The New Habits You Need to Succeed

Our brains love routines. Here's how to leverage that to steer your business onto a smarter path

Written by Garrett Taylor

Starbucks. Michael Phelps. Martin Luther King. The guy down the street who lost a ton of weight. These success stories all have one thing in common, and it’s something any business leader can apply to themselves or their company.

Is it a focus on achieving peak performance? A process to uncover unique insights into your business situation? Adopting the latest and greatest technology?

According to Charles Duhigg, the key to success is having the right habits, and he explains why in his book, The Power of Habit.

Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, creates a compelling case for why habits are the foundation of success for individuals, companies and even entire societies. He starts off with some of the basic science behind the habits of individuals, defining them as routines that allow the brain to go on autopilot and save energy, a major brain priority. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making,” he writes.

Then Duhigg makes a critical point: habits never entirely disappear because “they’re encoded into the structures of our brain.” The good news is that although you can’t eradicate habits, you can replace them. The bad news is that your brain can’t tell a good habit from a bad one. That leaves it up to each person to identify the bad habits and make changes.

Duhigg goes on to describe the key to making and changing habits. This process, known as “the habit loop,” consists of three elements:

  • a cue that tells your brain when to go into autopilot,
  • a routine that makes up the physical, mental or emotional steps you automatically go through, and
  • a reward that reinforces the new good habit.

In other words, to set a habit (i.e., an automatic routine) choose a cue and a reward that becomes associated with both. Think of the typical mid-afternoon coffee. For many, a specific time will signal an automatic routine to grab a cup, with the reward being something associated with the process of getting a coffee. Although it may be as simple as the taste or the jolt from the caffeine, it could also be something less obvious, like the opportunity to socialize, the chance to walk around or just the chance to unplug for a few minutes.

Given this feedback loop, the trick to changing habits is to create a new routine associated with the same cue and reward. Duhigg provides some great examples from sources as diverse as the NFL and AA meetings to demonstrate how this works, but maybe the best example comes from his own experience trying to lose weight. Duhigg had found that every day around a certain time (cue) he would get up from his desk, grab something to eat from the cafeteria and chat with some people (routine) and get his reward in the form of the food—which also “rewarded” him with a weight gain. Yet when he thought about this habit, he realized that the real reward wasn’t the food, but the socializing in the cafeteria. Once Duhigg understood this, he decided to cut out the food and focus solely on the socializing. He changed the routine while keeping the cue and reward.

With this foundation of habit science set, Duhigg then delves into how this applies to companies, where individual habits create group routines.

Duhigg first reports on the key to company-wide change: finding and altering “keystone habits.” These are the small behaviours that, when modified, create a ripple effect throughout the company and in turn affect larger issues. NASA, for example, was trying to encourage innovation and risk-taking with unmanned flights. So, although it sounds odd, it created a keystone habit of applauding if an unmanned rocket exploded. That’s because this showed that its teams had tried and failed, which meant they were pushing the envelope. The new habit created a trickle-on effect that encouraged risk-taking and innovation. This works because cultures are built on keystone habits. Changing one of them leads to a change in culture that supports a whole host of other different behaviours, all of which contribute to company-wide transformation.

Duhigg offers a striking example from Alcoa, the giant aluminum producer. During his dozen years as CEO, Paul O’Neill changed the keystone habits associated with worker safety by aiming for a zero injury rate. By establishing this habit of accepting zero risk to workers, a host of bad habits were disrupted, leading to the company’s stock price rising by 200%. Not bad for a stodgy 100-year old company that manufactures the foil wrapping for Hershey’s Kisses.

Duhigg uses other real-life corporate examples to back up his points. Retail leaders like Starbucks and smaller but no less successful companies like The Container Store have all developed comprehensive training programs based on habit science. In fact, companies that depend on entry-level workers can achieve even greater results because of the benefits this approach holds for those employees.

Entry-level workers often have little training and experience in exercising independent discipline and willpower, which both depend on habits, because they’ve been following the directions of their parents, coaches or teachers up to their first work experience. Once they get their first entry-level job, they may be given a level of autonomy they’ve never had before—without having adopted the routines (good habits) needed to effectively handle high-stress situations. If you’re a new Starbucks barista, you probably don’t already have the habits needed to deal properly with an irate client. This often leads the barista to handle the situation badly, which is bad for employee, customer and company.

The Power of Habit is an easy read with great insights that anyone can apply to themselves or their company to create transformative change. So, whether you want to achieve at least a degree of the success of a Starbucks, or you just want to lose a few pounds, identify the routine, find the right rewards, isolate the cue and develop a plan.

Then, don’t even think about it.

Garrett Taylor is the chief difference officer (CDO) at Big Diff, a Toronto-based business consultancy that helps entrepreneurs and leadership teams define and communicate their company’s “B.I.G. difference.” In his down time, he’s always reading a business book, whether a current bestseller or a well-thumbed classic.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com