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The power of habit and how to interrupt that power

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The power of habit and how to interrupt that power

Scott Miker

Habits are very important parts of our lives.  Psychologists have estimated that up to 95% of our lives are controlled by habit.

Habit dictates more than just the commonly thought of behaviors like biting fingernails or smoking cigarettes.  Habit controls our behavior much more than this.  It dictates how we get through the routines in our day.  It tells us how to do everyday tasks such as driving a car.  It even controls how we think and the patterns of thought that then strongly influence our behavior.

Most of the articles I write are about how to unlock that power to build new positive habits.  This is the systems thinking guide to self-improvement.  It uses a leverage point in the system (habit) and then finds ways to focus our efforts there for maximum success over the long term. 

But sometimes we don’t need to build a new habit, or even replace a current habit but we need to break a current habit or routine to make a slight change.  We have to take our brain off of autopilot for a second to do something different.

Some people think this is easy.  They argue that it is just a matter of paying attention more or “using your brain”.  They say that it is effort based and that if we want to change we could. 

But really there is much more than what we glean from a surface level look.  Once a routine is built and solidified over and over, it creates the neural pathways so that the brain uses that blueprint to keep doing things just as they do today.  Making a slight change isn’t nearly as easy as you might think.

Yesterday I was driving after dropping my daughters off at my parents’ house for the day and heading to a restaurant with my wife.  Leaving my parents’ house, I find that 90% of the time I drive the same direction towards the highway and ultimately on to 71 north highway towards my house.  But the restaurant was south of them.

Not thinking too much about the drive and conversing with my wife about our upcoming lunch and other random discussions, I started out just as if I was headed towards my house.  I started to veer over to 71 north and quickly snapped out of it.  I jerked the wheel slightly to avoid the onramp and said, “what the heck am I doing, we are going to the restaurant, not home!”

My wife had a laugh and I turned around at the next driveway and corrected my error.  But this is exactly the kind of routine that we often expect others to change seamlessly.  It seems easy and basic from the outside.  But really the autopilot of our brain is so strong that unless we break the “trance” of habit we will continue to do things just as we do today.

I currently work as an operations manager at a small home medical equipment repair company.  I work to systematize the operations and get the business ready for growth.  In order to scale a company, we have to put in place the best operational systems and processes.

While doing this work, I find that we come across this exact problem.  We determine one of our customers has a unique need, which means the technicians have to treat a particular unit differently than the others.

This can be extremely difficult.  After years of doing the same thing over and over and over, we now want some small, subtle change implemented. 

What we found was exactly the same thing as what I found when driving.  Unless we have a way to grab their consciousness for a moment to have them look and analyze something differently, mistakes will start to pile up and frustration will build. 

At work we have done this several different ways.  We implement steps within the process where they have to “think” for a moment and analyze something before continuing.  This gives us a chance to get into that autopilot mode to make changes.

But we can take similar action at home if there are autopilot habits that we want to change.  Years ago I was horrible at remembering birthdays.  I would always forget until someone reminded me.  Even if I were reminded a week prior it still wouldn’t enter my awareness enough to remember on the actual day. 

So I started to use a calendar differently.  I started to use it to keep track of a lot of different information that was important to remember, such as an upcoming birthday.  The habit that I broke (or created depending on how you look at it) was to use the calendar and check it every single day.  I added enough info to make it worthwhile and I got into the habit of checking it all the time. 

This helped me schedule out bills that have to be paid, keep track of appointments, notate when I would need to change oil in my lawnmower, remind me to occasionally do something nice for my wife (by using the recurring event functions) and much much more. 

Suddenly this slight change to my routine forces me to take a brief second to look at something and think.  Then I can use that interrupting thinking and put in reminders for almost anything. 

So if there are simple tasks that somehow seem to go undone, try to look for the autopilot mode.  This likely will show you where you built up strong habits.  Then look for a way to systematically break your consciousness during that habit, enough to then incorporate a change.  It seems simple, but because of the power of habit, it requires more focus and energy than most people realize.