Habits: How to succeed on automatic pilot

“Behaviour is the mirror in which everyone shows their image”
airliner cockpit

A habit is a routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. The reason habits matter is that once established, they are more or less automatic, which makes for great economy of action, i.e. it becomes very easy to act in a particular way. So, habits make us highly efficient – we can act without having to engage in conscious thought or to undertake time-consuming self-analysis. With the right set of habits we can succeed at any number of things more or less on autopilot!

If you don’t have a ‘habit’, each time there is a beneficial (but potentially challenging) thing to do, you have to make a conscious act of will to do it. This involves expending emotional energy on the decision process, rather than allowing the habit to take the strain. For example, “I take the stairs rather than the escalator – because that is what I do – that is my habit – that is who I am – I do not allow myself the choice to do otherwise – ever.” (Note that the rationale for taking the action is no longer there – it is not needed. All that is needed is obedience to the habit.)

There is, of course, a ‘dark’ side to all this. The unconscious, spontaneous aspect of habits can potentially make it easy to do things that benefit us (getting things done, exercising, meditating) but it is just as easy to repeatedly and unthinkingly do things that harm us (smoking, procrastinating, lethargy). The neurological process that creates habits does not distinguish between good and bad; it takes an act of conscious will to promote beneficial ones and extinguish the harmful ones. Sadly, as most of us know, old habits are very hard to break, and new habits are very hard to form because the behavioural patterns we repeat are imprinted in our neural pathways, so mastering our habits takes perseverance.

Habit loops

Charles Duhigg in the The Power of Habit notes that habits have a three-part structure:

  1. A Cue: A ‘signal’ that triggers the start of the behaviour (e.g. putting your running shoes by your front door; you see the shoes and think ‘run’!)
  2. A Routine: Engaging in the behaviour (going for the run)
  3. A Reward: The pay-off from engaging in the behaviour (the rush of endorphins that comes from doing exercise, enjoying the sense of achievement that comes from completing a task).

The best way to remove a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. So, the first step is to notice what ‘cues’ a negative behaviour (e.g. feeling bored), which initiates a ‘bad’ routine (e.g. eating a chocolate bar) and then change cues and/or routines to improve the situation. E.g. for the cue of ‘feeling bored’ we might adopt a new, more positive routine e.g. surf the Internet, phone a friend (rather than eat chocolate). Of course, it takes a conscious effort to establish the new habit; making improvements takes will power! In fact, Lally et al. (Journal of Social Psychology 2010) found the average time to establish a ‘habit’ was 66 days, with a range of 18–254 days.

Keystone habits

In terms of developing new habits one big idea is the notion of a ‘Keystone Habit’; these are ‘super habits’ that influence behaviours in a wide range of situations (i.e. it’s a habit that affects your entire life.) Keystone habits can be identified by asking the question: “What’s the one thing, which if I did it consistently, would have the most benefit in my life?” E.g. exercise more, eat better, stop smoking, improve my sleep hygiene, show more affection to my partner, embrace opportunities, do public speaking etc. And then frame that ‘topic’ as a specific goal that can become an automatic routine e.g. “I’ll walk 10,000 steps every day.”

One example that the research highlights as a keystone habit is exercise, because typically someone who keeps fit also eats reasonably healthily and sleeps soundly. Another is meditation. Research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggests that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, show stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy (i.e. meditation can make your brain bigger and faster). So, one ‘keystone habit’ for people who commute on public transport could be to take a few minutes on each journey to close their eyes and meditate. Or for people who drive to work it might make sense to leave a little early, park and spend a few minutes in the car meditating before going into the office.

Bright lines and rituals

In legal contracts there is the concept of having ‘bright lines’, or clear, unambiguous boundaries; so it is obvious and unarguable whether or not something has, or hasn’t, been done. For example ‘stay hydrated’ or ‘get more sleep’ are fuzzy lines, while ‘drink a litre of water a day’ or ‘go to bed at 11pm every evening’, are clear, bright lines. In setting new habits it really helps to adopt bright lines. And, as far as habits as concerned, the brightest line is if you agree to do something (even for just a few minutes) each and every day, as opposed to, say, twice a week.

Rituals (highly specific behaviours, done at precise times of the day) are one type of ‘bright line’. They are a highly effective way of avoiding work overload as they can be used to ‘programme’ in breaks, pauses, and ‘re-set’ moments into the day. For example, a ritual might be that you go to bed at the same time every night so that you consistently get enough sleep, or exercise as soon as you wake up to be sure you get exercise, even when you don’t feel like it. One ritual that’s commonly taught as part of a time management programme (it’s certainly part of our training) is at the end of each work day to write down the most important task to accomplish the following day; something you’ll do as soon as you get back into work in the morning i.e. before doing anything else. Or you could take advice from Thanh Pham, the productivity blogger, and develop a ritual around “clearing to neutral”, by which he means clearing up at the end of any activity before starting the next task, e.g. put away equipment, or files, or wash up the pans, so that everything is ready to ‘go’ the next time you start that task.

Micro actions (too small to fail)

The smaller the daily goals or challenges you set for yourself when conditioning a new habit, the easier it is to keep going past the 66 day mark, when it’s likely to have become automatic and unconscious. So Stephen Guise in his book Mini Habits suggests that you make your goals ‘stupid small’, so small that it’s almost impossible not to do it. Of course the idea is that if you start with just one tiny step, that gives you the impetus to do much more than that. An example in the book, for the keystone habit of exercise, is that rather than specify that you’ll do 30 minutes of exercise each day, just commit to doing one ‘press-up’, or one ‘sit-up’, or one minute of stretching. Yes, just one. Once you’ve done that one you can then, if you like, do ‘bonus exercises’. He argues the key is to develop momentum for making a change and that means making things ‘too small to fail’. So, don’t say you’ll do ten sales or marketing phone calls each day; just commit to doing one. Don’t say you’ll start reading for pleasure ten minutes each evening; just commit to one minute. Don’t say you’ll become tidier and better organised; just clear out one shelf, or one desk drawer. Don’t say you’ll manage your team better; just give one piece of feedback (positive or constructive) each workday.

Habits that drive competitive advantage

One way of using ‘habits’ is to drive corporate culture. This is best done by choosing one simple, but core (keystone) behaviour and ask all employees to make it part of their normal routine. So, Lisa Earle McLeod in her 2012 book Selling with Noble Purpose, argues that driving sales revenue involves having a focus on what your product or service can do for customers (a Noble Sales Purpose). For McLeod this involves thinking about three issues:

  1. How your product helps customers
  2. How you’re different from your competitors
  3. Your emotional commitment to helping customers
    (why you care about what you do).

And once that focus is in place she suggests identifying a specific behaviour that supports that ‘purpose’, and this ‘habit’ should be something that:

  • Takes less than a minute
  • Everyone in the company can do
  • There are no excuses for not doing it

For example, Boston University have a policy that no member of staff should ever walk past people on their campus who are looking at a map, or appear to be visibly lost. They should stop, introduce themselves, and ask if they can help. This single policy sends a message to everyone, both inside and outside the organisation, that the culture of the University is to be helpful, and that the institution places a high priority on interpersonal interactions. This simple ‘habit’ encourages employees of every level to personally connect with students and their parents (customers), and empathise with them.

A focus on Safety in the workplace can be a ‘keystone habit’ that can drive profits and productivity. When Paul O’Neil became CEO of Alcoa in 1987 investors were surprised at the emphasis he placed on safety and ensuring ‘proper procedures’. O’Neill changed the company’s operation structure so that any time an employee got hurt, the senior members of the department had to deliver a plan to O’Neill showing how the injury would never happen again. Executives who didn’t embrace this keystone habit were fired or not promoted.

The knock-on effects of forcing people to pay attention to details, and making improvements that this focus on a safety culture engendered, saw costs fall, and quality improve. In fact by the time O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa’s profits had quintupled.

The seven habits

One of the best-known books on effective habits in business, and in life, must surely be Stephen Covey’s (1932-2012) multimillion selling;
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). It could be argued that most of the ‘success behaviours’ that Covey lists are not habits in the technical sense of the term as they are broad concepts, and insufficiently ‘routine/automatic’. But they can certainly form the basis for a series of more specific habits and rituals that will drive good performance and create a sense of fulfilment.

The seven habits are:

  1. Be Proactive – Take responsibility for how your life is; make choices and take action to make things how you want them
  2. Keep the End in Mind – Define meaningful goals; be clear about what you want (Covey calls this the habit of personal leadership – having a focus for your actions)
  3. First Things First – Organise your time and energy around executing your key priorities
  4. Think Win-Win – Look for mutual benefit in all interactions; cooperation with other people tends to get better results than trying to ‘beat’ them
  5. Seek First to Understand and Then to be Understood – Listen closely to what people are saying and when you’ve fully understood their view have your say (diagnose before you prescribe)
  6. Synergise – Cooperate by respecting differences and build on strengths; use teamwork to do much more than you could accomplish alone
  7. Sharpen the Saw – Continuously look to strengthen your body, heart, mind, and soul

So what’s next?

Record the habits you already have, and how they work for (or against) you. As habits (once formed) are automatic it’s useful to take the time to consciously examine what you’re doing and assess the pro’s and con’s of your set routines.

Ask yourself: “What’s the one thing, which if I did it consistently, would have the most benefit in my life?” And create a ‘bright line’ goal based on your answer.


Read… Smart Change: Five tools to create new and sustainable habits in yourself and others, Art Markham (TarcherPerigee, January 2014)


Watch… this three minute clip of Charles Duhigg giving an overview on ‘the power of habits’…
See video clip

Consider sending your managers on our half-day workshop on Practical Time Management as a great way of helping them adopt habits for improved personal effectiveness…
View Practical Time Management

If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session would be a useful option for helping you develop some good habits, rid yourself of some bad ones, and maybe identify a ‘keystone habit’ for the organisation as a whole?
View ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching

And remember…

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap
a habit; sow a habit, reap a character;
sow a character, reap a destiny.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People