The anatomy of a habit

Friday, April 12, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 15

As humans, we would have a hard time getting through the day without our strongly ingrained habits. But as you know, some habits produce good results, some produce undesirable results.

In the case of workplace habits, it’s a good idea to consider your current inventory of habits and determine the results they are producing. Think about all the daily routines that are driven by your habits. For example, how do you handle incoming emails, phone calls, pieces of paper that flow into your office, meetings, boredom, anxiety and other triggering events with the potential to influence or alter your behavior?

But once you determine the results your habits are producing and assign a positive or negative value to each habit, what do you do next? In order to best answer this question, it’s a good idea to explore the anatomy of a habit.

All habits are made up of three parts: a trigger, a routine and a reward.

Triggers cause subsequent events. In other words, triggers launch habits. For example, feelings of boredom might launch various behavioral routines such as eating, checking emails, checking social media sites, or excessive socializing with a co-worker. That leads us to the reward.

In the end, only you can determine what functions as your reward; however, you must be getting some kind of reward for the routine that is producing undesirable results or you would discontinue the routine. For example, if you are consistently bored, responding to emails, web surfing or socializing might provide you with a sense of welcome relief from the boredom. These are tasks you can easily accomplish, and some sense of closure is a very enticing reward if you are bored. Interestingly, being overloaded can trigger the same “get some sort of closure” routines as boredom.

Here’s a usable insight related to the anatomy of a habit. One of the best ways to alter a bad habit is to identify the trigger, routine and reward and alter them in ways to produce more productive results. Think about that – it is a very powerful concept.

Even if the trigger remains the same (for example, boredom or anxiety), simply insert a new routine (stay totally focused on what you are currently doing or need to do) and keep the essence of the reward (getting closure on something).

This doesn’t have to be complicated. It might sound a bit goofy, but if the essence of the reward is a sense of closure, the reward can be as simple as placing a stroke mark on a sheet of paper every time you feel tempted to eat, surf or socialize – but instead stay focused on your top priority a bit longer. Make it a game to end up with plenty of stroke marks at the end of every day. Literally give yourself lots of positive strokes to reinforce your desired behavior. And the big reward, at the end of the day you will feel much more of a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through