The power of habit


We've been reading Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit. It looks at how much of our behaviour is automatic and why habits are hard to form and hard to break.

For anyone who is interested in change, it's a salutary reminder of what organisations and people are up against. Duhigg shows how the brain stores habits out of reach of our conscious mind so that we pretty much can't help acting on them. We may not even realise we are doing it. 

How do we change habits?

He talks about what it takes to change habits and why it is people succeed or fail. (Here's his four minute YouTube about how to change a habit). Perhaps the most interesting ingredient in his formula is the importance of belief. It chimes with research on what works in therapy: it makes a big difference whether people have faith the change will work, or start to build faith as they practice.

Duhigg shows the potentially huge benefits of habit change at a personal and organisational level. For example, Michael Phelps' success in swimming owed much to his deeply rehearsed habits for each aspect of his performance. Phelps practiced ruthlessly, to the point where he had a default routine to cope with his goggles filling with water during one of his gold medal performances.

With such rewards, we could get very excited about the possibilities for change. But this should be balanced with caution about our capacity to get people and organisations to change. Habits can change, but it's not a straightforward process. 

The lure of 'business as usual'

We're all familiar with attending meetings where exciting things are apparently agreed, only to find the very next day everyone goes back to normal. Daily lives have a whole host of cues that are likely to make us revert to routine behaviour. Johnnie has written before about the pitfalls of commitment ceremonies where a ritual is followed that is meant to lead to action, but often doesn't. 

Instead, we might put more value on conversations, small insights and discoveries, and to sustaining effort over time rather than expecting a miraculous single-hit event.

We see facilitation as a practice of continuous learning and experimentation. We don't want to pretend that difficult challenges are easy. Instead, as we're fond of saying, we try to bring a sense of ease to difficult things. We try to find the wiggle room in complex systems rather than claiming to overturn them.

(Photo by JJ Ying at Unsplash)