Hacking Habits

The hyper-complexities of today’s interconnected world require us to adapt to life’s changing contexts and grow in meaningful ways to actualize our potential. This in turn requires objective examination of our habits, especially the negative patterns of thought and behavior.

BY HRH Princess Noor Bint Asem

We‘re all creatures of habit, and once a habit is formed it takes root and requires focused effort and discipline to change. The good news is we now have new insights about habits, and we can exercise cognitive techniques that facilitate positive behavioral change.

Habits are the programs of the repetitive routines of thought and behavior that collectively form our lives. For instance, every morning I make a cup of coffee. Over time a pattern formed where making my morning coffee stopped being a conscious decision and became an automatic behavior—that is, it became a habit.

Some studies have shown that around 40 percent of our daily actions are based on habits and not on conscious decisions. These automatic behaviors save a lot of time and energy, but the default modes of behavior can sometimes limit our growth as we can form negative habits such as smoking, over-indulging, procrastinating, and an inability to listen or delegate effectively.

As the brain aims to perform tasks more efficiently, it quickly turns as many undertakings as possible into habitual acts. These acts are then performed in an automatic fashion without much thought going into the process so the brain can move on to learn new things. In creating a habit we need a new task. When we engage in the task, the brain is working hard to adapt to the challenge at hand and learn the new behavior. As we repeatedly engage in the task, the brain no longer needs to work as hard to achieve it and the behavior becomes automatic. According to Charles Duhiig, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power of Habit, this is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form.

Duhiig attributes the formation of habits to a cyclical repetition of events that begin with an intention followed by a simple cycle of cue-routine-reward. This is known as the Habit Loop. A simple example of this is when your alarm goes off in the morning (cue), you get up and jump into the shower (routine), and then you feel fresh and awake (reward).

Habits form when the cue and reward get interconnected in a cycle of anticipation and craving, creating a powerful cyclical bond. Therefore, to hack or break a habit one must disrupt this cycle by breaking the hardwired bond between the cue and reward. In order to do so the cue and reward are kept the same while the routine linking the two is changed.

The key to breaking a habit is to uncover the habit cycle and correctly isolate the trigger and reward, and then experiment with the new routine. The new routine should make sense and be appropriate for the context. For example, a smoker who’s triggered by a feeling of anxiety and is rewarded with a sense of calm when they light up would be ill advised to change the routine to running a mile because they’re unlikely to actually get up and run every time they feel a craving for a cigarette. However, engaging in a couple of minutes of mindful breathing could give them the reward they are seeking and can be easily done in any context.

The process of habit hacking is like an art in that it feeds on an attitude of openness, curiosity, and experimentation. While success in habit hacking involves the intellectual understanding of how the habit works, it also needs discipline and willpower to follow through until the desired behavior becomes a new habit.

When we think of habits we tend to think of individuals. However, we must not forget that cultural and systemic change demands that we also look at collective habits within organizations. In this sense, organizations have a dual responsibility.

First, they must create a safe space in which employees feel empowered and are equipped with the right tools and support systems to tackle negative habits. This could be incorporated into the human resources policy and employee development programs that support the development of behavioral fitness and healthy work-life balance. Second, organizations must develop self-awareness through which organizational habits are objectively examined. These habits show up in the processes and operational models, along with their underlying assumptions, through which an organization captures or creates value for its stakeholders. Self-awareness of organizational habits is an enabler of evolutionary change through continuous improvement, and of revolutionary change through innovation. Accordingly, organizational improvement and innovation can be thought of as organizational habit hacking.

It’s crucial for leaders within organizations to understand the role of habits and the importance of behavioral fitness, of which habit hacking is an integral part, in transforming individuals and consequently organizations. This nurtures a culture of positivity and effective leadership in alignment with the organizations values and beliefs.