In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey invented the self-help management genre. The book, first published in 1989, has sold over 25 million copies worldwide. Knowing which habits are conducive to professional success and personal happiness continues to receive significant attention today, yet knowing how to make those habits stick is another matter. As we discussed in Habit Hacking last month, we process a large amount of automatic, subconscious activity every day but implementing new, positive habits is a significant challenge.
In our work with thousands of professionals over the past 10 years, certain tactics have emerged that support sustainable behavior change and increase the chances that a new habit will stick. The components of the 7S model are presented below.
The typical approach to change, particularly by the driven professional class, is that of a significant effort towards achieving an ambitious or stretch goal. By definition this significant effort is deployed now and again, which may or may not lead to success. Yet a much smaller (and therefore more sustainable) effort on a daily basis is likely to yield a greater benefit. Daily implementation is key.
A very successful habit may exist of course on a less frequent level, yet the daily implementation means that the cumulative benefit will quickly accrue for a relatively minor effort. The lauded strategy of “the cumulative effect of marginal gains” from the British Olympic Track Cycling team shows how even tiny changes allied to accumulation can have a big impact, in their case from being a mediocre performer winning one Olympic Gold in 100 years to the sports preeminent force with 22 Gold Medals in the last three Olympic Games.
Making it small also increases the chances of creating a new habit since it gains “automaticity” in less time. Researchers at University College London found the amount of time for behaviors of varying complexity to become automatic, ranging from 18 to 254 days.
As ambition derails many attempts at successful behaviour change, so to does vagueness. Setting SMART objectives helps to achieve professional targets and the same detail-oriented approach can help on a personal level.
Set a finish line. Rather than making an open commitment to always take the staircase, start with a commitment to always take the staircase for the remainder of the month. Achieving your objective will give you the motivation to keep going.
Given the daily approach mentioned above another key detail is when in the day you will commit to change. Consider of course your own life as well as some existing research. As we detailed in part 1 of Habit Hacking last month, our willpower tends to decrease throughout the day (our ethics also do, with studies showing greater tendency to lie in the latter part of the day!). Committing to something early in the day works for many, yet another slot may be required if family or other matters take precedence. In any case, try and fix the same time each day, which leads to the next S.
Support your new action by placing it next to an existing one. What do you do each day? Perhaps you have a consistent routine related to your morning: personal hygiene or preparing kids for school. Do a plank after brushing your teeth. Triggers can be immensely powerful. Stanford educator and behaviour change expert B. J. Fogg talks of his “flushing the toilet” trigger, after which he would complete a couple of push-ups. Though perhaps not for everyone (he did stress only at home!) it is a much easier way of getting 20 to 30 push-ups on a daily basis than doing them all at once.
Triggers give us a broader view of the behavior and make it easier to implement, or displace, through considering the habit loop. A cue or signal exists before the habit, which then produces a reward. Rather than focusing on the behavior itself, can you change the cue or reward? In my own experience I had a long-term bad habit of checking my email and social media in bed before going to sleep. The cue was having my smartphone plugged to my charging cable on my bedside table. I eliminated the cue by placing the charging cable in the kitchen. On many evenings, I still want to check my phone in bed but the cue is no longer there.
Share your change with your family, with your friends, or with your boss. If you plan to go offline after a certain time each day, you’ll need to manage expectations on a professional level. If you have a habit of collapsing on the sofa when you arrive home from work, tell your family so that they are waiting for you to go for a walk when you arrive home. Sharing your change makes you accountable. And we all need to be held accountable. I didn’t explicitly share my own commitment a couple of years ago to walk after every evening meal (the legend of the Chinese Walk) but accountability made it work. Animals are amazing at picking up habits. After my initial enthusiasm for walking after my evening meal wore off, my faithful companion Harry the sheepdog ensured that I kept going. Now, as soon as I put my knife and fork down, Harry waits at the door and barks if I don’t get moving!
Tracking the completion, or absence, of a certain behavior over time creates a chain. And the longer that chain is, the harder it can be to break. This may be true of certain bad habits we have had for a long time, such as smoking, yet the same logic can be used in a positive sense. Alcoholics Anonymous, with the original “Big Book” first published in 1939 as a rich source of insight on behavior for the public at large, uses total sobriety time as a part of open group sharing.
And the same logic is used in many apps today. For example, one may achieve special badges for maintaining a streak of daily practice such as meditation. If you have a bad day after 150 days of completing the same practice and the last thing on your mind is meditation, the simple fact of having completed 150 days will probably get you over the line to complete 151. Think of the power of such streaks in sectors such as health and safety in construction. If you are a worker on such a site with a visible counter that says “1068 days since last accident” that’s a powerful incentive not to be the one who brings the counter back to zero.
In an increasingly digital world, the physical environment matters more than ever. Whether considering specific approaches such as biophilic design or more generally the workspace of the future as we have discussed in the March article in this column, our surroundings will affect our behaviour.
At home, I look to test and implement simple changes that are pivotal in building a healthy and productive daily routine. For several years I’ve kick-started my day with a 10 minute Mat Pilates session. The key to building this in was having the mat in plain view. That way, rather than blearily fetching coffee as part of my daily stumble out of bed, unfurling that mat was part of the new natural flow. It’s a similar, even simpler principle to that of laying out your workout clothes the night before that early morning training session.
At work, simple changes could include a standing desk, new vending machine content, nudge posters and cosmetic changes to the staircase. You may not have the reported $5 Billion that Apple spent on their new Spaceship Campus but we can all think about re-designing our surroundings to support behavior change.
Jim Rohn said that “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” What we often perceive to be our own behaviors are often due to the influence of our family, friends and colleagues. Again, the focus of a previous article in February of this year thinking on our social environment will allow us greater insight to the habit hacking process. Think of who you spend time with both personally and professionally. Who are the people who will help you the most in the formative stages of a new behavior?
We may also think on our leadership activity and the design of teams. Research has shown the positive impact of placing a poor performer next to a high performer, with positive “spillovers” created in terms of productivity, effectiveness and client satisfaction with the work. The authors suggest pairing employees with opposite strengths as well as separating toxic workers.
Are all 7S’s to be employed in each case? Probably not. That is part of the habit hacking process: finding out which ones are most important for you to gain traction in behavior change, either to create and sustain a new healthy habit, or stop a more negative one in its tracks. Our ongoing research looks to gain insight into which elements are most effective in different cases and we will publish our preliminary findings (there you go, we’ve shared that goal with all of you).
Originally published at www.europeanbusinessreview.com