“The brain is constantly trying to automate processes, thereby dispelling them from consciousness; in this way, its work will be completed faster, more effectively and at a lower metabolic level. Consciousness, on the other hand, is slow, subject to error and ‘expensive.’”
– Gerhard Roth, 2004
Understanding how the brain works can help us do a better, more effective job at work. It turns out that most of our daily activities are habits – series of actions that run as a sequence and require little conscious thought.
Habits are so hard-wired in our brains that researchers looking into high performance found that people who were great at what they do couldn’t explain exactly how they did it. Surprised? Dig back in your own memories and think of something you do really well. In your mind, you can see yourself doing it. You might even imagine yourself having a conversation at the same time. But as you move your attention to the steps of the activity itself, you become self-conscious. You might find it harder to do the more closely you think about it. And that’s a good thing.
Brain scans of top athletes show that they use significantly less of their brains while playing compared to less accomplished athletes, the signature of a solid habit. Habits work out of consciousness, allowing your conscious attention to focus on other things. Your brain works to hard-wire everything it can to conserve energy and free your mind for things that require the expensive activity of thinking.
Innovative leaders know that the success of their organizations is directly related to the thinking of their employees. Leaders are, therefore, looking for ways to improve people’s thinking. Employees want to work smarter, too. They not only want to work smarter, they want to be smarter.
Could it be that the brain’s craving to create habits is one way that we are designed to grow smarter? According to David Rock, author of “Quiet Leadership, Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work,” the answer is a resounding yes! David says, “If we want to improve people’s performance, our job is to help them find new ways to approach situations that leaves their existing wiring where it is, and allows for the development and ultimately the hard wiring of new habits.”
Given that habits run below the conscious level, how can you design a new habit so that it becomes as useful and reliable as possible?
According to Charles Duhigg, author of the New York Times best-selling book, “The Power of Habit,” researchers at MIT discovered what every habit has in common. Becoming familiar with the three elements of the Habit Loop will help you to change or eliminate a habit that’s not working for you or to create new habits for yourself and your team.
What the MIT researchers learned is that our brains store a habit sequence as one chunk of information. Once the Habit Loop starts, the brain will not feel “satisfied” until it is finished. That’s where the metabolic economy comes from: a sequence might involve over a hundred different behaviors that run as exactly one step! If that sounds incredible, count the number of moves you make in the morning between the time you wake up and when you leave for work.
If you’re like most people, everything you do during that time is pretty much the same every work day. Your higher (thinking) brain can plan your entire business day while your auto-brain gets you out the door on time. You don’t even have to stick a Post-it on your mirror to remind you to brush your teeth.
It will take some time and energy to change or create a habit, but knowing the Habit Loop helps you design for successful implementation.
1. Cue: Every habit has a starting point. What cue will alert your auto-brain to run the sequence?
2. Routine: The actual sequence of behaviors.
3. Reward: What’s in it for you? What happy dance makes it worthwhile for your brain to store this sequence in its habit repertoire?
Experiment with each element of the Habit Loop until it feels right. Then, repetition will do the rest of the work.
• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge, CreativeCore Media in Algonquin, are marketing, communication, management and training consultants who help small business and nonprofits overcome the marketing and motivational myths that are keeping them and their businesses from unbounded success. AnneBob@CreativeCore.com – www.NLPeople.com.