THE BLOG

Own Habits That Truly Serve You

09/02/2014 06:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2014

We are all familiar with the notion that humans are "creatures of habit." Perhaps you are even reading this very post out of a habit or behavioral pattern: maybe the Huffington Post is your iPhone browser's homepage, and you check it each morning before diving into your overflowing inbox.

In fact, a study from Duke University shows that we spend between 40 and 45 percent of our daily lives saying and doing things purely out of habit. In his recent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg explores the psychology behind habits, and even looks at how companies are now using habit psychology to construct marketing campaigns. Sounds scary, huh?

The truth is, we all have patterns of thought, speech and action. We even tend to think of our habits as part of ourselves. We might find ourselves thinking, "I always eat an entire pint of ice cream when I am stressed," leading us to believe therefore, "I am always going to gain weight when I am stressed." However, habits are habits because we actually tend to be unaware of them. Duhigg deconstructs what he calls "the habit loop" into three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. For instance, because you are stressed (the cue), you eat a pint of ice cream (the routine, the habit itself).

The reward is the somewhat unconscious "goal" of the behavioral loop controlled by the pleasure centers of your brain. In other words, eating ice cream feels great in the short term. Habits comprise just one of our evolutionary strategies for survival: rather than overthink and belabor the subtle actions that comprise necessary daily activities like pouring a glass of water or driving, we automate these actions into habits or patterns. But in cases like the stress-induced ice cream binge, it can be helpful to cultivate an awareness of our patterns -- personal and professional -- and see what kinds of behavioral and psychological changes we might consider to empower ourselves. We can decide which habits serve us well and which don't.

This applies to organizations as well. Perhaps meetings are always conducted according to the same formal agenda with the same primary participants each time. Perhaps there is a policy of allowing (or, even better, dis-allowing) electronic devices? Are there written action items circulated afterwards? Are people held accountable for what they indicate they will do? These are all patterns that reflect a particular office-culture, and have a measurable impact on the quality of your work and work environment.

Just like individuals, institutional patterns can lead to success for the organization and overall wellbeing of employees (e.g. "our priority on customer service leads to loyalty"). Or not (e.g. "'we' procrastinate and proposals are often done at the last minute and not as well as desired). Take the time to reflect to see what habits and patterns are working and which are not. Then, commit to making necessary changes -- it will be well worth your investment.

To change a habit or pattern you notice in yourself, first try to see what triggers it -- the "cue," as Duhigg calls it. Note that habits are not necessarily actions -- but can also be feelings or thought-patterns that drag us down.

For example, if you find yourself feeling anxious sitting in traffic, see if you can determine the deeper reason why. Are you worried about being late? Do you hate "down" time? What if you made a game of it and began to see traffic as an opportunity to practice patience and letting go? If you have a habit of interrupting, see if you can slow down. Are you eager to share your point of view? Are you really listening to the other person? Are you impatient? Figure out the "why" and then come up with a new habit that is in service of they way you'd like to be. At work, do you procrastinate (a big one for many of us)? Why? What kinds of projects or assignments get put off until the last minute? Can you tackle them first? Be a detective. Look for the triggers, then practice responding in a new and more productive way.

In describing how individuals can go about changing (typically "bad") habits into more productive, permanent behaviors, Duhigg emphasizes the role of belief. He writes, "If we truly want to avoid backsliding into our old ways, there's a final key ingredient: Belief." He also advises, "If you believe in change...change becomes real." In other words, our habits emerge entirely from our individual psyches and the stories we tell ourselves. Habits continue existing as habits precisely because our brain's "habit loops" identify them as such. But by cultivating a bit of self-awareness, we can learn to shift our own thoughts and behavior. Believe in that.

Yes, there are tons of "7 Habits of Successful people" listicles, blog posts and articles. Our answer? Chuck 'em! Do you really care what Ben Franklin did every morning? Steve Jobs? What matters is what you do every morning, afternoon and night and how it aligns with your deeper purpose, your work, and your relationships. Your thoughts, speech and behaviors are the product of choice. So choose how you define success, own it, and act accordingly.