Habits: are they helping or holding you back?

by Lt. Col J. David Hood 86th Maintenance Group deputy commander

Every New Year’s Eve, I think about the resolutions I’d like to adopt for the next year. Quite a few tend to focus on creating or fostering good habits while eliminating bad habits: exercise more, eat healthier foods, read additional professional books, eliminate procrastination or spend more time staying in contact with old friends.

I recently dusted off a great book I had read a while back, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, which gave me some great insights on how we form habits and how we can change bad habits. The book also has an appendix, which directs you toward putting these thoughts into practice.

As Duhigg describes in his book, one executes daily habits and routines without much thought. This is the primary benefit of habits: the brain allows us to execute them using little brainpower in order to conserve that brainpower for solving greater problems.

Think about your routine for getting ready to drive a car: open the door, sit down, fasten seat belt, foot on the brake, lights on, ignition on, check emergency brake, shift into reverse, etc. This routine happens before you’ve truly thought about performing each step.

Habits don’t just happen for people. Your organization has many routines which either help or hinder mission accomplishment. Therefore, habits can be good for us and our organizations. While we want to continue our good habits, we really want to attack bad habits. So how does the habit loop work?

According to Duhigg, habits are created from following a three-step process over and over again: cue, routine and reward. Cues tell the brain to execute a specific process and can include many categories such as time, location, emotional state, events or specific people. Once a cue is received, the brain then executes a routine. Following the routine, we receive a reward which can be as simple as the successful completion of a work task.

Thankfully, a habit or organizational routine doesn’t usually form after performing this cycle once. Otherwise, we’d be locked into a lot of bad habits every time we attempt something for the first time. Repetition helps lock in the routine, but the reward is also a key factor. Am I getting the desired reward by performing this habit? Furthermore, not all habits are created equally. As Duhigg states in his book, keystone habits are ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

What if you were able to get 30 minutes of additional sleep each night? Those 30 minutes may translate into increased productivity and attentiveness at work, increased physical training scores and improved health. Each one of these factors now may drive further improvements in work, PT and health. In other words, additional sleep could be a force multiplier.

Changing habits begins with the routine you’d like to change. First, find that personal habit or organizational routine that is causing problems for you or your organization. Then take a look at the potential rewards. Perhaps changing your reward will allow you to alter the routine. You may not be able to change the cue, but you may now have a different routine to execute when you receive the same cue.

Making the time to take stock of our good and bad habits, both personally and professionally, is not an easy task, but taking time to invest in improving your personal habits and organizational routines will have a positive and lasting effect on you and your organization. Good luck!