Ever heard the saying “I’m going to drop it like a bad habit”?
It’s easier said than done, and certainly a phrase thought up by someone who mustn’t have had many bad habits – if they were easy to break, no one would have them!
MAKING THE CHANGE:
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”
James Clear is an author and online blogger who has used his knowledge of scientific research in psychology to build a career out of sharing self-improvement tips with those people looking to make a change in their lives.
One of his many books, “Atomic Habits”, has sold more than 4 million copies and was a New York Times Bestseller. It outlines how meaningful change occurs in small increments, over a long period of time, and how the majority of people fail to break their bad habits because they try to get rid of them all at once.
Unhealthy patterns are broken by making marginal gain, 1% improvements – health behaviours are established by implementing tiny, but important changes in your life.
Ever been at a baseball game, and witnessed a whole stand of people yelling and raising their arms up to protect their faces when a player loses his grip on the bat and sends it hurtling towards the crowd? This is an example of an irrational fear, that somehow that bat is going to fly 100 feet through the air and hit you – the chances are slim to none.
Unluckily for James Clear though, he was that unlucky person – a loose bat smashed him in the face when he was in high school. His recovery from a broken nose, dislocated eyes, and brain swelling took months – but it didn’t prevent him from pursuing his own baseball career.
Through the power of small, incremental gains he overcame his fear, and polished off his game to eventually make the All-American Academic baseball team while in college. Now, he shares pearls of wisdom with others.
THE INITIAL BEHAVIOUR
The environment we surround ourselves with is the unseen hand that shapes our behaviour. There is an initial 4 step pattern that leads to the formation of a habit.
There is a distinct prompt that piques your interest. This is the cue, a piece of information that suggests that hints at the possibility of a reward. It could be something as simple as the smell of your favourite junk food.
Next comes the craving. Using the junk food example again, the taste drives your hunger and therefore your motivation to eat it.
The next step is a conscious one. You decide what the response will be – will you go buy that junk food, or will you opt for a healthier alternative and deny craving.
Finally – the reward. A feeling of satisfaction that you only get from the dopamine feel good hormone released by the brain for giving it what it wants. There is also a lesson that comes with this reward, that will factor in to whether you get that junk food again or not.
This is the same process for learning bad habits as it is for good habits – the steps are the same. The only thing that differs is the circumstances, motivations, and ultimate decision on a case-by-case basis.
If this cycle is repeated enough times, a habit is formed.
There is a way to hack your brain, and trick it into making the behavioural change you want. Using a food example, you may decide you want to eat more fruit instead of all that unhealthy junk.
Tying in with the prompt, you can make your conscious decision known to your subconscious by just being obvious. Instead of shoving that fruit into the crisper of your refrigerator, display it in a bowl on the kitchen counter so it’s in your direct line of sight.
You then need to make this choice attractive. Start by buying the fruit you like, so that there will be some sort of desire to eat it when you see it.
This next decision-making step is the stumbling block – you need to make the choice easy, or else you won’t do it. For instance, buy fruit that doesn’t require any peeling or preparation to eat, or that are bite size for you to snack on.
Lastly, the satisfaction. This is also a hard one to curb, and you’ll need to make the choice appealing and satisfying in order to get that dopamine hit pleasure response from the brain. In this case, know that by eating fruit instead of an order of fries, you feel happier with your better food choice.
TRACK THOSE HABITS
You can make a game out of breaking bad habits, or forming new ones – it can actually become fun. Focus on one habit at a time you’d like to change, and track your decision-making progress so you have a record to hold yourself accountable to.
Make a list of how you want that particular habit to affect, or not affect, your daily life and at the end of each day write down what you had success with. Having it written in stone, and reading your progress, goes a long way to strengthen your resolve.
Fans of the hit TV show “Seinfeld” will remember that he marks days that he thinks of a joke on a wall calendar with a big X written in black marker. His goal was to think of one piece of unique, new material every day and to not break the chain – that way he’d never run out of things to say onstage.
This is the exact same strategy, and is brilliant in breaking bad habits and building the new behaviours you want. Bringing it back to the compound interest example, each day you complete your behavioural goals will add just a little bit more to your resolve than previous days. Put together a whole month, and each subsequent day may count for 2-3 days’ worth of satisfaction when compared to when you started on day 1.
WHAT IT DOESN’T TELL YOU
So how does this link back to the business world?
Well, “Atomic Habits” outlines pretty clearly how habits are formed, where there is wiggle room to replace the steps with the new behaviour you want to install into your brain, and how to positively reinforce your progress by tracking and making a record of it.
But, it doesn’t touch on how to execute behavioural change as it relates to someone else – for instance, your team in your workplace. Everybody has dreams of winning the gold at the Olympic Games, but very few actually go to the lengths of training required to be an Olympian – the difference here is execution. There’s a saying – “goals are overrated, execution is everything”. So true.
The sad reality that many in the business world are idea rich, but execution poor. Many starters, few finishers. Obviously, this creates a real bottleneck when trying to accomplish your goals and adjust a behavioural system to curb bad habits and promote better ones.
Successful companies execute on what matters most to that particular business, they don’t just set goals – they put systems into place to promote the environment and attitude they want surrounding and permeating through their company.
James Clear’s system is directly transferrable into work life. You need to be obvious as to what behaviour you want to reinforce in your team – the environmental cue is one that you foster.
Likewise, this change needs to be attractive enough so that your team want to get on board. This could be something as non-threatening as a performance bonus for following protocol, or as mildly intimidating as handing out warnings that could lead to possible termination of employment.
The choice to do the right thing has to be easy, and this can be achieved by making sure every person within the business adheres to the same rules and behavioural expectations, that everyone from the coffee guy to the CEO are accountable for their actions.
Finally, you need to reward positive behaviour that fits in with the good habits you’re trying to instil. Your team need to feel a sense of satisfaction over their choice to follow the leader and curb bad habits, to adopt the behavioural model you want for your team.
So, to recap, there are 4 steps in the behavioural cycle – cue, craving, response, and reward. It’s not enough to have an idea of how you want your team to work, you have to have the determination to properly address each facet of the small changes you want to make.
Execution is key, and it only works if you put the systems into place, and promote an environment of accountability to each other that you’ll be sticking to the agreed behaviours for the benefit of the business.
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