Don’t Stop Now…Habits are Hard Work

It’s almost mid-January so the momentum that propelled you to commit to a new year’s resolution might be waning. If your goals involve establishing new habits or trying to rid yourself of bad habits that no longer serve you, then know that habits are hard work!

Why are habits so hard to change? According to a 2016 study from neuroscientists at the University of California – San Diego, “Not all habits are bad, some are even necessary. It’s a good thing, for example, that we can find our way home on ‘autopilot’ or wash our hands without having to ponder every step. But the inability to switch from acting habitually to acting in a deliberate way can underlie addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).” Their study provides the strongest evidence to date that the “brain’s circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control — in the orbitofrontal cortex, a decision-making area of the brain — and that neurochemicals called endocannabinoids allow for habit to take over, by acting as a sort of brake on the goal-directed circuit.”

What does this mean for you? It means that many established habits serve us well and make life easier but we need to find a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. “For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose,” Gremel said. “However, we also encounter changing circumstances, and need the capacity to ‘break habits’ and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information.”

Did you know?

  • It only takes 6 repetitions to start a bad habit.
  • It takes double that (12 repetitions) to start a good habit.
  • If you are trying to replace a bad habit with a good habit (say replacing your smoke break with a quick walk) then you are signing up for 25-30 repetitions just to create a shallow belief.
  • If you want to create a deep belief then you have to complete 200+ repetitions!!

Chip Heath & Dan Heath, authors of the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. state that, “Habits forms inevitably, whether they are formed intentionally or not. You’ve probably created lots of team habits unwittingly. If your staff meetings always start out with genial small talk, then you’ve created a habit. You’ve designed your meeting autopilot to yield a few minutes of warm-up small talk. The hard question for a leader is not how to form habits but which habits to encourage.

So, how do you change a bad habit or establish a new one? Imagine that you have set a goal to add an evening walk to your daily routine because you want to reap the health benefits of lower blood pressure, decreased risk of heart attack and increased metabolism.

According to the Heath brothers, the first step is to change your environment. Since our habits are “essentially stitched into our environments”, a change in the environment can substantially help us break bad habits or establish new ones. “According to one study of people making changes in their life, 36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location, and only 13 percent of unsuccessful changes involved a move.” In the example of adding an evening walk to your daily routine, perhaps your neighborhood has sidewalks and is wonderful for leisurely strolls but the allure of your couch and TV often win the mental battle when it comes to “to walk or not to walk”. Perhaps you could benefit from a change in the environment by finding a local park nearby.

Next, you will need to an “action trigger“; a mental plan where you make a decision to execute a certain action when you encounter a certain situational trigger. In our example, the action trigger could be the act of changing from your work clothes into your walking clothes when you come home from work, signaling to the brain that it will soon be time to go on the walk. According to Heath & Heath, there are countless ways to use action triggers at work. “If your salespeople are more motivated to close new business than to cultivate existing relationships, give them a ‘coffee and call’ trigger. Tell them whenever they pour their first cup of coffee, they are to place a check-in call to one of their most important customers. Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness. A trigger to ‘praise your employees when they do something great’ is too vague to be useful.”

Lastly, create a checklist. While I know many of us find checklists to be rigorous and mundane, they can play a very important role in changing our habits. As stated in Switch, “Checklists simply make big screw ups less likely.” The Heath brothers cite this example of how a checklist was critical in changing habits at one hospital. “Dr. Peter Pronovost of John Hopkins compiled a five-part checklist that contained straightforward advice: doctors should wash their hands before inserting a line, a patient’s skin should be cleansed with antiseptic at the point of insertion, and so on. When the checklist was put into practice by Michigan ICUs over a period of eighteen months, it nearly eliminated line infections, saving the hospitals an estimated $175 million because they no longer had to treat the associated complications. It also saved fifteen hundred lives.” In our example, adding a simple calendar request or a checklist in your phone notes to track the number of days and miles that you walk can help you reach your goal.

If you find that you have fallen off of the proverbial horse and are thinking that you can’t meet the goals that you have set for yourself, I hope that this article shows you that habits are hard work. Don’t stop now! Take the tips above and apply them to your own habits. And if you need help in establishing stronger habits at work or in your personal life, consider coaching and bringing in a professional to assist you. Please feel free to reach out at

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