Those who master their habits master their lives. That may seem simplistic, but habits are powerful because they are automatic. In other words, our habits don’t require us (i.e., our conscious selves) and that’s a double-edged sword. Our habits can make our lives wonderful, or they can make our lives miserable.
Duke University researchers found that 40% of our daily actions are habits, not consciously-made decisions. That means that for 40% of our lives, we are not in charge…an automatic routine is.
These automatic routines reliably deliver the same successes, failures, and feelings over and over again. Good habits stack, leading to money, health, love, and other good stuff. Bad habits lead to low energy, bad moods, and frustration.
If habits happen largely outside of our conscious awareness, how do we ensure that they serve us? Do some habits matter more than others? How do you get momentum in setting up habits? How do you get them to stick?
If you’re in the business of coaching or leading others, how can you leverage habits?
We’ll cover all of these questions, but let’s start with how habits form in the first place.
How Habits Form
In the 1990s, MIT researchers determined that a habit consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Once the brain links a cue directly with a reward, an automated routine unwinds. Thus, a habit is born.
When we execute a habit, activity in the brain decreases, which frees the mind for other tasks. This explains why you can drive home from work while talking on the phone with your spouse. Upon arriving home, you might not even remember anything about the trip itself.
But this same process that serves us can also hinder us, often with devastating consequences. If you’ve ever gazed at an empty bag of chips and felt regret, a habit was probably at play…not you. In the worst cases, this kind of behavior gets completely out of control. Overeaters, alcoholics, and obsessive gamblers face serious and dangerous consequences of habits gone haywire.
But just as devastating are habits of mediocrity. Living a life that’s less than our potential is boring and unfulfilling. But once we decide to change our habits, it’s no longer about us alone. That’s because our habits don’t exist in a vacuum: habits are social.
Habits Are Social
Suppose that you are shy, and you have a goal to become more outgoing. One day you come into work laughing and telling stories. But my experience of you is someone who keeps to herself. I find your behavior confusing and don’t engage you in your high-energy conversation. When you pick up on my subtle cues of confusion, you return to being the soft-spoken introvert, and I unwittingly thwart your attempt at positive change. Our shared social history works against your goals.
That’s why getting into a new social environment is so important. There’s something powerful about groups and shared experiences that reinforces new behavior. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves. But a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. That’s because we form narratives of who we are–our identity as people–in our social circles.
How Narratives and Identity Perpetuate Habits
One of the brain’s primary goals is making reality predictable, which it partly achieves by forming a self-identity. The most-powerful force in human psychology is the drive to remain consistent with that identity. To reinforce identity, we construct a narrative about “the kind of person we are,” which in turn directs our thoughts and actions. Much of this happens without our conscious participation.
Narratives do not happen in a vacuum. We create our narratives and identities within social communities. Dartmouth researchers found that successful change involves renegotiating one’s public identity. In this process, the old behavior is redefined as the “old me” and not part of the “new me.” But unless one receives positive reinforcement from other people, the “new me” is unlikely to stick.
The internet is just another social network. Reading articles, following a sports team, and gawking on Facebook reminds our brains of “the kind of people we are.” This all happens largely outside of our awareness.
As a result, much of the internet is now a place that limits human potential and growth. The sites we visit most often reinforce “old me” identities. Plus, much of the internet is in the business of distraction, for the purpose of showing ads. If we want to change as people, we need to change our internet habits, too.
Before you worry that you have to change dozens of habits all at once, I have good news. Some habits matter more than others.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the idea of “keystone habits.” When we master a keystone habit, unrelated patterns in our lives also improve.
People who start exercising tend to eat better, drink less, become more financially savvy and show more patience. Eating together as a family correlates with better study habits and higher self-confidence for kids. Making your bed every morning correlates with a greater sense of well-being and stronger budgeting skills. Keeping a daily journal correlates with stronger immune cells, reduced stress, and improved learning. And people who meditate show reduced blood pressure, increased creativity, and slower aging.
All of this is great news for coaches, especially when habit training gets combined with tracking “small wins.”
Coaching for “Small Wins”
More than any other profession, coaches are in the keystone habits business. Whether it’s teaching dumbbell exercises or how to prioritize work, coaches help their clients achieve big goals. But goals aren’t enough. Sustainable long-term success requires that the routine itself becomes rewarding.
Harvard researchers found that employees are most satisfied with their work when they see daily progress. Even minor progress can yield significant inner work life benefits. That’s why tracking progress on a daily basis is critical to coaching (and business) success.
The Harvard researchers go on to describe “small wins” and their importance to job satisfaction. Psychologists define small wins as a “steady application of a small advantage.” Small wins set forces in motion that favor more small wins, ultimately leading to big wins.
Of course, big wins for clients also lead to big wins for coaches. Let’s see just how big it can be.
Putting It All Together
Headspace is a coaching program that teaches one keystone habit: meditation. By asking users to commit to meditating for just 10 minutes a day, it’s grown to 400,000 users and more than $50 million in annual revenue.
To keep people motivated, Headspace tracks one tiny statistic: the “run streak.” A run streak is simply a count of the number of days in a row that someone enters the app and starts a meditation session. Skip a day, and Headspace resets your run streak to zero.
In the process of tracking a run streak, Headspace accomplishes multiple goals. First, their clients gain mastery of ongoing daily meditation. Second, the Headspace brand grows in the minds of users by bringing them back on a daily basis. And third, Headspace gets free promotion when their clients post screenshots of their current run streak to their friends on social media platforms.
Anyone who coaches or leads others can model Headspace’s success and track small wins. A daily 10-minute teleseminar or podcast is easy to commit to. Sales teams can kick off each morning with a daily huddle. If you have an online group coaching tool, you can track daily logins, posts, and interactions.
A Simple Plan for New Habits
I’ll end with this simple habit success formula:
- Focus on developing one or two keystone habits
- Track daily progress
- Reward small wins
- Report into a supportive social group
Make working on habits a lifelong habit.
Are you working on establishing a new habit? Do you coach others in establishing their habits? Please share your thoughts, ideas, and feedback in the comments. Thanks! – Joel