We are fast approaching that part of every year where we tend to take a break, reflect and start making plans and setting personal goals. It seems that the New Year is the perfect moment to take stock and look at changing some habits.
One of the classic disappointments for all of us however is the moment, usually sometime in late January or maybe February, where our New Years’ resolution turns into another example of how tough habit change can be.
One problem is that most people attempt to change habits through the direct exertion of will - “I'll just stop!” For most this approach is doomed to fail.
The reason it is so tough comes from a basic misunderstanding of habit formation, what it takes to change your mind and ultimately behaviour. People generally aren’t aware of what they are actually trying to achieve at the level of the brain.
The short story is:
This post is a continuation of my short series on habit change called “Why bad habits feel good.” Click here to read part 1: ‘Because it is easier.’ I have developed “Australia’s Coal Industry: an analogy for habit change” as a way of highlighting a couple of key lessons about habit formation and change. This will be posted in around a week or so.
Habits, by definition, don't need your conscious thought in order to execute them. The whole point of a habit is to enable you to do something without thinking – thereby freeing up your conscious mind for other things.
They are conditioned routines that the brain has learned to apply to a given set of circumstances and cues. The whole point of learning anything is so that you don't need to think about it afresh each time you do it. Imagine how exhausting it would be if you needed to concentrate, with your full attention, on all the mechanics of driving your car each and every time you got behind the wheel.
Attempting to change a habit through the simple and direct application of conscious will is immediately clashing with everything the brain is set-up to do. If you get frustrated in a business context with people revisiting issues you have already agreed on, then extend that thinking to a mind/brain who is being asked to re-program your long, well established morning routine to include ‘go for a jog’. It would be like your brain saying “I’ve already got this sorted.” It will only take you hitting the snooze button once to undermine the whole ‘messing with the morning routine’ experiment.
Your non-conscious mind is working 24/7, can do parallel processing, is super powerful and a specialist at running the program that is you - maintaining your normal. Your conscious mind only really exists while you are awake (Damasio, 1999), and can only focus on one thing at a time (Kahneman, 2012). The moment your executive mind is busy, tired or your attention is elsewhere is the moment your sub-conscious mind can 'run pre-existing program' without restraint and welcome back the old habit.
This is one reason why New Years’ Resolutions are so tough, whilst you are paying attention and the habit shift is front of mind you can, with effort, keep to your resolution. Until one day, tired, stressed, distracted or not paying enough attention, you find you have slipped back into the former well established routine.
Given this information; does anyone really think that they can change a workflow habit in their organisation by emailing everyone with a memo, or putting a poster on a notice board?
Will power alone is not enough.