After reading in the The Power of Habit about how militaries or football coaches use habits to train their soldiers or players to react fast in the field, I started wondering how much of this science we could use in our everyday “pencil-pushing” or “keyboard-smashing” knowledge work?

As Charles Duhigg puts it, a habit consists of three important elements: a cue, a routine and a reward. On top of that, you need a craving to drive the loop cue-routine-reward to repeat itself. Identifying all these elements is very important for creating but also breaking (bad) habits.

So you might wonder, how would all this help us with the work we do in the office?

I think our work but also our life in general could benefit in two ways from understanding how habits work:

1. Identify and break bad habits

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I’m sure you were many times in the situation where you did something and you regreted it afterwards. Ever had a glass of wine too much? Or eaten a bit more than needed? What about checking your phone repeatedly or maybe writing emails during meetings? Have you jumped the gun and immediately agreed to something that you had doubts about just because you were too tired to say no?

All these could be seen as bad habits that you might want to avoid in the future. It seems that it is quite difficult to break a habit. Even when the results could be harmful for us. Once the habit was formed, it is there to stay forever. One way to break the habit would be to prevent the cue from happening, which implies that the habit never gets triggered. But most cues are deeply ingrained into our daily life and cannot be avoided. According to Duhigg, the best way to change a habit is to keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.

So when hunger strikes (cue), instead of eating a lot of protein and carbs (old routine), eat more veggies or simply less (new routine) and you will feel full (reward), without the food coma and extra kilos afterwards. Or when you feel bored in a meeting (cue), instead of checking your phone for notifications or writing some email that was hanging in your to do list (old routine), just to get your dopamine levels up and feel you did something (reward), while maybe missing important details or simply waste time, try to be more involved and steer the conversation in a useful direction or ask to end it early, which would in the end give you the same feeling you achieved something.

Same cue, same reward, different routine, better results.

2. Create new useful habits that would make your work and life easier

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Many people are late to meetings many times not because they cannot physically get to the place they’re expected to be at a certain time, but because they forget or they get carried away with something else. One useful habit would be to have some sort of reminder like a specific sound or image (cue), when you drop whatever you are doing (routine) and get to the meeting on time or early and feel good about it, especially useful in cultures where punctuality is a thing (reward).

I think habits can also help us avoid decision fatigue or react better when reaching it. If you could identify common decisions that you often have to make and tie them with a cue, routine and reward, so you make those decisions without really spending energy on them, you save some of that magic juice for the really important decisions. And if you are tired, try to identify a cue for this state and associate a routine and a reward that will prevent you from making rushed or bad choices.

These are some of the ideas that came into my mind while reading Charles Duhigg book. And I realise again how important self-awareness is in our life and how many more things I have to learn.