The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit

(Reading time: Less than 5 minutes)

What are habits and why do they exist

Everyone has habits. You may be surprised to learn that more than 40% of the tasks or actions you carry out on a daily basis, are not conscious choices, but habits .

Our brains are programmed to operate efficiently; they are wired to build habits, as it requires less processing effort. This allows brain energy to be freed up for other thinking processes. The brain achieves this energy saving by continuously asking itself: the last time I encountered a similar situation, what did I do next? 

In Charles Duhigg’s Book, The Power of Habit , he introduces the concept of the habit loop. The loop is broken down to the component parts of: cue - routine - reward.

The Habit Loop

Your predictive brain

Your brain continually processes data coming from the world around you and determines your next set of actions based on your past experiences and current situation. This process runs continually and without involving your consciousness!

However, and more remarkably, your brain is programmed to prepare for action first. What does that actually mean? Your brain senses or predicts changes in the environment around you even before the sensory data hits your brain. 

“Predictive processing casts the brain as a ‘prediction engine’ – something that’s constantly attempting to predict the sensory signals it encounters in the world, and to minimise the discrepancy (called the ‘prediction error’) between those predictions and the incoming signal”.  

Predictive brain - the prediction loop

Lisa Feldman Barrett highlights a real-world example of the predictive brain in her article Your Brain Predicts (Almost) Everything You Do.  When you are thirsty and gulp down water, you feel that your thirst has been reduced within seconds. Science however tells us that it takes the body anything between 5 and 20 minutes to absorb the water. This is your predictive brain in action.

On your daily commute, you predict the things that you will see - where the traffic lights are, what buildings you will see and who’s voice you will hear on the radio. Without being able to predict a large part of the environment around you, you would not be able to perform all the actions that are required to drive the route. The information you receive via your senses as you drive along is processed in milliseconds and checked against your predictions. Supposing though that the road layout has suddenly changed, your brain will immediately engage to resolve the prediction error. 

Simply put – the prediction error is the mismatch between what is expected and what actually happens.

The power of habit

Each individual habit on its own can be considered inconsequential, for example the habit of getting up and having a coffee, brushing your teeth or driving the same route to work. During ‘habit activity’, your brain is not fully participating, it is merely accessing the ‘filing cabinet’ of habits that have been stored from the routines that have been developed.

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures”.
F. Matthias Alexander

Over time, our collective habits impact us as individuals; how we work and live. Given that 40% of our daily activity is habit, it is not possible to just simply eliminate habits. 

Habits are malleable however and can be modified. Duhigg believes that any habit can be transformed regardless of its complexity. Firstly, we need to believe that this is possible, and he validates this by saying that even the most addicted alcoholics can become sober, and the most dysfunctional companies can be transformed. 

change nothing

The crux is that YOU need to believe that change is possible, and to modify the habit YOU must decide to change it. There also needs to be acceptance and understanding that this will require effort and work, in addition to a well thought out strategy. 

We know everybody is different, and a one solution fits all approach does not exist. Your brain will always try and take the path of least resistance, but by understanding the components and the ‘routine behaviour’ of any habit, we are better placed to develop counter-strategies. 

“As the owner of a predicting brain, you have more control over your actions and experiences than you might think and more responsibility than you might want”.
Lisa Feldman Barrett

For the individual, changing habit or routine behaviour essentially means that you need to rewire or retrain your brain. Your unique filing system of ‘habits’ needs to be accessed and altered. If only we could open the filing cabinet and whip out a particular file and replace it with another. Phillippa Lally’s study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, revealed that a habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to establish, with the average being 66 days. 

Your plastic brain

Science refers to the capacity for the brain to change as neural plasticity. The neural pathways in your brain are the biology behind your habits. By taking the decision to change, and importantly practice a new habit, new pathways are created. The more a new habit is performed or actioned, the stronger and more established the (new neural) pathways become, and the old pathways weaken.

“We become what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
A quote frequently attributed to Aristotle

Changing just one habit has the potential to impact other habits. For example, if we increase our exercise levels, this has the potential to influence our eating habits. This might also mean you eat less processed and fast food which typically costs more money, this in turn improves your diet and saves you money and so on. 

We know that we feel good after exercise; it releases endorphins and other feel-good chemicals. It is accepted that exercise helps with sleep and reduces stress and anxiety.  We also know that going to the gym once or twice does not constitute a habit and more frequent and regular visits are required. 

With the right strategies in place such as joining a class or committing going with a friend we can help sustain the journey of habit change. This is a very simplistic example, but it illustrates the ripple effect changing a habit can potentially have and how habit change can be fostered.

“If you want to change your behaviour, find some other people who are trying to make the same change.”
Keith Humphreys

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a 12-step programme reinforced with a support group approach. A study of its efficacy was led by Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences of Stanford University. The work involved 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 participants. In his conclusion he stated, “AA works because it’s based on social interaction…If you want to change your behaviour, find some other people who are trying to make the same change.” 

The human brain is more complex than any other known structure in the universe. It is extremely powerful and can work with you or against you. Having an awareness of how it operates, helps you to identify ways to sustain habit change when your brain is working to do exactly the opposite. 

“The human brain is by far the most complex physical object known to us in the entire cosmos.”
Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe

So, why do habits matter in the world of work?

We have seen how easily individuals can develop and sustain habits. We also know how much effort it takes to change them. We all have habits at work and only some of these will be helpful.

Any organisation is a collective of individuals. The power of all those habitual brains, combined with an organisation’s own ability to create systemised habits, means that it can be incredibly difficult to create an ever-improving organisation.

It is no-one’s fault, but leaders must recognise how much effort is required to evolve an organisation’s habits to create a genuinely productive, engaging and modern workplace. This is the purpose of leadership, and it is not easy. 

“The more we discuss workplace habits - our own, our colleagues and together as a team, the better we can decide which are helpful and which are not. We can then apply collective conscious thought to creating new habits.”
David Sales, Director, First Ascent Group

Leaders cannot and should not attempt this alone. They stand a much greater chance of changing an organisation’s habits, by having open discussions and employing the collective brain power of colleagues to do this.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help, please get in touch with us for a no obligation chat - we will be delighted to hear from you.