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I was listening to an audiobook about behaviour change, and the author was talking about habits and how it helps or deters our progress. When we speak of creating or breaking a habit, it necessarily involves change. Change whether we like it or not, involves breaking patterns or creating new ones, both of which mean discomfort. However, we are happy to go through this pain for the sake of a more significant benefit.

For example, when we began learning driving, we had to remember what to do consciously. ABC of driving, Mirror, signal Manoeuvre are acronyms that helped us remember the routines. Within a few months, we stop using abbreviations, and those activities become part of our muscle memory which is taken over by our subconscious. Driving moves from a painful to a pleasurable experience.

We are happy to undergo the initial period of pain to build a habit as a reward at the end of the journey gives us the freedom to move or buy our dream car. It could be easy to conclude that the award or the impact of the award, will help us go through the initial pain. However, if this were true, it makes you wonder why we do not adopt that philosophy when it comes to going to the gym. The reward – good health, feeling and looking good should be a reason good enough to endure that pain. But why are we not following it? The answer partially lies in the fact that the brain should perceive the reward to be easy enough to achieve.

When we apply this in the context of an organisation, change initiatives can be broken down to the extent that it is challenging but not demanding for it to become a habit. We want to change only when we realise what we have been doing so far can either be improved or is not working. It is that realisation that will spur us to embrace the new habit. However, if we cannot see the impact of our habit, we will not be compelled to change them despite being asked to do so.

Let us look at wellbeing initiatives run by organisations. I have seen that a few have a wellbeing strategy which links back to critical themes motivating the organisation to create action plans. There are a few others that embark on wellbeing initiatives based on their perception of the ground realities. Both approaches seem to work as far as creating an action plan is concerned. However, when it comes to execution, that is a different pot of fish.

We are all good at making resolutions and creating grand plans to lose weight, get fit, be happy, write that book etc. When we are motivated, we create a timetable which has all the bells and whistles and chalks out all the details. Our motivation gets us to adhere to this plan on a religious basis, and we slowly slip back to our old ways and stop mid-way.

While it is not suitable for any change initiatives in the organisation, it can do much harm if we adopt such an approach to wellbeing action plans. Not only will it destroy the morale of the team, but it will also harm the culture of the organisation. What can we do to avoid this situation?

Although we have evolved scientifically as a species, our brain still has the same structure as our early ancestors- the sapiens. At that time, when food was scarce, we were programmed to eat a lot when we had access to food. We never worried about our future and lived for that moment – A true yogic way of life. Now fast forward to the modern age, we have started working hard early for a secure future, precisely the opposite of how we lived even 500 years ago. Hard work pays in cash or kind, which provides us with instant gratification. Looking at the bank account, or seeing the money come into our account is a simple but powerful trigger that feeds our need for satisfaction.

Now when are looking at creating a wellbeing plan, yes, it is essential to have that big picture or a grand scheme, but we need to break that down into easily achievable targets. We need to break this into bite-sized actions doable with minimal effort and of course, provides a reward for achieving that. That is the first trick.

In the current context and the foreseeable future, we are going to be working remotely. 

We crave for social connections, and that is part of who we are. Remote working is going to eliminate the frequency of the meeting the team. I know managers who have vowed to call their teams and talk to their colleagues regularly about work and beyond work.

I know that there are individuals who will religiously do it. But more than 80% will revert to doing it less frequently and stop. Although we all have the intentions, we seldom see it through the end. This phenomenon “Hypnotic paradox” is where the mind is drawn to the different but reverts to the original. So how do we overcome this? You can use the technique called habit weaving.

Habit weaving is to take the task that you want to complete and do it before a task you love to complete. We all know that it is important for us to keep ourselves hydrated. However, we do not drink the required quantity of water, an example of a task that we need to do. Most of us love looking at our phone regularly. maybe it is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or we are just curious. Either way, this is a task that we love. By weaving these two tasks we can build a new habit.

You could agree to look at your phone (your reward) only after you have drunk a glass of water. To make it easier, you can place your phone below a bottle of water. This simple approach to link what you like to what you want to do but have been putting off can be combined to reinforce an action. If you plan to have a call with your colleague, then link it back to something you like to do on the phone. Say check your FB or Insta. Make it a point to call them before you open your social media app. That is the second trick.

We tend to resort to old habits as it is easy to do, and the rewards of changing are not gratifying enough for us to take that step. However, it also works the other way, and we are happy to change when the penalty of not doing so is far more than the momentary gratification. We always stop at the traffic light, even if we are in a hurry and do not break the rules. The reason being we have agreed to be part of this social norm, but more importantly, the penalty of jumping the light could be a fine, points on the license or both.

How can we use this insight to build a positive habit? We can set up an email that will go to the team members every day or every week, saying that we failed to follow through the action plan this week (i.e. call individual colleagues). If we follow through the plan, we could delete that email for that week. If not, we need to be honest and let the email go through. 

This small act will become a trigger for us to do what we set out to do. For those who are not comfortable with technology could have another colleague with whom they will make this contract. At the end of the set deadline, they could indicate to their colleague if they did follow through or not. They could agree on what the penalty would be should they fail. That is the third trick.

To sum it up,

  1. Break your plan into small tasks and create mini gratification moments for every time you complete the task
  2. Habit weaving – Combine the task you want to do with the one you like to do
  3. Implement a penalty contract should you fail to follow up on the actions.

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