Habit Change & Workplace Wellbeing: Part 1

August 23, 2017

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

– Aristotle

Your alarm rings at 6am, you hit the snooze button—five more minutes of sleep. The second alarm goes off, and, grunting, you sit up. You reach over to shut off the alarm on your phone, and open up Facebook and start scrolling. If you’re feeling extra groggy this morning you might venture over to Instagram and Snapchat, too. Thirty minutes later, you’ve somehow managed to get yourself showered, dressed, fed, and out the door for work.

This morning routine—which may be a little hectic, but relatively low effort—is fairly unremarkable. Maybe your Special K ran out and you switched over to Honey Nut Cheerios, but for the most part, you can’t remember the specificities of one morning from the next.

The quote above from Aristotle makes the ordinary feel more remarkable than it seems. But, he has a point: Habits are the building blocks of our minute-by-minute behaviors, which make up our day-by-day routines. These automatic, unconscious routines make up our semblance of a person—40% of our behavior, in fact, is habitual rather than decided.

But what if we want to augment these routines? What if we are unhappy with the type of lifestyle they create in aggregate?

As an HR person or employer, you may wonder how yo can encourage positive routines for your employees or help them disrupt their unhealthy habits. And wellbeing programs are one effective approach to accomplish this.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we’ll take a more in-depth look at how habit formation actually works, how long it takes, and what makes it more likely to stick. In Part 2, we’ll consider what this means for your workplace wellbeing program design.

How do habits work?

A truly unconscious habit is born out of a repetitive situation and subsequent behavior that is in some way rewarding. When you put your toothbrush back in the cabinet in the morning, is that your cue to grab the floss? Or, a more subtle example: what about that 3pm fatigue you feel at your desk as the trigger for you to eat a snack? Habits, when not leading to excellence as Aristotle says, can also be devious.

There are three parts to habits: the cue, the routine, and the reward. With practice, our brains begin to learn this sequence of events. When the reward is positive, we get a rush of dopamine into the synapses of our brain, and the reward center lights up. The more times we encounter the same situation, act in the same way, and receive the same reward (which can even sometimes just be completing the behavior, like finishing flossing your teeth as the last step in your bedtime routine), we begin to learn.

Step 1: The trigger

The situational cue is arguably more important than the actual behavior. Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habitreports that this was a problem that the company that makes Febreze, the odor-repellent spray, had initially when it first started selling the product. Marketed as a way to eliminate bad odors, Febreze found that nobody wanted to buy their product. Why? Because there was no situational cue or trigger to use the spray. For heavy smokers or cat owners who really suffered from bad house smells, the issue was that they had acclimated to their own environment and couldn’t register the bad smell. Without the bad smell cue, nobody thought to use a spray that eliminated what to them was a nonexistent odor.

Step 2: The routine

Febreze went back to the drawing board, and ultimately realized that they had to market their product as a way to make your house smell good, rather than just eliminating odor. They added more perfume to the recipe so it had a distinctly clean smell. Pretty soon, sales shot up, as people began to integrate Febreze into their habit routine of cleaning. Once the house was clean (the trigger), spraying Febreze was the last step (and reward) to make the house smell nice.

Step 3: The reward

This power of association between the cue and the reward is even shown to anticipate the actual behavior itself. The contextual cues of a habit can sometimes be so powerful as to preemptively trigger a dopamine rush before we’ve even started the habitual behavior.

This is how cravings are formed: As our bodies strongly associate certain contexts with a behavior, we can start chemically experiencing the positives of the behavior without even doing it. That’s why smelling your favorite pizza can trigger a need for that pizza. From past experience, it has learned that warm, cheesy carbs are highly rewarding, so when you pass a pizza place, your brain is starting to reward you before you’ve even taken a bite.

How long does it take to form a habit?

Creating a new habit is a lot slower than most of us hope, unfortunately. Contrary to popular belief, to truly reach a level of automaticity with a behavior, 66 days is the average range for this to occur. A study conducted at the University College London found that 95% automaticity of behavior took anywhere from 18 to 254 days!

Habits won’t change just because we want them to (for more on this topic, check out this post), because we do them once in the ideal conditions, or because we read about changing them in a self-help book (or blog post!).

Automaticity—the efficiency and lack of awareness of a behavior—is a key component to habits, and it’s not acquired in a linear way. Consistent repetition with the same situational cues when you’re first starting a habit is key to cementing automaticity. With time, the behavior will be less effortful. Also, a single lapse in the repetition of the habit will not impact the overall integration of the habit into routine.

Image source: http://jamesclear.com/new-habit

How do I conquer challenges of habit formation?

There are a few factors that come into play when we make decisions and behave in a certain way. Let’s look at what these are and how they can help us successfully adopt new habits.

Instant gratification vs. long-term rewards

As much as we desire certain habits, the one barrier that seems to get in our way time and time again is our own self-discipline. But as humans, we have a propensity toward present bias: We prioritize that which is immediately in front of us over things that are far off.

As described in the journal Health Psychology, the way that we construe goals and behavior shifts with time, which is why “people find health-directed behaviors so positive and desirable in the distant future, yet so negative and undesirable once the future becomes now.” This is common and very normal.

In the long term, we may want to exercise to improve our health, but on a short-term scale, we are tired and it was a long work day… and can’t we just sit on the couch and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones instead? Everyone has these days, and advice and educational materials aren’t going to permeate your automatic thinking and actions.

There is hope, though. As an addendum to the famous marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel, research found that changing the way certain temptations were described could alter people’s ability to delay gratification. If a marshmallow was described as “cloud-like” rather than “yummy,” for example, people were more able to resist eating it.

Creating realistic expectations

Also, when we think of lifestyle change, we tend to have grandiose ideas about what this self-improvement looks like. Frequently, our weak willpower is just undergoing what’s called “decision fatigue” when we set such large expectations about all the aspects of our lives we will change. When you set out with a list of goals and new habits in mind, at every corner, you are going to have to decide which is the “right” decision and which is the wrong one. Do I order the salad, or the pizza? Should I walk to work, or Uber? These may seem small, but when you set out to accomplish a lot, the decisions add up and your brain can tire until your willpower depletes to zero.

One remedy to this is to think about habit change as a formula. Instead of tying your habits into your sense of self and placing judgment on the behaviors that are really out of your jurisdiction (seriously—your habits are a product of the environment paired with some dopamine, neither of which you can control), remove the emotion from the equation. Instead, choose the one small adjustment, and start manipulating your environments and cues around you to solve it. Then, repeat for at least 66 days.

A quick recap

To sum it all up, here’s what we’ve covered so far: automatic habits account for 40% of our behavior, which is part of the reason it’s so challenging for us to make changes. Habits are small, automatic behaviors that are tough to identify and tough to adjust. They are comprised of three parts: a cue, a behavior, and a reward, and repetition is necessary in order for us to build or replace habits.

Want to see how this all applies in real life? Check out Part 2, where we explore what this means for your approach to workplace wellbeing!

Want to dive more into how habit change works and what this means for your workplace wellbeing program? Check out our webinar, “Dispelling the Myths of Workplace Wellness Programs.”

Watch the webinar!

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