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Organisational Change: Creatures of Habit

We are all just creatures of habit – understanding habits can have a huge effect on organisational performance and change programmes.

Creatures of Habit: Why Understanding Habits Has a Huge Effect on Personal and Organisational Performance


Aristotle once expressed that, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit’. This quote shows, not only that we have understood the power and effectiveness of habits since the time of the Greeks, but also that small and repeated routines lead to excellence. Recent scientific studies have helped to justify why the Greeks were pondering the philosophical benefits of habits thousands of years ago as 40 – 45% of our daily lives are habits. Driving, cooking, cleaning and even our working lives are mostly habit and these unconscious routines are in place for good reason, as having a brain effectively on auto-pilot allows our creativity to flourish and for us to focus on more important things such as problem solving, our families and relationships.

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Habits have been established by researchers at MIT as an unconscious neurological pattern. This pattern is formed by a cue, which is a signal for a behaviour to start, for example a smartphone ‘pinging’ or flashing because of a notification; a routine, the action that is brought on by the cue, for example, checking your social media account for likes or messages; and then a reward, which triggers a pleasure response of dopamine, in this example the notification brings a feeling of social relevance and connection with peers and this reward leads to the formation of a habit loop.

The area of the brain responsible for the formation of habits is the oldest and most well-established structure of the brain, from an evolutionary point of view, the Basal Ganglia. This area of the brain has vastly more dopamine receptors than any other part of the brain and is hugely important for habit formation. The brain is hard-wired to focus on receiving rewards and it is impossible for cognitive areas of the brain such as the frontal cortex, that have developed more recently, to overwrite this function of the brain. Trying to start a new habit by telling yourself that you will go to the gym in the morning, or that you will start eating more healthily, you’ll find that most often, this doesn’t happen!

Building Habits

To build effective personal and organisational habits it is crucial to acknowledge the existence of cues and rewards and how to build habitual behaviour into the fabric of any business or routine. In a business setting, desirable behaviour or activity (selling more) is driven by a cue (a report of negative growth) and usually compensated by a reward (a bonus or a raise). Although this is a crude example of habit formation, it demonstrates how rewards are the driving force behind performance and the focus of employees.

Having a consideration of habits and how the brain works allows us to drive behavioural change in organisations that leads to business success. For example, creating habits around, better safety at work or a more consistent approach to customer service. ‘Freeing’ the brain to focus on problem solving or personal development which helps to improve engagement whilst improving productivity.

Encouraging Habit Formation

Keystone habits are ‘small wins’ that have a disproportionate effect on other habits and set in motion a chain reaction of other ‘larger’ habits. Making your bed in the morning or keeping a food diary are examples of keystone habits that lead to a domino effect on other larger desired changes. By developing a framework, small wins assist in the development of bigger habits by encouraging habitual behaviours through discipline and willpower. In fact, Charles Duhigg, author of ‘Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business stated that, “when psychologists have looked at quantum changers, what they found is these are people who suddenly became very deliberate about their habits. There’s something almost magical about understanding how habits work, because studies show that once you understand, once you think about the structure of a habit, it becomes easier to change that habit. And once you change that habit, you start making these small, incremental adjustments to your day that over a year or over a decade can add up to a huge difference.”

Increasingly, scientific study is solidifying our understanding of habits and how we drive personal and organisational behaviour change. Being aware of habit formation can lead to massive personal change and achievement of goals and this is something we have understood for millennia. So, next time you’re looking to your personal development, ask yourself if your habits are assisting or prohibiting you in establishing positive and long-standing behavioural change.

Philip Alexander