It’s the new year and just about everyone I know has some sort of resolution.
Some want to lose weight so they’re committed to eating better and exercising more. Others want to be more productive so they’re doing their best to cut out the wasteful aspects of their lives.
And while most resolutions are good… just about everyone will fail to meet their goals. Sorry to be a killjoy… but it’s the truth.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. Why? One word. Habits.
You see, if we learn how to develop good habits while also modifying bad ones… 2015 can be the best year of our lives.
Now, in our soon to be released Culture of Kaizen Course, we spend a lot of time exploring the topic of habits. What they are, how they’re formed, and how to modify them when needed.
One of the resources we leveraged during the creation of these habit focused modules is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. This is, without doubt, one of the best books on the topic of habits and we highly recommend reading it.
So, in this article I want to explore this topic. We don’t have enough time to cover the topic as deeply as we do in the course… but we intend to provide more than enough information to get you started!
What are Habits?
OK, so let’s start things off by talking about what a habit is.
If you think back to this morning… I’m confident most of us knew to put the toothpaste on our toothbrush before brushing our teeth. I also think it’s safe to say none of us really had to think this process through… it was pretty much automatic.
Well, the reason this was automatic, was because – for most of us – the process of putting toothpaste onto the toothbrush is a well-defined, solidified, habit.
Obviously, I could go on and on with how so many aspects of our lives are nothing more than habits – both good and bad – repeated over and over (i.e. think about how you effortlessly back out of your driveway).
In fact, William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, may have summed this up best when he said, “All our life, so far as it has a definite form, is but a mass of habits.”
Why Do Habits Form?
You see, our brains are naturally lean… they’re constantly trying to find ways to save time and effort… so, left to their own devices, our brains will do their very best to turn any routine into a habit.
But how does it do this? Are there triggers? And, if so, how do we make this habit forming process work to our advantage?
Well, as it turns out, researchers at MIT have done a tremendous amount of research on this topic and discovered a mysterious area of the brain called the basal ganglia.
Now I say mysterious, since, before this research was done, little was known about this area of our brain aside from the suspicions that it may play an important role in diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
To summarize, the basal ganglia plays an important role in how habits are created and how they can stick with us for the rest of our lives. The process our brains use to do this is actually quite straightforward.
First, our brains receive a cue or trigger. This basically alerts our brains to transition into automatic mode while also telling the brain what habit to call upon and use. Cues can consist of many things including a certain time of day, a place, the presence of certain people, an emotion, or some sort of preceding action.
Next, once the cue, or trigger, has been set there’s a routine, which is the second step of the habit loop. Now, this routine can be physical like smoking a cigarette, or mental like doing addition or subtraction in our minds, or even emotional like how many of us react when we hear the voice of someone we like or dislike since we associate good or bad memories of that person.
And, last, but certainly not least there’s a reward at the end of the habit loop, which basically tells our brains whether this particular habit loop is worth remembering.
So, the question you may be asking yourself is what habits have to do with creating strong cultures of kaizen? Well, to answer this we need to explore what are known as keystone habits.
Simply put, keystone habits are small changes, or habits, that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their daily lives at home or work. Put another way, keystone habits have a ripple effect into other aspects of our lives that, in many cases, create positive change unexpectedly.
For example, research has shown that people attempting to lose weight are typically more successful when they maintain a hand written food journal of everything they eat. As people form the habit, and discipline, of writing down what they eat, and what they plan to eat, their willpower actually increases as they begin to see results.
And, in many cases, these same people soon begin to exercise which often acts as another keystone habit that further impacts other aspects of their lives… in fact, did you know that regular exercisers tend to use their credit cards less since they often times have far more willpower than non exercisers? Well this is exactly what research has shown.
I personally formed a strong keystone habit once I began to track my personal finances using Mint.com. By tracking exactly where our money was being spent my wife and I were able to take complete control of our finances… this then impacted other aspects of our lives including making healthier meals for our family at home instead of eating out so much!
So, what starts as the simple practice of writing down what you eat – or tracking where your money is being spent – actually begins to permeate throughout many other aspects of that person’s life.
With this said, while this is all well and good for us individuals… how can keystone habits impact entire organizations?
Keystone Habits Impact on Culture
Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is by summarizing the story of how Paul O’Neill approached his first days as CEO of Alcoa back in 1987.
To the surprise of all in attendance at his opening press conference, Mr. O’Neil didn’t begin his tenure as CEO by talking about complicated profit and loss topics or waxing poetic about how he was going to begin focus groups to better understand the challenges they faced… instead he talked about how he, and all Alcoa associates, were going to focus on one thing and one thing only – employee safety.
Now, as you might imagine, many of the reporters in attendance thought Mr. O’Neill was a little crazy. After all, what CEO starts his reign of a major corporation by talking about safety.
Well, as it turns out, what Mr. O’Neill actually began to form that day was an incredibly powerful keystone habit.
You see, in order to achieve world-class safety performance, Alcoa would have to address all aspects of their business. In other words, the relentless focus on improving safety performance ultimately rippled throughout all aspects of Alcoa’s business.
In fact, within a year of Mr. O’Neill’s strong safety comments, Alcoa had transformed themselves into one of the most profitable companies within the Dow Jones Industrial Average. And, when he stepped down in 1999, O’Neill had helped push Alcoa’s annual earnings from 20 cents per share in 1994 to $1.41 in 1999.
And if you’re curious about their safety performance… during O’Neill’s tenure, Alcoa went from 1.86 lost workdays to injury per 100 workers to 0.2 lost workdays to injury per 100 workers.
About Those New Years Resolutions
So, now that we know a bit more about habits… I’d like to challenge you to think about how you can create a keystone habit (or habits) that supports your 2015 goals.
I’d also encourage you to think of how any less than ideal habits may be holding you back from reaching your full potential.
Finally, like I mentioned earlier, we’re going to dive into the topic of habit formation – and modification – in more detail once our new Culture of Kaizen course releases later this month.
So, keep an eye out for that… you can even request a full access 3-day trial once the course is released in order to check it out free of charge.