The Curse of Habits

By Udeet Datta

In our last post, we spoke about the diet fad dilemma. You know the one – you have all intentions of starting anew with healthy recipes, a regular workout routine, and lots of kale smoothies. You start of strong, but slowly start slipping back into old habits. Who put that bag of potato chips there…? 

Deliberate failure? Not so much

The same thing occurs when professionals attend a leadership development course. They return to the workplace armed to the gills with new behaviors to employ within their respective teams. Week 1 shows a strong motivation to practice these new behaviors. By Week 3, old leadership habits return. Research suggests that our tendency to concede to our old ways is associated with the following cognitive effects:

  • Reduced sensitivity to changes in the environment. People’s brains will filter out information that doesn’t match expectations before it reaches conscious awareness.
  • Reduced information seeking. People will avoid seeking further information—especially information that might challenge comfortable, habitual ways of responding to a situation.
  • Using less complex decision-making rules. Despite complex conditions, people frequently fall back on simpler heuristics in an effort to deny what can be overwhelming complexity.
  • Confirmation bias. As habits develop, people form expectations for certain outcomes and are more likely to unquestioningly accept those outcomes when they occur in the future. This is accompanied by a tendency to place greater weight on evidence that confirms our beliefs and discount evidence that rejects our beliefs.

It should be no surprise then that with the above-mentioned factors lead to our brains automatically creating resistance to incorporating new information (like making time for the gym or eating new foods).

Breaking the habit

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Breaking a habit is harder than it seems. Consider this:

  • A study of 200 “New Year’s Resolutioners” found that only 19% successfully maintained new habits for 2 years.
  • Smoking cessation research shows that even after 12 months of continuous abstinence, 43% of individuals return to regular smoking.
  • Seventy percent of individuals who successfully quit illicit drug use, cigarette smoking, or problem drinking return to their old behaviors within a year.
  • Between 1/3 and 2/3 of dieters regain the weight they have lost within 4 or 5 years.

Deeper than motivations

This personal goal to get healthy is no small endeavor. The same applies to becoming a better first-line, or senior, manager. The failure to achieve this goal of becoming better is usually ascribed to quick excuses like laziness or a lack of willpower.

The truth is that during the process of making, or breaking a habit, we usually fail despite our best intentions, not due to a lack of them. Research shows that, when we have strong habits, our motivations, goals, and intentions only weakly relate to the behavior that we actually carry out.18 In other words, something outside of our conscious awareness is driving our behavior. 19

To truly understand how this works and how to overturn this to your benefit, one must consider the general decision-making process we go through when we are trying to achieve a goal or develop a new habit. It usually starts with activating this pre-planned goal. To begin with, you instil cues to ensure you adhere to the actions required of you to fulfil this goal. In our diet fad example, the cues instilled would include the healthy ingredients bought, recipes stored or even running shoes placed within vision so you are always conscious of making time for the gym.

In the area of developing leadership behavior change, the goal you set may be to increase communication within your team. The cue you instill is a post-it note on your desk so you see this every day when you step to you desk i.e. “Communicate Effectively Today, Everyday!”.

Keep your eyes peeled for more blog posts in this series on how to effectively sustain new leadership behaviors.

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