Changing the habits of habit

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Written by Clare Edwards on 16 June 2016

“Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters” Nathaniel Emmons

When I get up each morning I silence the alarm, get out of bed, do my ablutions and eat breakfast. And I have consciously thought about none of these actions, they are all habit.

We need habit; it’s our brain’s way of conserving energy and effort. Can you imagine having to plan getting yourself and others ready each day anew? By the time we got to work it would be exhausting.

Our challenge lies in how our brains form and maintain habit. They don’t differentiate between habits that help and habits that hinder. Whatever we repeatedly do, and find rewarding in some way, will in time, turn into habit.

At work there are many habits we can fall into, not all of them helpful for our performance or productivity, for example working on multiple tasks at the same time or doing mundane work when our energy is high and we should be tackling the hard stuff. Let’s take the habit of distraction. You’re focused on a really important piece of work and that little email notification pops up in the corner. Do you easily ignore it or do you just have to take a sneak peek?

The brain enjoys distraction, it gives us a break from focused attention which is effortful and energy hungry. There’s a part of our brain that continually scans for novelty and is in battle with the more serious executive function responsible for focus and inhibiton. This habit is more fondly known as ‘Bright Shiny Object Syndrome’.

Habits become addictive because of the brain’s reward system. Every time we anticipate (consciously or not) a reward from our behaviour, we get a little hit of dopamine, one of our happy hormones, and the brain then acts like a persistent three-year-old shouting “again, again, again!”

Develop awareness first

Charles Duhigg, an investigative journalist and author, dived deep into the neuroscience of habit to understand how they are formed and how we can change them. He identified that there are three distinct elements of a habit:

  1. A cue or trigger
  2. The behaviour or routine
  3. A reward (often unconscious).

Back to our email notification, the cue is the pop up itself, the routine is to pay attention to it and read it while the reward is most likely a break from difficult work or satisfying our curiosity.

To change a habit we need to change the element that we have some control over, which is the routine and still deliver ourselves a reward. In our example we would firstly see the pop up, secondly stop and reflect on whether we really need a break or not and finally, choose either to close down the pop up and continue working, or to and find something else that could be rewarding like a quick chat with a colleague or a cup of tea.

By choosing to respond and not react habitually we are learning to retrain our brains to break the easy pattern and take back control.

Forget the 21 day golden rule

According to researchers from University College London, there is no one standard time period for a new habit to form; it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days (how specific!). It depends on the level of commitment of the individual and the difficulty of the new activity. For example, it’s easier to train yourself to drink an extra glass of water each day than to do 30 minutes of intensive exercise.

On average, those wanting to create a new habit usually succeed around the 66 day mark as, by this time, we have carved new neural pathways in our brain and things are becoming less effortful.

So when it comes to identifying those pesky work habits, take some time to reflect on what the cue or trigger is, how you automatically react (routine) and what you might be getting from it (reward), then practise changing the routine and experimenting with different rewards. 

About the author
Clare Edwards is director of BrainSmart and you can contact her at

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