Have you ever driven to work, or home, and realised when you get there that you have no memory of the drive – almost as if you weren’t doing it?
Habits are a strange thing. They make our lives easier by allowing us to perform certain actions without really thinking about them, saving the brain energy and freeing it to concentrate on other things, but they can also work against us, too.
We can turn even complicated series of activities into habits, such as that drive to/from work (do you remember how complicated it seemed the first couple of times?), and this has been really important from an evolutionary perspective, as it’s helped us to continue to develop.
But, of course, there’s the negative side to this, too. We know that smoking is bad for us, for example, and yet giving it up takes a great deal of time and effort: in fact, on average, a smoker will try to give up 30 times before succeeding.
The thing is that habits, once formed, are lodged in the old “lizard” part of the brain in an area called the basal ganglia. This is what makes habits so hard to change – this part of the brain is incredibly resilient and even somebody with severe brain damage can often still adhere to their established habits.
So how do we get rid of the bad habits we’ve built up over years and develop new healthy ones?
Habits often form because they create some form of craving, whether physical or mental. Smoking, to use that example again, is based around a physical craving for nicotine. Social media interactions, on the other hand, cause the brain to release dopamine (sometimes called, “the feel-good chemical’) which gives us a sense of pleasure and so become habit-forming.
Breaking these habits causes a feeling of loss – nicotine withdrawal in the case of the smoker, or a lack of that feeling of pleasure if the case of the social media addict. Which is why just going ‘cold turkey’ on giving up a bad habit so seldom works.
In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg suggests that the most effective way to give up a habit is to substitute it for another. Essentially, there are 3 components to a habit – the cue, which effectively tells the brain that the second stage, the routine, is coming and to be ready for it, and then the reward when it’s done.
The key to effective change, then, is to change the routine. So, if a smoker’s cue is, for example, the first cup of coffee in the morning, they can give up the habit by changing the routine from lighting a cigarette to something less harmful – perhaps a 5-minute walk to get some exercise, for example (which would then trigger a release of endorphins or serotonin as a reward). Doing this once an hour instead of having those cigarettes will have great physiological and mental benefits over time, too.
And this is the thing about habits. Many of them are small, but it’s the cumulative effect of repeating them over time that causes the results – whether good or bad – as James Clear points out in his book, “Atomic Habits.” As Clear says, if you eat a pizza a day, although you wouldn’t see the effects of each pizza at the time, after a year you’ll have gained considerable weight. On the other hand, go for a 20-minute jog each day and after a year you’ll be leaner and fitter, although you won’t notice the changes happening each day.
But, it’s not just people that can have habits – businesses can, too, through the collective power of many people performing certain routine tasks. And these can be extremely difficult to shift as to do so means changing the habits of many people at the same time.
By understanding the bad habits that a company has developed, often signalled by the phrase “We’ve always done it this way” when somebody asks why something is done, and looking to replace these with better habits, costs generally decrease, productivity increases and morale does, too, as removing one bad habit can have a ripple effect on others – perhaps, for example, radically pruning that list of standard meetings that has built up.
So, what are some of the good habits that we should all develop?
Exercise – there is no question that regular exercise leads people to overall better health and lives: they typically eat better, are less stressed, have a better mood and improved sleep quality. And it doesn’t have to be super-vigorous to yield the benefits – it varies greatly with each person. I know for myself, for example, that an early morning 30-40 minute bout of exercise (I vary it) 3-5 days a week makes a huge difference to my own levels of productivity and mood.
Morning Routine – developing a standard morning routine really sets one up for the day, too. Again, this varies with each person, but generally includes things like planning your day, meditating or contemplation, eating a healthy breakfast (after you exercise, if your morning routine includes exercise), and so on. That quiet time can really set you up for the day.
Sleep – this is, of course at the other end of the day. We all need sleep – the optimal amount varies a lot with each person, of course, as with everything else. Have a regular bedtime and waking time, too. Your body thrives on this sort of routine. And make sure your sleep environment is optimal for what you need to achieve a good night’s sleep (a mix of deep, light and REM sleep).
Strong Willpower – Duhigg tells us that “dozens of studies show willpower is the single most important habit for individual success.” And willpower is about self-discipline: by strengthening your self-discipline (as in, for example, ensuring you maintain regular exercise, sleep and morning routines), you will enhance other areas of your life, too.
There are, of course, many other good habits in a multiplicity of areas (US Navy Admiral William McRaven, for example, says making your bed in the morning should be a key habit), but these four are, I believe, central habits we should all develop.
I like Horace Mann’s view that, “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it” because it really underscores that when we are developing (new) habits, we need to repeat them regularly until they become firmly entrenched in the basal ganglia – a really strong cable, rather than just a single thread. But it also underscores why entrenched bad habits are so hard to break.
So, think about your habits (and those of your business) and examine which can, and should, be replaced by new ones to make 2023, and beyond, even more successful.
As Jim Ryun said, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
Following a career spanning nearly 50 years in the technology industry across three continents, with three decades in CxO roles leading significant, sustained growth in revenue and profitability, I now work with successful owner-led businesses to further enhance their growth, profitability and business value.
If you’d like to discuss your business strategy, culture, goals, or anything else related to your business, book a confidential, free 30-minute call with me here.
I’d be delighted to talk with you.
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This short post in Harvard Business Review might also be of interest: Break Your Procrastination Habit
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