How do you change lousy work habits?


I've squandered countless electrons on this blog presenting ideas for working more efficiently. And yet, for all the time I've invested in these posts and in one-on-one coaching of clients, making real, sustainable, behavioral change is difficult. No matter how simple the concepts, getting people to work differently -- to change their behaviors -- is not easy. Let's face it: if it were, there'd be no fat people waddling into Cold Stone Creamery for a triple scoop of Rocky Road ice cream with Milk Duds mixed in.

But what if the key to behavioral change lies in the marketing of the new habits, and changing the environment, rather than in simply teaching the habits themselves?

An article in the NYTimes last week discussed the challenge that Dr. Val Curtis, an anthropologist, faced in getting residents of Ghana to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Her goal was to reduce the spread of diseases and disorders (like diarrhea) caused by dirty hands.

Previous health campaigns aimed at convincing Ghanaians to wash their hands after using the bathroom had failed, because mothers often didn’t see symptoms like diarrhea as abnormal, but instead viewed them as a normal aspect of childhood. Dr. Curtis needed instead to create a habit wherein people felt a sense of disgust that was cued by the toilet. That disgust would then become a cue for soap.

So her team created commercials that taught viewers to feel a habitual sense of unseemliness surrounding toilet use. The commercials they developed didn’t really sell soap use. Rather, they sold disgust. Soap was almost an afterthought . But the message was clear: The toilet cues worries of contamination, and that disgust, in turn, cues soap.

So what can we do to change the cues associated with our inefficient behavior? Can we create cues that lead to more efficient work habits?

Certainly, the first -- and perhaps most important -- step is to see symptoms like meetings that consistently run long, or an email inbox overflowing with hundreds (or thousands) of unread messages as abnormal and "unseemly." Perhaps in an office environment, the trick is to make the inability to run a meeting well or to process email efficiently seem unprofessional -- an impediment to getting a promotion or a raise. That's an internal marketing campaign that shouldn't be too hard to implement (although it would require compliance from the folks at the top of the corporate food chain).

But then we have to create prompts for better work habits -- for example, checking email at specific intervals rather than continuously, or single-tasking instead of multitasking.

According to Dr. Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke,

Habits are formed when the memory associates specific actions with specific places or moods. If you regularly eat chips while sitting on the couch, after a while, seeing the couch will automatically prompt you to reach for the Doritos. These associations are sometimes so strong that you have to replace the couch with a wooden chair for a diet to succeed.
Moreover, psychological studies indicate that

as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual — that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues. For example, the urge to check e-mail or to grab a cookie is likely a habit with a specific prompt. Researchers found that most cues fall into four broad categories: a specific location or time of day, a certain series of actions, particular moods, or the company of specific people. The e-mail urge, for instance, probably occurs after you’ve finished reading a document or completed a certain kind of task. The cookie grab probably occurs when you’re walking out of the cafeteria, or feeling sluggish or blue.
So what if people had a place in their office dedicated solely to managing email? Or if the email program had a bell that rang each 30 minutes, as a reminder of how long they've been working on email? What if people set their Outlook or Lotus Notes to open in Calendar, rather than in their inbox? (Easy to do, by the way. Ask me how.) Perhaps these prompts would get people to change their work habits.

It's pretty unlikely that your organization will (or should?) enforce wholesale changes like this. But it's worth thinking about what you can do for yourself or for your team. How do you make it clear that living in the inbox isn't the best way to accomplish the company's goals? What kind of new prompts and cues will you develop to help spur your team to adoption of better work habits?

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