It might make you uncomfortable to realise that up to 40% of the actions you perform are executed without any conscious decision on your part – but that is precisely the power of habit.
In neurological terms, a habit is a cycle of repetitive actions created over time by consistent reinforcement of patterns in the brain. It’s a short-hand your mind uses to repeat conditioned tasks while conserving as much energy as possible. By moving the command of an activity from your conscious mind to your unconscious mind, you free up mental ‘real-estate’ and streamline your cognitive workflow.
In ‘The Power Of Habit’, Charles Duhigg explains that habits are at the heart of everything we do. He writes: “A habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day.”
Look at your journey to work each morning. What are you thinking about while you walk or drive? Are you actively considering your route and planning each step along the way? Or does your mind wander, dwelling on the tasks that await you upon arrival at the office? Often you will find you have reached your destination with little or no recollection of the journey itself. This is the power of habit at work – the process of walking or driving the route is so wired into your brain that you have mental capacity free for other things.
Duhigg outlines the three steps that are going on behind-the-scenes in your brain with a habit:
- Cue – the cue is a trigger that sparks the ‘habit loop’. It could be a location, a time of day, an action, or a person or people, or a feeling.
- Routine – this is the action that is triggered by your brain responding to a cue, for example, your cue might be feeling a mid-afternoon energy dip and the routine might be leaving your desk and getting a coffee.
- Reward – the reward is the benefit you get from your routine. In our energy-dip scenario, the reward for going and getting that coffee would be a caffeine buzz.
Most people will be familiar with the story of Pavlov’s dog. The principle at work here is exactly the same: your mind learns to expect certain results from particular actions. By experimenting with different mental rewards for yourself at the completion of a habitual routine, you can take decisive control of your unconscious behaviour.
Armed with the knowledge of the power of habit and the process of forming new ones, you can look at your day and work out what things you should try to turn into habits to free your mind for more demanding tasks. For example, if you want to get into the habit of prioritising your workload throughout the day, you could identify cues to remind you to do it – for example setting a reminder in your diary – and rewards for when you have done it. (Although you may find the mental clarity and increased productivity you get from doing it reward enough.)
Similarly, if you identify a negative habit that you feel is detracting from your daily productivity you can then begin to alter that behaviour in ways that will have a lasting neurological impact.
Identify the cue, routine and reward that form your bad habit, and think about how you can change that pattern. It might be that you can design your day to avoid the cues that trigger negative habits – for example if a day of back-to-back meetings means you end up multitasking during your appointments rather than focusing on one thing at a time, you could start blocking out meeting-free time in your diary to get work done. Alternatively, you might want to substitute unhealthy or unproductive routines and rewards for better ones – for example, rather than tackling the quick and easy task on your to-do list for the satisfaction of just having got something done, you could breakdown tough and complicated tasks into their own to-do list and focus on crossing off some of those items for a bigger reward.
What are your worst habits when it comes to work? Do you think this method will break them? Are there any good habits you have that you’d like to share?
This is part of Nokia’s Smarter Everyday programme. To download our latest ebook on designing your day, visit http://nokia.ly/DYDebook, and to find out more about Nokia for business visit http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/mobile/business/lumia-for-business/