Habits & Teaching old dogs new tricks

By Beth Cooper, February 8, 2017

Habits are part of our human nature and can be deeply embedded. As much as we’d like to ditch some of them, we will probably all struggle with some habits for a very long time. When we’re trying to adopt healthier, smarter or more productive habits – for our personal lives or in business –  it’s no easier.

Some very fine minds have grappled with the problem. Benjamin Franklin famously decided to improve himself by creating a list of virtues or habits he wanted to develop. Franklin identified a key driver for success – it was essential to be fully committed to making the change.

This idea of commitment is critical. It recognises the inherent difficulty in changing patterns of behaviour. Repeated actions create pathways in the brain. It’s easier for our brains to take these routes, and, in fact, having certain of our processes ‘automated’ is a valuable survival mechanism. It frees up our brains’ processing capacity to deal with dangerous or unforeseen events. But this same method that protects us, and keeps us in familiar patterns, is also the root of our problem when we want to adopt new behaviours.

Forming new habits takes time and effort. There are many estimates of the time needed and 21 days is a popular theory, but scientific research has suggested that the timescale may be much longer.  In experiments conducted by Phillippa Lally, the time to effectively form a new habit was shown to be anything between 18 and 254 days.

The longer end of that timescale is not encouraging for anyone trying to improve themselves, but it’s particularly daunting for a business that is implementing a change programme. If employees have fixed, familiar patterns of working – routines they’ve developed over years – altering them when new digital technology is implemented can be an uphill battle.

Let’s go back, briefly, to Benjamin Franklin for his method involved two other key factors for success. Monitoring and reminders. He knew that he would only be able to alter his behaviour if he was aware of it and so he analysed his performance.

All this was happening back in the 1720s, but in principle, there is no difference between Franklin’s methods and the sophisticated digital analytic tools available to us today via platforms like ADOPT. By tracking behaviour patterns, we can see those that help both the individual and the wider organisation and those that don’t.  We can spot where personal habits of working conflict with corporate goals or where they limit potential. We can see where habits of distraction take hold, where engagement fails and people slip back to unproductive methods and the comfort of the old routine. And, importantly, we can use the data gathered to change things.

Formatting habits, breaking habits, changing habits – all are learning processes and learning is easier, and more effective, when it understands the nature of the individual. ADOPT gives us that understanding. Franklin used paper forms, we use digital methods, but we have both delivered improvements.

Old habits may die hard, but that’s no excuse.

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