a strong urge to floss all your teeth automatically. Similarly, if you want to get to work by 8.00 AM, but aren’t able to do so before 10.00 AM, set a target of 9.50 AM first. When you achieve that, make it 9.40 AM!

Australian researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng prove that such small progresses when added up, increase our will-power to tackle bigger goals. It’s like exercising a muscle. When not used, it gets fatigued.

Link new habits to old ones. Research shows that when one habit signals the start of another, they are easier to act upon than separate new habits. This is known as the process of setting up contextual cues. For example, ‘I will respond to 10 emails as soon as I sit down on my desk in the morning’ is more effectively achieved than ‘I will reply to emails everyday’.

Design acquisition habits, instead of inhibition ones. In other words, how habits are presented and framed, makes a big difference. Thus, instead of breaking a habit, like ‘Don’t work till 9.00 PM’ or ‘Don’t ignore your colleagues’, focus on what the new habit is helping you gain. ‘Spend 30 minutes chatting with family after dinner’ or ‘Greet team members on entering office’ will elicit more action for you. Malcom Gladwell calls this the ‘tipping point’ where the unexpected becomes expected, and we know how to fit a positive change into our lives.

At the end of the day, all our behavior is a sequence of habits. Being aware of and reconstructing them is a process. It’s a myth that new habits are formed in 21 days. So, if you still find yourself procrastinating after 3 weeks, don’t drop the habit. New research shows that the average time a habit takes to strengthen is 66 days!

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