We tend to think of habits in the context of personal wellbeing, with behaviours like fitness, eating, reading and so on.
However we are all also acting out habits at work, whether it be checking emails in the morning, touching in with a colleague at lunch, or writing out to-do lists at the start of the week. Habits also exist at the social and organisational level in the form of team rituals like daily sprint meetings, the way meetings are conducted, as well as how people treat each other, whether their behaviours are aligned with strategy, and whether they are used to learning on the job.
Estimates vary, but one study found that 40% of behaviours could be considered habitual.
When leaders and organisations want to create a new way of working and transform the organisation, they therefore actually need to instil new habits at the individual, social and institutional level.
However, most leaders don’t realise how important changing habits is to changing behaviour, and fail to engage their people in a way that shifts these habits.
So how do we shift habits? Behavioural science offers us some answers.
Habits are behaviours that are repeated.
Acquiring a new habit happens through
“through incremental strengthening of the association between a situation (cue) and an action, i.e. repetition of a behaviour” (study link below).
The key is that the behaviour needs to be repeated in context. For example, rather than setting a goal to “drink more water”, you are better off setting a goal to “drink a glass of water before breakfast”. This anchors the new behaviour in a situation context and increases the change of the behaviour becoming a habit. This is because human memory processing works better when there is an external cue or trigger of the intended action.
This somewhat strange sounding term is what behavioural scientists use to describe a habit.
Automaticity is a behaviour that is quick, easy, and outside of conscious awareness.
When acquiring a new habit, automatically is what you are aiming for. It’s a subjectively measured sense of automation of the behaviour. Once you have it, you have the new behaviour integrated into your life, and it is considered a habit.
Installing a new habit
Habits are formed by repeating behaviour. The strength of the habit depends on the number of repetitions of the behaviour, not just how often in succession the behaviour is performed. So if your desired habit is to drink water before breakfast, you can reach the point of automaticity by doing the behaviour a certain number of times, even if you miss a day or two here and there.
The more often you do the behaviour, the higher the chance of it becoming a habit.
A study was conducted at University College London, looking at new behaviours like eating, drinking, and exercising. They found that the median time to reach automaticity was 66 days, with some people taking as little as 18 days and others as long as 254 days. For the majority of participants, automaticity increased steadily over the days of the study supporting the assumption that repeating a behaviour in a consistent setting increases automaticity.
66 days! This is far longer than the 3 weeks or 30 days often touted by the self-help industry.
The study also showed that missing one opportunity to do the new behaviour did not negatively affect habit formation, but missing a week’s worth of opportunities does reduce the likelihood of habit formation. This is what can happen in the first 44 instances of acquiring a new habit.
What this means for workplaces
While we tend to think of habits about personal well being behaviours like fitness, eating, reading and so on, the same process happens each day at work. We are all acting out habits at work, whether it be checking emails in the morning, touching in with a colleague at lunch, or writing out to-do lists at the start of the week. Habits also exist at the social and organisational level in the form of team rituals like weekly retros, the way meetings are conducted, and so on.
When leaders and organisations want to create a new way of working and transform the organisation, they are actually seeking to install new habits at the individual, social and institutional level. But most leaders don’t realise this and fail to use behavioural science principles to engage their people.
If the strength of a habit depends on the number of repetitions of the behaviour, in order to change habits the leader must create a learning environment where such opportunities are repeated - up to 66 instances or more!
Sending out a policy, or delivering a one-off training video, may result in a small short-term shift in behaviour, but things are likely to return to the status quo unless the underlying habits are changed. This takes time, deliberate focus, a systematic approach to change management, and a lot of repetition of the learning experiences.
The 66-instances rule and the habit installation protocol is one useful model to embed change in workplaces.
Questions for Reflection
● How important is behaviour change in my organisation?
● To what extent do I need these behaviour changes to “stick” by becoming habitual?
● Do my current initiatives address the need for repetition over time in creating new habits?
● What outcomes might I expect from my current approach?
● How might I apply the 66-instances rule and the habit installation protocol to embed change in the workplace?
If you want to learn more about how we help our clients use this approach to achieve and sustain significant organisational change, get in touch with one of our behavioural experts at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1281–1297. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1241
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract)