Whether our goal is zero inbox, less time on Facebook during work, or the completion of projects well before deadline, many of us have plans for a more productive 2018 through better business habits.
But there’s a big elephant in the room: habit change is hard.
It takes more than two months to change the typical habit, according to research by the European Journal of Social Psychology, and that’s longer than most people can go before they slip back to old patterns.
We see a version of this all the time with customers who embark on ambitious productivity drives at the beginning of the year only to drift back to their old ways of doing things after a few weeks.
The good news is that while habit change is slow, it can succeed if approached thoughtfully. Here are five keys for making those new business habits stick.
1. Replace Instead of Erase
The first key for making new business habits stick is recognizing that white-knuckling your way to new habits doesn’t usually work. If you’re looking to stop a negative habit, don’t plan on just stopping it. Instead, replace the old habit with a new, more productive one.
Just because you want to stop doing something, that doesn’t mean that the trigger that causes it goes away. Nor does your reflex to engage in the behavior.
So if your goal is not having email cluttering your the inbox, for instance, don’t just try and exercise willpower to erase the old habit of leaving messaging sitting there until they are addressed. Instead, replace the old habit with a new, more positive one.
In the case of a clean inbox, that might mean handling simple emails right away and flagging those that require more time.
2. Lessen the Activation Energy with Chunking
We avoid tough stuff. That’s just the way most of us are wired. This tendency is the scourge of new habit formation, however.
Every task requires what psychologists call “activation energy.” Easy tasks like clicking a button to import a prospect’s contact information take only a little activation energy. Manually entering contact information or writing a report take more energy.
Lessening the activation energy of a new habit is critical for long-term adoption, and the way to get there is through breaking new habits into small pieces that take less energy and are easy to complete. This is called “chunking.”
If your new business habit is writing a weekly blog, for instance, chunk it down so the habit is less daunting. Instead of writing the whole article in one go, you might lower the activation energy by writing only one section at a time—or one paragraph, even, if writing comes hard.
3. Stack Habits
A third key for building lasting habits is tying them to other habits that already are ingrained.
The idea is simple but startlingly effective. Starting a new habit or routine often fails because it isn’t automatic. So instead of muscling a new habit into your life and hoping it becomes automatic through practice, you can stack a new habit on top of an old habit that already is firmly anchored in your life.
A good example is following up on sales leads. If you start the year resolving to call sales leads every day, it probably won’t work because you don’t have the habit. But if you stack the sales call habit on top of your reliable mid-afternoon snack, making calls before you get the snack, your chances of building this habit are exponentially more likely.
4. Reinforce with Visual Cues
Like a startup, a new habit exists in a tenuous position until it becomes established. During this initial launch, habits can easily get lost or forgotten. That’s why visual cues help a lot.
A good visual cue supports your new habit by reminding you to start, showing your progress, and fueling motivation to take action.
A classic example is the stockbroker who used a jar of paperclips to represent the number of calls he wanted to make per day. The stockbroker put 120 paperclips in a jar, and he took one out every time he made a call. This reminded him to make the calls, showed his progress, and built motivation by gamifying the new habit.
5. Don’t Break the Chain
Establishing a streak also helps with getting past that tenuous early stage of habit formation. While the first few times you practice a new habit, sheer willpower might be enough. There’s a dangerous middle ground between those first few times and habit formation, however, and that’s where establishing a streak can help.
The idea is clearly tracking every time you practice the new habit and making sure you never miss a day. After the first few days of the new habit, keeping the streak alive becomes an important incentive for not skipping a day and breaking the cycle.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used this technique to good effect. When he was a young comic, he built his repertoire by writing one joke per day. To establish the habit, he put up a giant wall calendar and would cross off each day that he successfully wrote a joke. This became a streak he didn’t want to break, and that built the habit for Seinfeld.
Many new business habits require more than just a wall calendar, however, especially if you’re working with a distributed workforce or your new habits center around better team management.
Building new business habits is hard. But it can be done. You just need to get smart about how you support that early habit formation.
Did I miss anything? Tell me your best habit formation tips below.