Habits helpful or destructive

In the morning on the way to work at the favorite bakery buy the croissant. In the hotel first of all the smartphone to the socket. Start meetings with the status quo. Listening to Deutschlandfunk in the car. After eating the espresso.

Habits are actions that we repeat, again and again, without thinking about it. Habits are usually embedded in a whole context: we repeat the action at the same time, in the same place or with the same people. At the beginning of a new habit, there is an external stimulus. The trigger may be, for example, entering the office.

In the end, the reward is: We repeat our behavior because we promise something fairy. The nice small talk at the coffee machine acts as a reward. Since our brains love rewards, we’ll get a coffee the next day. So that we feel like yesterday again, in good hands.

The more often we repeat the action, the more independent the associated positive emotion becomes: Even without a nice conversation at the coffee machine, we feel better in the morning when we first drink coffee. The brain now rewards the routine itself. The repetition alone gives us a good feeling that the action is only with difficulty accessible to the intellect.

Hidden power

Getting rid of habits is so damn difficult. And why bother? After all, we could not cope with everyday life without routines. Rethinking every little thing day by day would simply overwhelm us – up to 50 percent of all our actions are habits. Habits make our lives easier. The more routine, that is automated, the more energy I have for other things.

And yet, be vigilant about routines, because they also have destructive potential: habits are the enemy of change, of necessary adjustments, of flexibility. In short, they can prevent liveliness, because those who act in an automated manner barely notice the action. A regular meeting can get a bad turn overnight and, for example, be less effective. To realize this, an executive needs sensitive antennas. However, many are less attentive to a common act.

A helpful habit can turn into a noxious one very quickly. The developer would constantly be ripped out of work if anyone with a concern simply went to him. Luckily we’ve changed the habit: today I have to create a ticket for him. It gives him the opportunity to prioritize and progress everything gradually.  

Establish helpful habits

To change or establish new habits, one should know how habits arise: what is the trigger and what is the reward in the end. This knowledge has been used by WHOW Games. The goal: The graphic designers of the company should be more sales-oriented. Most graphic designers want, above all, that their product looks good. To establish revenue-driven behavior, we broke our monthly revenue target for days. For a month, there is now a profit every day the sales target is reached. For example, we did it yesterday, so we get a billiard table for the office. If we break the sales target today, the whole management sings karaoke. 

And rightly so, because the company has spent more than a month regularly setting the trigger – the daily sales targets – and also regular and above all directly experienceable rewards.

The prospect of a future reward, such as long-term business growth and thus the prospect of secure jobs, would be just as inadequate for behavioral change as the prospect of getting leaner and healthier through regular sports. The reward should be immediately felt so that it generates a desire and thus provides for a first repetition of the behavior.

Employees will not change a ritual if they see no benefit in themselves. This advantage for the employees – not for the company or the boss – should be communicated. The benefit of the individual should be greater than the cost. At WHOW Games the bill seems to have worked out. At the weekly meeting on Monday, colleagues will discuss when the sales target was achieved and when not. That’s a real topic now.

The power of habits

It’s harder to establish a new habit than to get rid of an old one

Role models’ role. Like the social component, they can also help to stabilize a behavior until it finally automates through repetition. At WHOW Games, then, in the best-case scenario, all employees take a look at sales on a daily basis; orientation is a habit.

Get rid of harmful habits

It is more difficult than establishing a new habit to get rid of an old, less useful habit and replace it with a new one. Leaving the car behind and getting to work by bus instead means a lot of work: bus timetables must be studied and the way to the bus stop researched. The effort is reduced only over time.

If a company wants employees to leave their own car and use public transport or a bicycle instead, it should make their transition as easy and convenient as possible. It is important to reduce the already higher energy expenditure of the new, non-automated behavior as much as possible. A push, a nudge, can help to get employees to try out the new behavior. The behavioral economist Richard H. Thaler developed the theory of nudging and received the Nobel Prize for Economics.

For example, the company that strives for a greener image can distribute I-drive eco-friendly stickers to employees, which would be a nudge. Incentives such as free tickets are much more expensive for employers. They provide an advantage for those who come to work by bus rather than by car, thus motivating them to try things out.

In addition, it is important to evoke a desire for new behavior. This succeeds through rewards. A reward is when the employee feels more relaxed after the bus ride and the short walk to the bus stop than after the car ride. If, on the other hand, he rushes to the stop in the pouring rain, the experience consolidates the old habit of driving a car.

Negative images are already counterproductive. If a company wants to change employees’ behavior, then it should look for positive images. So if you want to get employees to come to work by bike or by public transport, it’s best to start in summer. Then the cyclists turn brown and look healthy. The next winter, when driving is more uncomfortable, the behavior is already established in the optimal case, the switch is successfully allocated. 

People are particularly open to changed behavior in crises and situations of upheaval because then the context in which habits are embedded changes. A job change, the birth of the first child, a separation – these are so-called teachable moments. The people in these situations are in any case in search of information and new ways.

Keep an eye out

In order to be able to change habits without great suffering, for example, because they have turned negative, or because a company can not keep up with the market in the long run, it is important to always remain alert. Mindfulness is a criterion for success in establishing helpful habits. If you want to change something then you can make use of a whole set of instruments that help to strip off an old habit and replace it with a more appropriate one.

They range from rewards, nudges, and incentives to positive visions and role models. Once the new behavior has become regular, it often goes hand in hand with a devaluation of the old habit. This will also stabilize the new habit. The change in behavior, to get to work by bus or bicycle instead of using your own car, can, therefore, lead to greater environmental awareness.