Not All Habits Are Bad

A pencil eraser is starting to erase the words: Bad Habits

Neuroscientists explain that not all habits are bad. The good ones allow you to function more efficiently…like driving to work without having to review the directions each time. They save both your time and energy.

New research by the University of California helps us understand, however, how the bad habits sometimes take over our activities and why they are so hard to break. What scientists learned from the studies can inform training and development practitioners on how to achieve the transfer of training more effectively.

Experiments with mice at the University of California at San Diego showed that there are circuits in the brain for goal- and habit-directed activity that compete for control when making decisions. There are chemicals that can interrupt purposeful activity and cause you to revert to habit. That’s why it is so difficult to break bad habits and install new ones. And it explains why it can be so difficult to change behavior on the job…to apply a new skill (good habit) when it is easier for the old skill (bad habit) to rule.

To be efficient on the job, we need a balance of goal-directed and habitual actions. Routine actions help us manage simple tasks quickly and without the need for much thought. Habits are helpful when you address tasks like sifting through emails or organizing the day’s agenda. But when habits interfere with applying new skills, they can harm the effectiveness of the training that was designed to improve performance.

Let’s say you as a customer service rep have been trained to question your customers more thoroughly in order to design better solutions to their problems. Before the training you, as a habit, tried to get off the phone as quickly as possible. Now you must slow down, really listen and be creative in answering the customer’s need. What is the best way to change the habit and transfer the new training to the workplace?

Experts say you need to change the context of the old habit or go about your job in a different behavioral pattern. Maybe you change your workstation configuration or shift the microphone to the other side of your face. Perhaps you start off with a brand new greeting or time yourself to engage 10 seconds longer with each phone conversation. The key is to break the old way and give the new way a chance to embed itself in what should become your new “normal” behavior.