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  • Nick Smith

H is for Habits ... Helpful and Harmful


Habits seem to be pretty cool right now. Didn't used to be that way: habits were 'bad', 'expensive', or even 'dangerous'. Now, building habits like washing our hands (whether or not we sing Happy Birthday - I tend not to) is a building block in keeping ourselves and those around us safe. Those habits of scratching my cheek, rubbing my eyes - not so much. Less dramatically, forming new habits has moved to the heart of self-help theories. I'd just about got used to the idea that a new (almost certainly healthy, potentially spiritually renewing) habit could be established in 40 days, and then discovered that 40 days might make me a bit slow - 30 days, or even 21 days might be enough.


The reality is that plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, from whose observations the 21 day idea (myth might be a better word) emerged didn't actually say new habits could be formed in 21 days. Rather, it was what he observed as a minimum period of time for his patients to get used to their post-operative state. Other research points to something around 66 days as being a more realistic timescale for new habit formation.


Never mind how long it takes, however, forming new habits is an important way to think about change. And there's some useful models out there, not least from Charles Duhigg. He posits a cycle of Cue, Routine and Reward - with the cue triggering a craving to which our routine response delivers a reward. Sometimes the habit isn't about what it seems to be, either. Duhigg offers an example (summarised here) of how his afternoon cookie habit wasn't really about a cookie-craving and reward, but about an underlying want for daily 15 minute non-work conversation with colleagues. There's thinking, too, about how habit replacement is more effective than habit breaking, how stress can drive us back to previous habits, and some nice practical action models of how to apply Duhigg's cycle to forming new, and breaking bad, habits.


So what takes this out of the realm of self-help and into that of Business Change? There's a little bit out there on that (see this for example), but here's some of my own thoughts. First, we're increasingly clear, I think, that real change has to be thought of in terms of people changing their ways of working - that's why Epion talks about enabling (not managing) change and about empowering people to embrace change. Well, if that's true, then we're right into habit territory:

  • For most of us, much of how we work is habitual: we've a routine, or we get in a groove - it's how we do it

  • And, if we think about team or organisational ways of working, these habitual norms will often have involved, to a significant degree, 'bottom-up' habit forming as people establish their norms and evolve their routines working alongside and with each other.

So, if we want to change ways of working; and if ways of working are at least in part about habits; and if it takes time and intention to change habits, maybe our change leadership and interventions ought to reflect this in some way. What might that look like? It could include:

  • Identifying and understanding habit cycles - perhaps as a step between impact assessment and intervention design. For example, are there cues prompting routines and rewards that drive good service outcomes that we are going to lose?

  • Exploring new habit cycles, with those impacted by change so they are involved in designing (forming?) processes and practices that will incorporate cues, routines and rewards that will further the change outcomes we seek

  • Putting together 'early life support' interventions that are supportive of new 'good' habits being formed and that hinder 'bad' habits emerging. In critical areas these might involve in-person adoption support (eg floor walking); in other areas it might be more about the provision and facilitation of forums for reflection and innovation for those involved in adopting new process and practice.

We'll come back to some of the neurology associated with habit in a later blog, but for now, doesn't this matter? What are you doing (or what have you seen) to incorporate working with habit formation (and breaking) in your change initiatives?

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