The Golden Rule of Changing Habits

You cannot extinguish a bad habit; you must learn to modify or replace it. Here’s the formula for change:

  1. Use the same cue.
  2. Provide aphysiological or emotional reward.
  3. Change the routine up and be accountable to someone.

Some researchers have found that desire and belief can help transform a consciously modified habit loop into a permanent behavior. In other words, you must want to change and believe you can do it.

Your degree of desire will influence the amount of persistence and discipline you apply.Practice and accountability is critical. Some people must stickto their new routine for at least six monthto create a new habit.

Which habit do you want to start changing this week?

Can you really get rid of a habit?

Habits Are Neural Connections

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the brain’s structures—a huge advantage because we don’t have to relearn things we haven’t done in a while, such as riding a bike, speaking a foreign language or driving to work.

But your brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits. Even after you’ve conquered a bad habit, it’s always lurking in the back of your mind. One cigarette can reignite a smoking habit after years of abstinence.

This is why it’s so hard to create new routines. Unless you deliberately fight an old habit by substituting a new thought or routine, the pattern will unfold automatically. When you learn how the habit loop works, you’ll find it easier to take control of your behaviors.

The good news is that habits aren’t destiny. They can be ignored, changed or replaced. When we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower old drives and behaviors (thereby taking control of the habit loop), we can force our bad habits into the background.

Cue => Routine => Reward

A cue triggers both a routine and a reward (i.e., a rush of endorphins or sense of accomplishment from engaging in a positive habit).

If, for example, you’re tired or bored, you may habitually eat a snack. If you want to avoid the calories and improve your overall health, you can choose to exercise instead. Both solutions relieve boredom and chemically reward the brain, but one is the smarter option.

To change a habit, identify the underlying craving or trigger; then, reward the brain with a more healthful behavior.

Are You A Creature of Habit?

Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steadily gains in strength. At first it may be but as a spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel. ~ American theologian Tryon Edwards (1809–1894)

Most of the choices we make each day feel like well-considered decisions. In reality, ingrained habits determine much of what we think, speak and do.

Research has shown that the average person has approximately 40,000 thoughts per day, but 95% are the same ones experienced the day before. Other studies support the notion that 40% of our daily actions are based on habits and routines, not newly formed decisions.  The good news is that habits were learned and we can choose new habit to learn.

Our habits—what we say, eat and do, and how we organize our thoughts and work routines— have an enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.

In the last two decades, scientists have begun to understand how habits are formed, how they work and, more importantly, how we can change them. As New York Times staff writer Charles Duhiggreveals in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012):

  1. Before Pepsodent entered the market in the early 20th century, only 7% of Americans had a tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests. A decade later, the number had jumped to 65%, thanks to Claude Hopkins’ legendary advertising campaigns. The tooth brushing habit was firmly established.
  2. Procter & Gamble turned a spray called Febreze into a billion-dollar brand by taking advantage of consumers’ habitual urge to “breathe happy” and eliminate odors.
  3. Alcoholics Anonymous reforms lives and enables people to live free from powerful addictions by redirecting self-destructive habits into constructive routines.
  4. By changing one small keystone habit (like safety precautionsor tracking and measuring),individuals and companies can influence everyday routines, leading to widespread results.

Habits emerge because the brain is constantly seeking ways to conserve energy. It looks for a cue that becomes the trigger for a habitual (unconscious) response. We are then rewarded with a blast of the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter dopamine.

The process is a three-step physiological loop:

  1. A trigger event or cue occurs.
  2. There’s an automatic (unconscious) response (physical, mental or emotional).
  3. A reward helps the brain decide that this loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time, the habit loop becomes increasingly automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation emerges.

This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings.Most of the time, these cravings form so gradually that we’re not even aware they exist. We’re often blind to their influence because they have become unconscious.

Is there a better way to work in teams?

Teams are not inherently bad, but they can be refined and adjusted to provide better results. The way forward is not to stop collaborating, but to do it better.

  • To guard against groupthink, use checklists or ask certain team members to play devil’s advocates.
  • If you need to stimulate creativity, ask people to come up with ideas alone before sharing them with the team. If you seek the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically or in writing first.

Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking. Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas.

What has worked for you?

Interovert/Extrovert: The best mix for your team.

Introverts vs. Extroverts

One’s attraction to working in social groups may be culturally influenced. In the United States, for example, we tend to idealize charismatic extroverts. (Think celebrities and media-savvy CEOs.) Because extroverts usually talk the most (and often the loudest), their ideas are heard and often implemented. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast and sometimes rash decisions. They are comfortable with multitasking and risk-taking.

Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They prefer to focus on one task at a time, and they dislike interruptions and noisy environments that interfere with concentration.

Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening and are comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.

Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy some parties and business meetings, but after a while they wish they were at home with a good book. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak and often express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict.

Leaders must understand each team member’s strengths and temperament. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts. 

Does Brainstorming Work?

The False Benefits of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a creative technique through which group members form solutions to specific problems by spontaneously shouting out ideas, without censoring themselves or criticizing others.

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and performance worsens as group size increases. Groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which function worse than groups of four.

The one exception is online brainstorming. When properly managed, groups that brainstorm online perform better than individuals – and the larger the group, the better it performs. What we fail to realize is that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude unto itself.

Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming:

  1. Social loafing. Some individuals sit back and let others do all the work.
  2. Production blocking. Only one person can talk or produce an idea at a time, so the others are forced to sit passively.
  3. Evaluation apprehension. Even when group members agree to welcome all ideas, people fear they’ll look stupid in front of their peers.

Let me know your thoughts on brainstorming.


Is Group Think Freezing the Lone Genius Out?

Groupthink, originally researched by Yale University psychologist Irving Janis, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups. It’s a mode of thinking that occurs when a decision-making group’s desire for harmony overrides its realistic appraisal of alternatives.

Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus, without critically evaluating additional ideas or viewpoints.

The negative cost of groupthink is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. Organizationally, these consequences lead to costly errors in product launches, service policies and competitive strategies.

The New Groupthink

In “The Rise of the New Groupthink” (The New York Times, Jan.13, 2012), corporate attorney and author Susan Cain explains:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

There’s a problem with the view that all work should be conducted by teams. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. As Cain writes:

Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about.

It’s one thing when each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from coworkers’ conversations or gazes.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear your comments.

Teams: The Key to Success

A recent survey found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe teams are the key to success. But the evidence doesn’t always support this assertion.
In her April 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review article, “Coming Through When It Matters Most.”, Professor Heidi K. Gardner notes there are insidious disadvantages to teamwork.

“Just when teams most need to draw on the full range of their members’ knowledge to produce the high-quality, uniquely suitable outcomes they started out to deliver, they instead begin to revert to the tried and true,” she writes.

Under pressure, teams gravitate toward safe ground. While most start out highly engaged, inviting input from everyone, members become risk-averse as they push toward project completion. They maneuver toward consensus in a way that blocks paths to critical information.

What has been your experience with teams?

Tips on How to Give Effective Feedback

Constructive critiques focus on what people have done and can do, rather than targeting their character or personality. If people believe their failures result from personal, unchangeable deficits, they lose hope and stop trying. Let them know that setbacks and mistakes result from circumstances they can change.

This is a common reason people contact me for coaching services. Either feedback has been poorly delivered, or poorly received. Using a coach can help clear up limiting beliefs and assumptions so that feedback can be used effectively.

Psychologist and corporate consultant Harry Levinson provides the following suggestions for delivering praise and criticism:

  1. Be specific. Focus on the actual behavior, using verbs instead of judgmental adjectives. Communicate clear facts that people can understand and act upon. Describe what people did and how they did it. If you wish to address a pattern or habit, pick one significant incident that illustrates the key problem. Describe what the person did well or poorly and how it can be changed. Don’t beat around the bush or try to be evasive. The same rules apply to giving praise. Specificity is required for learning.
  2. Offer a solution. A critique should identify ways to fix a problem. Otherwise, it only serves to demoralize and demotivate. Try to open the door to unexplored possibilities and alternatives. Your suggestions can provide a broader perspective or context.
  3. Be present. Critiques and praise are most effective face-to-face and in private. Don’t try to ease your own discomfort by giving them from a distance or in writing. You need to be fully present and allow the recipient to respond and seek clarification.
  4. Be sensitive. Be attuned to the impact of what you say and how you say it. Even when your intentions are positive, you don’t know how your message will be received. Your greatest empathy skills are required. Criticism can be destructive. Instead of opening a path for correction, you may unintentionally provoke a backlash of resentment. Criticism is best used as an opportunity to work together to solve a problem, but you need to make this clear.

What are your thoughts about how well you last received feedback? Was it delivered well, or poorly? I’d love to hear your stories!

Positive vs. Negative Feedback

Feedback isn’t necessarily evil. I’ve always thought there isn’t enough positive feedback going around. We don’t have to wait until there’s something to shout about. We need to make more positive comments, and about the little things as well as the big.

Many managers are too willing to criticize, yet stingy with praise. A partnership’s or team’s emotional health depends on how well individuals can air their grievances. People are more receptive to negative feedback when they’re used to receiving plenty of positive comments.

Therapist John Gottman’s extensive research on successful marriages reveals there should be at least a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative comments. Similarly, organizational psychologists Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson found that business teams function best with a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.

Across industries, most employees believe they don’t receive enough positive feedback. Problems are compounded when negative feedback is delayed — often because a manager is queasy about delivering it. Most problems start out small. When they’re allowed to fester, they escalate. By the time many managers decide to give feedback, there’s a backlog of frustration and anger that makes any conversation more difficult.

Early criticism allows people to correct problems, and it prevents a bad situation from boiling over. Managers should avoid giving feedback when they’re angry or inclined to be sarcastic, as the recipient will become defensive and resist change.

How to Receive Feedback

As a member of any group, team or partnership, you must learn to accept responsibility for your actions and accept that there’s always room for improvement. View constructive criticism as valuable information that helps you perform your job better — not as a personal attack. Feedback is beneficial because it facilitates teamwork.

Avoid the impulse toward defensiveness, which each of us innately has. Being defensive closes the door to receiving important information that can improve your work relationships and make your tasks easier. If you become upset, take a break; resume your meeting later.

Remember: Criticism is an opportunity to resolve a problem. It’s not meant to create an adversarial relationship.