Fostering Team Habits: 3 Scientific Tips For Managers

How to Form Good Habits

Most of what your team is doing is by habit, and a good portion of it is almost completely unintentional.

Research shows us that about 40% of what we do is by habit.

If that’s the case, we might as well be making the best of that time.

We’ve talked about habits on this blog before, but this time we’re taking an organizational approach. What can management do to enforce positive habits?

Let’s find out.

1. Design a Minimum Viable Habit

Building Good Team Habit

If there’s just one change to make in order to successfully incorporate habits, it’s to make them as small as possible.

A habit that overwhelms the workforce will fail to get buy-in. Most managers understand this to a point, but what they think of as a small change is almost always still too big for wide adoption.

BJ Fogg, the Director of Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab, advocates the use of tiny habits, because more complicated the habits require more motivation to execute.

The trouble is, there’s only so much of motivation you can control as a manager, both because of financial limits, and because much of motivation is internal.

The solution is to make the habit simpler and easier to adopt.

But there’s another reason why smaller habits are better. Habits are actually stored in a different part of the brain than other memories.

One study conducted by the University of California and the San Diego Veterans Affairs Health System, published in Nature, demonstrated that it was possible to train people with short-term memory loss to perform a task, despite never remembering learning it.

This is possible because habits are stored in a more primitive part of the brain, the basal ganglia, which is directly linked to muscle control, posture, and, believe it or not, cursing.

Illustration showing habits get stored in brain

In short, habits occur almost automatically because they are stored in the same part of our brain as muscle memory. (In fact, people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease begin to lose their habits before they lose muscle control.)

To speak to this part of the brain, you need to focus on very, very small tasks, or do complicated tasks over, and over, and over again.

As a manager, this means throwing out any aspect of the habit that isn’t absolutely vital. Habits can be made more complex later on, but they are rarely adopted at first if they are too complicated.

A few examples:

  • Instead of training employees to create a to-do list every morning, train them to set just one goal for the day.
  • Rather than training employees to learn every feature of a new application, train them to use just one important feature. You can train them on other features later, or let them explore those features on their own, after just using the application in the first place becomes a habit.
  • Don’t train employees to put together a point-by-point plan of how they will complete their next project. Train them to set a deadline for it. It’s not that these smaller habits are more effective than their larger counterparts, it’s that they will actually get adopted. Complex tasks can be constructed from a combination of much smaller habits.

Training your team on just one small habit at a time is the best way to speak directly to their muscle memory.

2. Identify Your Triggers

Habits have triggers

While habits occur almost automatically, and involve little involvement from conscious parts of the brain, they don’t occur spontaneously. They are triggered by context.

Employees will not automatically write to-do lists, use new software, or set deadlines, even if these tasks have been burned into their muscle memory. Habits don’t occur spontaneously. According to a review of habit research published by Duke University, they occur as a response to a trigger such as:

  • Context: Simply being in a situation and performing a task several times within that same situation, no matter how closely related the situation and the behavior, can cause habitual activity.
  • Reward: It’s well known that reward and punishment can encourage habit-forming behavior, and this certainly isn’t ground-breaking information, but it’s worth reiterating. The important thing to understand about this effect is that it can become completely disconnected from any previously related goals, so that it is triggered entirely by previously related contexts.
  • Sequences: Habits can get stacked on top of each other, so that one habit becomes the context that triggers another habit.

It’s easy to underestimate just how important context is. In a Duke University study, students who transferred colleges completely changed their TV, newspaper, and exercising habits. More accurately, their habits evaporated entirely, and were replaced with intentional control.

It’s not enough to train your team on the specific actions of the habit. They need to be trained to respond with the new habit in a specific context.

A few examples of how this can be done:

  • Train employees to exercise the new habit at the beginning of the work day.
  • Set a calendar event.
  • Train employees to deploy the new habit after lunch, or before punching out at the end of the day.
  • Make the new habit part of an existing task. For example, if you were training a service representative to start checking social media profiles for activity, you could train them to check the profile immediately after checking email. In effect, you would make the act of closing email the trigger that causes them to check the social profile.

Remember, habits are stored in the same part of the brain as muscle memory, and won’t just happen on their own.

It is just as important to build the trigger into the habit as it is to train your team on the habit itself.

3. Habit Training is Almost 100% Repetition

For good habits to form you need to repeat

It might seem obvious to say that the key to habit training is repetition, but other than the two factors mentioned above, this is where most training programs and similar efforts end up failing.

There is a myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. This is only true in certain circumstances, and was never tested with any kind of scientific rigor.

According to a study at University College London, on average, it takes about 66 days to form a new habit.

In the study, participants were asked to choose a new daily habit that they wanted to have, and were asked each day how they were keeping up with the habit, and how “automatic” it felt. Participants chose habits as simple as drinking water with lunch and as difficult as running 15 minutes a day.

In general, it took between 18 and 254 days for the habit to feel automatic.

While simpler tasks are likely to hold closer to that 18 day figure (hence stressing simplicity above), this just goes to show that training your team to do something once isn’t going to cut it.

If you want your team to adopt a new habit, you need to enforce its repetition well past the point where it seems redundant.

To Sum Up

  • Design your habits to be as small as possible. You’re appealing to muscle memory here, not high-minded ideas.
  • Incorporate a “trigger,” “cue,” or “context” into the habit. No matter how well you train them or how often you repeat the training, the habit isn’t going to happen unless something triggers it.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat, well past the point of redundancy. It takes 18 days for even the most simple habits to become automatic, and up to 254 days for more complicated tasks.

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