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A significant percentage of your daily activity is controlled by a golf ball sized lump of tissue toward the center of your skull referred to as the basal ganglia. While the outer portion of your brain is engaged with complex thinking, your basal ganglia controls the autopilot activities of habitual behavior. When you brush your teeth, chances are you begin and end in the same part of your mouth every time, regardless of what else you’re thinking about. When you shave, either your face or your legs, you follow carefully scripted routines that never enter your conscious thought. Were you to record this process over a matter of weeks it would not be surprising if you used almost the same number of strokes in the exact same order every time.

But habits are not limited to simple tasks. When I back out of my garage each day I have to carefully navigate the timing of a set of turns that will enable me to steer clear of the narrow garage door, avoid the pole for the basketball hoop on the other side of the driveway and position myself to head out toward the street without hitting the brick retaining wall that separates my driveway from the landscaping in my front lawn. I can do this without thinking, even while drinking coffee and talking on the phone, because over time my brain has created routines that govern the process. This is the power of habit.

The Brain Science of Habits

The brain is an energy saving machine that is constantly looking for a sequence of actions that can become an autopilot routine to save effort. Researchers at MIT have identified a three-step habit loop including a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue is some kind of trigger that tells your brain it’s time to go into autopilot and which specific habit to reference. Almost anything can be a cue—something you see, hear, think, feel, even a particular group of people.

Routines play out on a wide continuum from very simple to incredibly complex. Some emotional routines can be expressed in milliseconds without any conscious connection to the cue that triggered them. Rewards can be physical sensations resulting from food or drugs as well as emotional payloads such as pride or personal fulfillment.52

Once a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in the decision making process so as to divert energy to other tasks. And your basal ganglia, that golf ball sized lump of tissue that regulates habits, is value neutral. It can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits. The rest of your brain will have to actively engage to evaluate the habit and change the routine if deemed necessary.

Putting the Power of Habit to Work

Understanding how habits work and leveraging the power of habit can yield amazing results personally and organizationally. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells how Tony Dungy increased player performance by helping them respond automatically based on specific cues on the field.

Here’s how Tony Dungy explained his coaching philosophy, “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”53 He wanted to eliminate many of the decisions players make in a game, to enable them to leverage the power of habit to react automatically, consistently and faster than their opponents.

There is a link between willpower and the routine of habits. You increase the likelihood of a self-disciplined response to a cue by choosing in advance the sequence of actions you want to form the routine and by removing as many obstacles as possible. For Tony Dungy this was reduced to a set of reads for each player, “When you see this you do this.” They reinforced the behaviors in practice until thinking was translated into reacting faster than the opposing player.

He took Tampa Bay from the cellar to one of the league’s winningest teams and became the only coach in NFL history to reach the playoffs ten years in a row. With the Colts he became the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl.54

Starbucks actually teaches their employees a carefully scripted reaction to the cue of an angry or dissatisfied customer and they role play it in training so each person will have the self-discipline needed to allow the routine behaviors the company has chosen in advance to kick in.

You can take advantage of this same process in your personal life. My alarm goes off at 4:45am and it is a cue that triggers a simple routine. When I turn off the alarm I see my workout clothes lying on the floor by the side of my bed. This visual trigger piggy backs on the alarm and sets in motion a routine that has me on my way to the gym by a few minutes after 5 with a protein shake in hand. Some days I hardly even remember making the shake because it does not require conscious thought. It’s a habit. But it’s more than a habit. It’s what brain scientists describe as a keystone habit.

Keystone Habits

Keystone habits have a domino effect. They start a mysterious chain reaction that spills over into other aspects of our lives and our organizations. They are powerful levers that can shift and dislodge other patterns of behavior. More than ten years of research has demonstrated that habitual exercise, even as little as once a week, impacts other seemingly unrelated activities. People who exercise regularly start eating better, become more productive at work, are more patient with coworkers and family members, have less credit card debt and feel far less stress.

Other studies have shown making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being and increased likelihood of sticking with a budget.55 If you’re like me, you probably need to write your mom a thank you note; she was way ahead of her time. Researchers are unclear as to how or why Keystone habits work but the evidence is clear, some habits have a ripple effect and the benefits compound in other areas of life.

Organizations have habits much like individuals. According to Charles Duhigg, “There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought.”56 Yale professors Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter argue that while leaders think they are making choices based on a deliberative process they are in fact guided by long-held patterns of organizational habit. “Cultures grow out of keystone habits in every organization, whether leaders are aware of them or not.”57

In reflecting on the power of keystone habits in organizations I was reminded of a peculiar but unbending set of routines that were ruthlessly enforced by the CEO of a young leader training organization in which I served as Vice President of International Ministries. At the close of every work day we were required to clear our desk of all paper work leaving simply the phone and any other decorative items such as a family photo. It was perfectly OK to keep an entire drawer in the desk or credenza where these items could be placed until the following day.

Similarly, at the close of every conference room meeting, the white boards had to be cleaned and all the chairs needed to be returned to the lowest position and pushed back under the table. I still can’t get up from a meeting, regardless of where it takes place, without the urge to erase the white board and tidy the chairs. At the time I thought these were executive quirks that we simply tolerated. Looking back I wonder if they were keystone habits that reinforced a culture of excellence and professionalism that went deeper than any place I’ve ever served.

So let me close with a few questions worth considering. What cues have produced habitual responses that you should consider changing? For some it could be as simple as the chime of an incoming email that triggers a habitual disruption of higher priority work flow. Or perhaps the patterns that ensure all your meetings start ten minutes late. Explore the idea of keystone habits with your team looking for ways you could intentionally reinforce your values and culture. Where could you increase the likelihood of disciplined follow through by choosing behaviors in advance and trying to eliminate obstacles to the preferred routines? How could you reinforce these behaviors through coaching and training?

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