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Learning & Development Blog

the power of habit

A Secret Weapon for Learning Professionals: The Power of Habit

On my way home from a friend’s house recently, I became engrossed in a news story on the radio. Suddenly, I realized, I was actually driving away from my house. I had missed my freeway exit and was speeding in exactly the wrong direction.

Where was I going? How did I miss my exit? Quickly, I realized: I did more than just forget to take the correct exit, I was actually on my way to my old house – a place I had lived for more than 10 years. It seems that since my conscious brain was elsewhere (listening to the radio), my subconscious took over. My body repeated a routine I had performed for years – while my mind was otherwise occupied.

Shortly after my navigational lapse that day, I got a better understanding of what had happened, when I read the book the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg who summarizes how it works:

When a behavior becomes a habit, it's moving from your prefrontal cortex ... into the basal ganglia, which - evolutionarily - is a very old structure inside our brains, where we essentially store patterns.

At some point, our brain [evolved] this new technique, which is to say, "I want to take those things that I do every day ... and put them in a part of my brain that doesn't work as hard."

So, that explains how we can so easily go on "autopilot" and carry out complex behaviors without really being consciously aware of them. Duhigg continues:

Because of this capacity, your brain actually stops working so hard when you're in the middle of a habit. That's why it feels so hard to control this behavior because your brain has in a sense gone to sleep ...

That explains a lot about how bad habits can stick with us, but Duhigg goes on to explain that if we can diagnose how habits are formed, we can change them - and even create new, positive habits. To grossly oversimplify the explanation: habits can be broken into three parts;

Cue - Routine - Reward


The cue is something that initiates the behavior, like stress for example. The routine is initiated by our subconscious in response to the stress. For some people, this might mean eating an unhealthy snack. The reward becomes the snack itself - it tastes good, it's filling, and calms you down.

Duhigg goes on to explain that, just like people, organizations can develop habits as well. At which point I began to wonder about the degree to which we take advantage of habits in the learning industry. After all, if we could actually encode behaviors directly into the deepest part of our learners' brains, we would have achieved the ultimate in learning retention.

Short Term vs. Long Term Rewards

What's missing, in most corporate settings, is the last component of habit formation: the reward. Certainly, we get long term rewards from doing our jobs well - money and recognition - but we rarely get rewards for repeating positive behaviors on a smaller scale. And after all, it is these smaller behaviors that really determine how successful we are. As Aristotle said:

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

It seems to me that gamification in the workplace holds some promise as a means to deliver small rewards to people for repeating desired behaviors. The use of leaderboards, points, and badges all serve to provide the kind of immediate rewards that encourage behavior change (whether these rewards have any intrinsic value seems not to matter; see Jim's latest post on the role of incentives in learning).


Of course, it's always easier to come up with examples of bad habits that developed due to short term rewards. In the recent book How will you measure your life Clayton Christensen provides a host of examples in which short term rewards produce habits that produce negative outcomes in the long run. Christensen, who also wrote the bestselling book The Innovator’s Dilemma describes how people often end up with “habits” they never intended to possess.

He describes several very successful people with whom he graduated from Harvard Business School, who initially became very successful, but quickly took their lives in very undesirable directions. Among his contemporaries was Jeffrey Skilling, CEO of Enron. Christensen says:

Nobody graduates from Harvard Business School planning to screw the world and end up in jail. But a scary number of them actually do.

The reason this happens: short term rewards (money, prestige) reinforce habits far more strongly than do long-term ones (integrity, respect).

So,it's clear that if we can take some control over our organizations' habits - and help people develop positive habits through the use of short term rewards - we as learning professionals can make a significant impact. If it's your habit to read all the way to the end of drawn-out blog posts like this one (unlikely, I realize), please let me know what you think: how do you see the power of habit affecting our lives, and where can we use it to our advantage?


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