How Habits Influence The Way we Work

How habits influence the way we work is part of The Power of Work series of Allihoopa. Read it completely and entirely for free by clicking on the link above.

Whether you like to work or not, strongly depends on your past. That is because the real key to reaching every goal by hard work is habits. We all have them. And while an ever beating heart and automatically breathing lungs are the operating system of our body, habits are the operating system of our minds. Therefore it’s important to find out how habits influence the way we work.

This little fellow here is Brownie. Brownie came to our household when he was handed over to an animal shelter because he was old, fat, and the previous owner didn’t want him anymore. If nobody had taken Brownie, he would have been put to sleep within seven days. A year earlier, we had already adopted a somewhat unsocial terrier lady, whose previous owners didn’t want her anymore because she killed the chickens on their farm.

And she was a true example of the “small dog syndrome” – that is 50% of the time shaking in fear of bigger dogs and 50% of the time yapping at smaller dogs and probably threatening to kill them in dog language. So we were a bit hesitant with exposing Brownie to her. But as nobody offered him a foster home, we decided that  we could not be partly responsible for Brownie’s death just because our terrier was a natural born killer (and his previous owner an asshole). 

So despite our unsocial terrier already, my girlfriend and I decided to provide Brownie at least with a temporary home and see how he would get along with our dog. Brownie had acquired quite some bad habits over the years with his previous owner. He was used to eating bacon, sausages, and hash browns. He followed us on every step, checking what we eat and making us well aware that he would like to dig in too, whenever we ate something. And whenever he saw skin, he started to lick it.

This was especially interesting, when we came from the shower, only to find his tongue covered our feet and legs in a coating of gluey saliva and providing us with exactly the feeling of cleanliness you want to have after a shower. And led to us hiding away from Brownie as well as possible, whenever we felt the need for non-sticky skin.

Obviously this had to change. Brownie had to lose weight. And when we gave him the dietary food prescribed by the vet, he wouldn’t even look at it. Brownie was in the habit of eating whatever he wanted by being extra friendly (some might say pushy) and kissing/licking his way to it. But what does Brownie’s behavior have to do with us humans? 

Habits Are at The Core of Mammal Animals

Habits are a feature that is present in all mammal animals, such as dogs, cows, and humans. It appears as though this has not degraded over time, so the reason why Brownie was overweight, are the same reasons why we are overweight. In Brownie’s excuse, we must blame his previous owner for his behavior – a luxury excuse, we human beings can unfortunately not come up with so easily.

While Brownie learned from his previous owner that he will get his sausage if he is just persistent enough, human-beings usually create these unhealthy habits themselves. Although many of our habits are also melted into us by society and our upbringing.

The reason why the story of Brownie is such a nice analogy is because it was a dog who helped us discover conditioning. Originally in 1879, Dr. Ivan Pavlov, who later won a nobel-prize for his findings, wanted to do a study on the digestive glands and therefore performed experiments on dogs. He analysed their saliva and found out that interestingly, their saliva production was already increasing before they were fed.

We probably all know this feeling, when our mouths are literally watering from the look at our favorite food. Pavlov, however, went one step further. He started to repeatedly ring a bell when the food was presented to the dogs. After enough repetition of this process, he realised that the ringing of the bell alone was sufficient to have the dog’s mouth water.

So the food was not longer required. The dogs were conditioned that the bell was equivalent with the food and their bodies reacted as though the actual food was presented.  

So the concept that two unrelated stimuli can be linked together after just enough repetition and then the reaction that would originally have occurred for the first stimulus does also happen when only the second stimulus is presented, is known as classical conditioning.  

Habits Are a Result of Conditioning

Habits are created by conditioning. They form over time, when we repeat the same reaction to a trigger over and over again. And the more often this happens, the more subconscious our behavior becomes when we find ourselves exposed to such a trigger. 

Now, obviously we don’t think much about all the good habits that we have acquired over time. Just look at children and you will see the difference. If a child thinks something, they just talk about it publicly. My mother is blessed with a rather bigger nose, and sometimes told us somewhat shocked about encounters in the local supermarket, where a child would point at her, asking its mother: “Mum, is this woman a witch? She’s got such a big nose!”.

Obviously my mother wasn’t impressed, but the child was just not yet conditioned to consider other people’s feelings when talking about them in their presence. But we don’t even need to go that far. Just think about young children just have this feeling of peeing and pooping wherever they please. Most of us don’t do that anymore. 

We have acquired the habit of holding our pee, poop, and words until it’s appropriate. So here are the habits that we have created during our childhood. We don’t even consider to let it flow when we feel the urge of urinating. Our habit is to hold it as long as we find an appropriate place, like a toilet.

On the less positive side, however, we likely have also acquired some negative habits. Such as watching TV in the evenings, procrastinating important tasks until they are terribly urgent, biting our nails, smoking cigarettes, drinking a beer after work, or finding excuses for not reaching the goals we would like to reach.

As mentioned above, one of the key-features of habits is that they happen automatically. So once a trigger situation happens, an automatic response is provided and usually followed by us. When we feel emotionally challenged, we almost automatically react by grabbing the pack of cigarettes or a piece of candy. When we enter the kitchen, we automatically open the fridge to check what immediate gratification is available.  

The more (and longer) we follow this response, the more the habit strengthens. And the stronger the habits, the more independent they are from the incentive value of their outcomes. This means, in the beginning you might have smoked a cigarette because you thought it would calm you down. 

So you expected a reward from it and did it consciously. However, once it became a habit, you automatically smoked when the trigger situation occurred, without requiring the reward or even considering your options.

Habits Don’t Require Self-Discipline

A habit won’t require self-control or rewards for us to follow it. And this is where the importance of habits can be understood. If you have created a habit that makes you enjoy healthy food and working out, or a habit that makes you regularly work hard on some tasks, it won’t be work anymore. 

On the other hand, if you have created habits that make you start tasks without finishing them, become easily distracted, or indulge in unhealthy food or maybe even addictive substances, then this happens without effort too.

The good thing about habits is that they can be changed. We can make it a habit to work out, learn, write, and constantly work on our goals. A good metaphor is a walk in the jungle. As children, we have to beat and cut our way through the densely grown jungle. 

After time we have cut out quite a nice little path, and the more often we walk this little path, the more it becomes a little road. And sooner than we think, we have a proper, comfortable way through the jungle and naturally use it. This is how we condition our minds too. 

And the road you might have created in the past, is the road of delaying your work, biting your nails, smoking a cigarette, or regularly letting yourself get distracted by checking funny cat videos on the internet when you should really be doing more important things. 

Now if we want to change our habit, we will have to leave this comfortable road and start cutting a new path through the jungle. You can imagine how much work that is. We basically destroy years of work that established the big, comfortable road in favor of going back to a child-like state and forcefully beating down this new track, and walking it often enough to allow it to become a new road.

The less often we use the old way, the more the jungle will take it back. It will take time, though. And there is always the chance that we accidentally mistake the old way for the new one, or just prefer to take the old way because it’s more comfortable than having to cut the head of that annoying carnivorous plant off, that keeps growing on our new path for some reason.

So forming new habits initially takes a lot of hard work. But this is work that pays off well. As once we have created the new habit, following it won’t take much of an effort anymore. And this is very important to remember, when frustration about our new habit formation mounts. 

We need to keep in mind that it will not require the same amount of work forever. Much like time spent in an apprenticeship or degree programme, we just need to enforce our new habit long enough and eventually everything will happen automatically.

Just, how long does it take to form a new habit? Dr. Phillippa Lally performed a study in which the time it takes for new habits to be formed was examined. In her study a new habit was in 95% of the cases followed automatically after a range between 18 and 254 days, with an average of 66 days. 

We need to be mindful, however, that the group of participants was by far too small to allow for general conclusions. However, she also found out that if one opportunity was missed to perform the new behaviour, the habit formation was not affected. 

So, if you make the mistake of traveling on the old jungle road one time by accident, you don’t have to start from the beginning. Lally also noted that the habit formation process follows an asymptotic curve the more often it is repeated. And if you are not sure what that is, check the picture. This makes it clear that the more we follow our new behavior, the more automatic it becomes. 

So, getting up at 5:00 am to go jogging for an hour might be hard on day one, and almost as hard on day two and three, but over the following days, it gets less and less difficult and on day thirty, it might already be part of our daily routine without us having to exert a lot of willpower.

You Can Get Every Habit You Want

So what can we make of this? Well, first of all, we have sufficient scientific evidence to proof that if we want to change a habit, we can get rid of the thoughts that we will perceive following the new habit as work forever. I guess that will already help as a big motivational booster. 

If you want to get into the habit of taking care of your finances, you can simply dedicate thirty minutes to your financial budget each day. And while it may be a lot of work in the beginning, you will earlier or later not consider it as work anymore. And the same goes for healthy eating, getting up early, working extra hours, working out, or giving up on smoking or drinking.

We know from the study of Lally that the amount of time it takes to get to a high automaticity of the new behavior varies greatly. And this is surely also dependent on the individual and the habit that is being formed. Without looking at the data to proof it, I would argue that addictions such as a nicotine might take longer to beat, than starting to jog for instance.

And that especially since jogging is an addiction in itself, when the body releases its internal drugs called endorphins. These endorphins also get released when success is achieved, so looking back at the Approach and Avoidance goals, this might be another argument why some habits (i.e. giving up smoking is an avoidance goal) are more difficult to break, while other habits (i.e. jogging is an approach goal) might be easier.

But with all these individual differences put aside, it is still clear that earlier or later we will reach a high automaticity. So this can help us to stay on track even if it might take one year of willpower and hard work. As long as we keep on repeating the new behavior, it will eventually become a habit.