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  • Writer's pictureSean Grace

The Power of Habits

For many of us, January is a time for new resolutions, goal setting, and the determination to shed old habits for new. With the turn of the calendar, we feel a new sense of possibility and hope for a better year ahead and perhaps a better you. In addition, more than two-thirds of companies worldwide are on a calendar year fiscal and set budgets and growth targets accordingly. January is the catalyst for the proverbial fresh start for individuals, teams, and organizations.

Central to the activation of change is the mechanism of habits. Habits dictate much of how we move through the day and navigate our lives. They also determine how organizations function, both good and bad. Habits fuel the automaticity of routines and are the mental and procedural shortcuts we use to conserve cognitive energy. Habits free us from having to continually re-make decisions and as a result, have an oversized effect on our personal, professional, and organizational well-being.

In Charles Duhigg’s thought-provoking book, The Power of Habit, he identifies the three primary components of all habits - the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is the stimuli that can be either exogenous - such as environment, time of day, circumstance, other people, etc., or endogenous, such as emotions, thoughts, hunger, etc. The reward is what we gain, either consciously or subconsciously, from the habit loop. Duhigg posits that all habits are reward-driven and identifying both the reward and the trigger are key to both habit formation and change.

Research shows that habits are more often replaced rather than eradicated, and it’s the routine component of a habit loop that is more likely to be swapped. Cues and rewards are less malleable, so substituting an old routine for a new one is the more successful strategy.

After choosing a habit that you want to change, the next steps are identifying the cues that trigger the habit as well as the reward. The true reward is often obscured by the superficial reward that we more readily experience. Cutting back on mid-afternoon snacking requires understanding that more often than not, it’s not the actual snack we’re seeking but rather a mental break from a 3:00 lull that overwhelms you, and perhaps the reward you seek includes an opportunity to socialize. The snack is just the excuse that’s become habitual triggered by the time of day and your state of mind.

Organizations and teams are also creatures of habit that can easily fall into automatic routines that may or may not be healthy or productive. Managers at all levels need to continually analyze what kinds of habit loops exist under their purview; habits that may fuel dysfunction and feed discontent within teams.

Quite often, one specific habit triggers a series of other habits creating a cascade of behaviors that spread dysfunction far and wide. These habits are called “keystone” habits and if you can identify and change those loops it will quite often affect a whole ecosystem of behaviors.

Duhigg cites a case study where a new CEO was installed in a large manufacturer and his first call to action wasn’t about growth, costs, profit, or market share but rather about safety. The new CEO quickly identified safety as a keystone to a myriad of other poor habits throughout the organization worldwide. He believed if he could instill new habits around safety protocols, the benefits would spread up, down, and across the company, having positive impacts on profitability, growth, and well-being. And sure enough, within his first year, there were wholesale impacts throughout the enterprise including record growth, profit, market share, employee satisfaction, and of course safety.

So with the start of the new year, consider the keystone habits that affect you, your teams, and your organization. Identify the cues, routines, and rewards that constitute those habit loops and make an effort to replace them. Habits are harder to change than they are to create, but understanding their components and how they work goes a long way in initiating positive change.


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