Turning the Power of Habits to Your Advantage

March 17, 2014

My previous post, “Why the Push-Back on Creativity?” suggested that we as engineers could work smarter and be more creative and innovative if we learned and applied brain basics. I asked for help in understanding why that idea generates so much push-back from the engineering community. Reader response ranged from extreme skepticism about my proposition (which, as the title suggested, was expected) to many helpful comments about what might drive the push-back. Here I offer an example of how leaders can use brain basics to improve their effectiveness and, by example and mentoring, the effectiveness of others.

Habits – What Are They?

Let’s consider a practical application of brain basics – in this case habits, those involuntary behaviors controlled by the subconscious mind. How much of what we do is habitual? Studies by neurobiologists, cognitive psychologists, and others indicate that from 40 to 95% of human behavior – how we think, what we say, our overall actions – falls into the habit category. If we select a conservative 50%, we are on automatic pilot half the time. Have you driven your car a few blocks and suddenly realized you couldn’t recall having done so? Your driving was largely habit, and your subconscious mind was “at the wheel.”

 You may be thinking, “That’s fine for routine activities, but certainly not when dealing with serious matters! When designing, preparing proposals, and making important decisions, I am always concentrated and focused.” But lo and behold, research says no! Much of what you do, including your professional work, is heavily driven by habits.

 Clearly, habits can be “good” and “bad”; both kinds sneak up and capture us. Investigative reporter and author Charles Duhigg explains that habits are “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.” In other words, when you contemplate any of your habits – good and bad – you realize you learned them, which means you can unlearn them, or better yet, replace them. Let’s explore what neuroscience can teach us about this promising unlearning/replacing idea.

 The Cue-Routine-Result Process

BlogWhen we are in the habit mode, our subconscious mind – not our conscious mind – directs our behavior using the cue-routine-result process. We subconsciously see or experience a cue, such as feeling thirsty in mid-afternoon; we initiate a routine, such as buying a soft drink; and we receive a result, such as feeling good. Another example of the habit process might be that we meet a potential client (cue), start talking about ourselves (routine), and experience a frustrating indifference (result). The cue-routine-result process, which is essentially controlled by the subconscious mind, is the key to understanding habits and their results. If we are not pleased with some of the results, such as consuming too much sugar or failing at marketing, this virtue-neutral  3-step process enables us to change the habits, as we’ll now see.

 Changing or Replacing Habits

Consider a method that you might have used in your life for unlearning what you consider a “bad” habit and replacing it with a desired “good” habit. That method is based on the cue-routine-result process, in which new habits are developed through many repetitive cue-routine-result cycles.

 Let’s revisit the previously mentioned unproductive meet-a-potential-client scenario with this in mind. This scenario is not working for you. It’s a bad habit. Starting today, when you experience the cue of meeting a potential client, try to remember to enter a new routine, like asking questions of him or her. Then try to note and remember the result. That one-time change will not be easy, and you are very far from replacing your bad habit with a new habit. You must persist.

 The next time you experience the cue, you must faithfully repeat the new routine, or refine it, and follow through. No, I don’t know how many cycles you will need, but many. My rule of thumb is 30 days of successful repetitions. Eventually, your subconscious mind learns the new habit. The payoff is that you automatically, habitually, productively go into a question-asking mode when meeting a potential client. Stress declines and marketing performance improves.

 There Must Be an Easier Way

You may be thinking, “I like this good-habit idea. Habitually practicing productive behaviors – being on smart automatic pilot – appeals to me. However, learning a habit by this tedious, cyclical process seems burdensome. That reminds me of how I learned how to use a keyboard, play the trombone, or drive a car. Therefore, I’m going to circumvent the cycle and simply think myself or talk myself from some bad habits into some good habits.”

 Sorry, won’t work. Your subconscious mind is illiterate – you can’t talk to it. As stated by Neal Martin, author of the book Habit (2008), “The habitual mind is nonverbal, so it doesn’t learn by reading or listening to an explanation. It learns unconsciously through associating an action with an outcome.” In other words, habits are learned via the tedious cue-routine-result cycle.

 The Long View

If the possibility of habit creation or change interests you, then consider the long-term potential for you as a leader and mentor, that is, one who positively influences others. Philosopher and psychologist William James explains the potential this way: “Small, seldom-seen habits have the power to bear us irresistibly toward our destiny.” Because of what you now know about one aspect of the workings of your brain, you have the ability to form positive “small, seldom-seen habits” that profoundly affect your life and those of others.

 Some brain basics at work for you – and the application of those basics is just the tip of the applied neuroscience iceberg.

Stu Walesh

Learn more about Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, Dist.M.ASCE, F.NSPE, or contact Stu.


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  • Stu wonderful article, many great tips for those looking to create new positive habits!

    One piece of advice for your readers from someone who has worked hard to develop good habits: When I want to create a new habit, I make a checklist or check it off on my calendar each day to ensure that I am doing it consistently for a period of time, or else like you say in the post, it won’t stick.

    Thanks again.

    • Anthony:

      Great idea because developing a good habit requires a systematic approach. . Another idea: If feasible, connect the new desired habit to something you do each day or more often. For example, you want to develop the habit of prioritizing your work tasks early each day. The first time you sit down in front of your computer, do not turn it on until you have prioritized.

  • Hi Stu, this nov. 3 piece is very good. You may be an Aristotleian, or a Thomist, or a virtue ethicist; all in the same bundle.

    Google “whether virtue is a habit”

    Jeff Russell has started a paper on need for habits as a prep for on-the-job ethical decisions. We inevitably return to formation of good habits; lifelong development; the affective domain of learning; ‘internalization of a value’.


  • This now appears so straight and simple but did not occur to me before. I am going to try this .

    Thanks a lot.

    Kind Regards

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