Making you think: The struggle of changing habits
Innovation! Creativity! Collaboration! Who doesn’t want to spend their day focused on fun and interesting work?
We all know, however, we can only focus on the fun work after we get through the emails, the expense reports, and the timesheets. So, we learn processes for the mundane stuff. Over time those steps become so ingrained that we can move through it quickly and get back to the work we want to do. Process becomes a necessary evil, helping us turn humdrum tasks into quick, efficient habits.
Yet in today’s environment, with companies recognizing the need to continuously improve, we see ongoing tweaks to processes and systems that also change our deeply ingrained habits.
Power of habit
Driving to work using the same route every day. Using an iPhone. Entering expenses into the expense system. All of these are habits that help us efficiently navigate our days.
Throughout a single day, people execute thousands of behaviors. From the complex (e.g. going to the gym in the morning) to the simple (e.g. shutting off the lights before leaving the house), about 45% of our behavior might qualify as habitual (Neal et al., 2006).
Nearly half of our behaviors are wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically (Trafton, 2012), leaving space for fun, creative, innovative thinking. We can listen to the radio while we drive. We can debate with a friend how many ribs humans have while simultaneously finding a search engine and looking up the answer on our phone. (FYI – The human rib cage is made up of 12 paired rib bones; 24 ribs total.)
The habits that make up our everyday behavior are a key part of why it can be hard for us to adopt any type of change. Put a detour on the route, move the bread at the grocery store, or hand an iPhone user an Android, and you’ve disrupted the habit.
When change disrupts habit
Now think about the workplace. In a culture that recognizes the benefits of continuous improvement and evolution, as well as efficiency, we’re faced with habit disruptions multiple times a year, month, and day. What does that actually mean for employees? How do we balance these two opposing forces?
A study by MIT neuroscientists found that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, is responsible for moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time (Trafton, 2012). So, when organizational change impacts work (processes, job roles, workflows, reporting structures, etc.), it forces a person to slow down and use the prefrontal cortex to think about what to do next, something they didn't have to think about the day before.
Plus, that intentional shifting and focusing of attention on the new behavior is a form of task switching, which might waste only 1/10th of a second for each task switch, but can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity throughout a day (Weinschenk, 2012).
Add to that the research from University College London that found that the average time it takes for a new habit to stick is 66 days* (Lally et al., 2010), and you can see how organizational initiatives that cause a habit change can impact employees and their productivity.
*Individual times can vary from 18 to 254 days
Helping people adopt new habits
Getting people to change a habit is no easy task, especially since creating a new habit takes away from the fun parts of the day, the work we love to do. Yet most people are more than willing to try a new process, especially if it is tied to an effort to improve the employee’s experience and help grow the company. So, changing a habit isn’t easy, but it’s also not impossible.
Focusing on change management concepts, deliberately helping people make the transition, will help them adopt new behaviors and get back to a high level of productivity. All it takes is support, convenience, and a little bit of grace.
Foster a supportive environment that encourages employees to adopt the change
- Make the effort to understand “resistance.” We often assume slower adoption is resistance, but it can also be an indication of different learning curves or approaches to change. Use interviews, observations, focus groups, and surveys to ensure you know where key trip-ups may come and how to support the early adopters, the procrastinators, and the resisters.
- Give key employee ambassadors early access. Help employee influencers understand the change first so they can demonstrate the new behavior and advocate for the change with their peers.
- Track progress and recognize success. You change what you measure, so find a way to measure the habits that matter. And then reinforce what success looks like by celebrating or acknowledging when employees adopt the new behavior.
Make it easy to do the right thing so it is convenient to adopt the new behavior
- Be clear in communications and training. People work well with instructions and well-defined goals, and often do nothing when it's not clear exactly what they’re supposed to do.
- Create a visual cue. People need to hear about a change seven times before it sinks in, so let a visual cue on their desk provide an extra reminder of the change.
- Look for components that are forming a habit loop. A habit change is successful if the cue and the reward remain the same but the routine changes, so find the components that form a habit loop and develop a more sustainable strategy for habit change (Altali, n.d).
Extend grace while employees are adjusting to the change
- Plan for mistakes. Adopting new habits takes time. Make sure employees understand they don’t have to be perfect and provide them with resources, so they understand how to deal with minor stumbling blocks.
- Empower leaders to empathize. It takes an average of 66 days for one new habit to stick. What if your organization is asking employees to change three or four habits at once? Or they overlap? It’s rare that an employee is dealing with only one change at any given time, so even if they want to create new habits, it can be hard to keep up with the change and have time for the new habit to stick. Help leaders and managers to understand what else is going on that might affect an employee’s ability to adopt the new behavior quickly as well as the plan for helping employees adjust.
- Respond to questions. Educate your front-line managers to support their team. Make sure employees have an easy way to ask questions and get answers (e.g. a help desk, project inbox, change agents).
By their very nature, habits keep us doing what we have always done. Creating new habits takes time, and there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. Being aware of your initiative’s impact to habits ensures that you can identify changing behaviors and best help employees to adjust.
There's no slowing down when it comes to change; our resulting need to continuously improve will create habit changes. While it will certainly make people unproductive for a time, those changes will ultimately deliver an improvement or evolution that will help our employees and companies thrive into the future.
Written by Katie Brandt, Consultant, Leslie Oines, Principal Consultant, and Dr. Shannan Simms, Vice President.
Altali, W. (n.d.). Habit: The Frenemy of Change. Change Management Review, Retrieved from: https://www.changemanagementreview.com/habit-the-frenemy-of-change/
Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
McCloskey, K., & Johnson, B. T. (2019). Habits, Quick and Easy: Perceived Complexity Moderates the Associations of Contextual Stability and Rewards With Behavioral Automaticity. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1556.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198-202.
Trafton, A. (2012). How the brain controls our habits. MIT News, (October 29).
Weinschenk, S. (2012). The true cost of multi-tasking. Psychology Today, (September 12), Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking
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