THE BLOG
02/06/2013 01:46 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

The Habit of High Performance

I travel a lot with work. In fact I'm drafting this in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., killing some time before a meeting. Hours are spent at airports passing through security check after security check. You'll find my passport always in the left hand outer pocket of my rucksack (I know I've just checked and it's there) and my wallet is in the pocket on the other side. My credit and debit cards always sit in the same place in my wallet and within my wallet I tend to keep my local currency in one slot and overseas currency in the other slot. I am, as we all are, a creature of habit. I like to think I'm a free spirit, unconstrained by forces such as habits, but it's simply not true. The evidence is that mostly, we do what we usually do.

Rather than habit being something to deride, it is the friend of performance. For example, in my spare time I compete in ultra-endurance cycle events. This means training between 12 and 18 hours a week. When I am at home, my sports kit lives in the same drawers, my coffee mugs in the same place and the habit of filling the coffee machine up with water the night before means I can fall out of bed at 5 a.m., make myself a coffee and be out of the door on a training ride without even thinking about it. Imagine if I didn't have these habits -- if every morning I had to hunt around the house to find my kit before I could go for a ride then it would take me considerably longer than the 10 minutes it takes now and I would probably wake up my family in the process -- not a good move at 5 a.m.

Just in case you think you have very few habits, examine your daily routine from the moment you get up through to going to bed, such as the sequence of when you use the bathroom, eat your breakfast, have a shower, do your teeth, get dressed, the way you travel to work, the route you take, the place you like to park, the path to the door, what you do when you arrive at your desk, where you place your coat, what you start doing first thing and so on. It is only when you stand back and look at what you do, does the realization come that so much of it is habit. In fact, because it's habit, it doesn't even register any more. And if you are still not convinced, ask your partner to tell you what you always do and in what sequence -- you'll be surprised.

Sadly, habits also hinder performance. If, for example, you have a habit of reaching for a cigarette every time you have a coffee then rather than help you, your habit increases your risk of heart disease and cancer. Similarly if the first piece of software you open on your computer is your email, then you may well find you are wasting time rather than focusing on the important things.

Given that so much of our lives is simply the repetition of habits, having the right habits will make us more likely to achieve the performance we seek. Conversely, the wrong habits will lead to poor or unhelpful performance.

But there is a conundrum. If having the right habit is key to performance, why is it so difficult to get into the right habit or to change existing habits? For example, we all know we should eat more healthily, exercise more, sleep seven or eight hours and avoid excessive alcohol and yet the level of obesity in the developed world is increasing. So what is it about habits that is so difficult to change?

In essence, to paraphrase Wood and Neal (2009) a habit is automatic behavior that is triggered by a specific cue in the environment (the context in which you are in) that is independent of the goals or intentions you may have. In other words, you fall into a pattern of behavior triggered by a specific circumstance such as putting on your seat belt (behavior) when you get into a car (context). You don't even think about it, just the act of getting into the car is enough for you to reach for the belt. In fact, the habit is so powerful that even if you did not want to put on the seat belt the chances are you would have done so before you even realized it. For the smokers among us, reaching for a cigarette every time a coffee is ordered is the same thing. Even though the person may have a desire to stop smoking and no intention of lighting up, they still end up finding themselves with a lit cigarette in their mouth before they've even thought about it.

It's not impossible to change once a habit is formed -- people manage to stop smoking, others shift from a sedentary lifestyle to running a marathon -- it's just difficult. In fact it's very difficult. A really big desire to change what you do typically results in only a modest change in behavior precisely because of the power of habits.

Why are habits so difficult to change?

Habits form when you do the same thing again and again in the same context such that you form direct associations in your memory between the contextual cues and your response. To use the seat belt example, getting into a car and putting the seat belt on each and every time is an example of repeating a behavior in response to a specific contextual cue -- getting into the car. There are lots of other simple examples:

  • The ping of an email arriving in your inbox, immediately triggering a quick look to see who it is from
  • The ping of a text message on your phone, and of course your phone ringing
  • Sitting in front of your computer -- the first software programs you open
  • Adding seasoning to your food
  • Automatically turning into the correct side of the road when driving (don't believe me -- try driving in a country where they drive on the opposite side. It's so easy to forget and start off on the wrong side).

As habits form there are changes in the parts of the brain that are involved. When we are working towards a goal and our behavior are not yet habitual, the active areas of the brain are those associated with goals such as the pre-frontal cortex. As the habits form, the activity shifts to parts of the brain associated with stimulus control such as the basal ganglia. As behaviors become more automatic or habitual in this way, they don't need as much conscious effort. Our response is more efficient and immediate, i.e. we don't need to think about it. This efficiency and immediacy makes it much more difficult for us to control them by consciously thinking about it -- by the time we have thought it through, it's too late, we have already repeated the habit.

Therefore habits take a while to form, but once formed are difficult to change -- so you had better be sure you have the habits you want! The benefit of habits are once you have the right ones in place, because they are relatively stable, you don't have to think about them as much and can concentrate your efforts on other things.

Organization treacle

I remember chatting to a very frustrated senior executive in an energy business. His exasperation stemmed from the failure to get people to behave in the way required. He had done endless 'stump speeches', sent out emails, launched some helpful 'reminder cards' on what he expected and of course set some goals. And yet people were still not behaving in the way required. He described it as 'organization treacle.' Progressing behavior change felt like walking through treacle. Given how difficult it can be to change habits as demonstrated by the challenge of losing weight, eating healthily and exercising enough, why anyone is surprised at how difficult it is for people to change what they do at work surprises me. The relatively stable context cues of a working environment are likely to drive repetition of habits rather than something new.

When a goal meets a conflicting habit, the power of the goal is weakened. So if the factors that drive the habit are in place, the slower-conscious-goal-oriented approach has to win over the faster-immediate-habit-response. By the time the intention of the goal is registered the habit may be well underway.

As context is the trigger for a habit, changing the context will assist changing the behavior. For example, if there is no unhealthy food in the house, then it's not possible to snack on it. In December 2011, it was reported in the news that Volkswagen turns off BlackBerry email after work hours. The habit of checking a BlackBerry is thus rendered pointless because the context has changed. Because the context has changed, the behavior changes. But be aware of the unanticipated consequences of changing context. Many office buildings have insufficient parking spaces. For one business, they restricted the spaces still further. The aim was to encourage the use of public transport. The unintended consequence was people arriving at work earlier and earlier to secure a parking place. Context was used to drive behavior, which it did -- but not in the way anticipated.

The challenge is working out the behaviors you wish to see and the type of context most likely to lead to that outcome.

While Volkswagen were trying to change the culture of an organization, it is also possible for the individual to change their own context. For example, when I was struggling with overcoming the pressure to check one's phone when driving two solutions proved effective. The first was turning off the alerts such that I wasn't alerted to incoming emails or texts and the second was to lock the phone in the glove box. The only way I could then get the phone was to stop the car, remove the key and open the glove box. Thus the context I created helped me stop doing what I didn't want to do.