Despite our best efforts, when we form bad habits, it can be challenging to change them. Resolving to go to the gym three times a week is a start, but getting there and sticking to the plan is another story.
We can be overly optimistic when setting ourselves new goals, and failing to reach them creates a negative feedback loop. If this happens too many times, we might give up altogether.
Luckily, researchers have simplified the process and identified a process known as the habit loop. With knowledge of this cycle, it is possible to re-program the most reluctant mind to repeat the desired behavior effortlessly - it just requires a little strategizing and discipline.
Let’s look at how the habit loop works and how we can apply it to make learning at work a more natural process.
Discovered by MIT researchers, the habit loop is a basic neurological cycle that drives every repeated action:
In his international bestseller, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains that we can use our wiring to create new, positive patterns of behavior.
He adds that there are endless ways to form new habits. The way people create them depends on personality traits and the behavior they would like to embed. For example, getting into the habit of going to the gym is different to creating a routine of cooking at home more often.
People also have different motivations for starting a new behavior. One person might want to go to the gym to build strength, while another to feel more energetic. These factors all contribute to how a person will form the habit.
To account for these differences, Duhigg created the following framework to help anybody form a new habit over time:
Step 1: Identify the routine
Step 2: Experiment with rewards
Step 3: Isolate the cue
Step 4: Have a plan
Below, we’ll explore how to use this framework in the context of getting into a regular habit of learning at work.
Knowledge of Duhigg’s framework can help you to make professional development an effortless task that naturally fits into the working week. Busy schedules are a significant barrier to learning, but a regular session will free up your time to complete other tasks. Use the following guide to work towards a habit that sticks!
1. Identify the routine
To start a habit loop for learning, find a time you could allocate each week that is usually available to you.
This regularity will help your brain to trigger the new behavior into action with minimal effort. It is also important to remember that the average employee has only 24 minutes to learn per week. Setting aside just half an hour of your time could make all the difference and help you to get ahead.
While not everyone works on a strict schedule, each of us can identify routine parts of the day. We do this to limit the number of decisions we need to make, which saves time and brainpower for other activities.
2. Experiment with rewards
Once you have identified a routine for learning, think about how you will reward yourself when you’ve completed that task. Perhaps you could organize to have lunch out with your colleagues afterwards or make yourself a coffee. Experiment with something that will motivate you, and when you find it, make sure you remember to reward yourself each time.
3. Isolate the cue - connect with a motivation
How does learning at work benefit you? Perhaps those in leadership have made it a priority to help the organization move forward. Maybe remaining up to date with the latest research in your field is a necessary part of your work.
If your boss is asking you to learn and you can’t understand the purpose, communicate this feedback. You probably aren’t the only person feeling this way, and those in leadership should want to improve the experience.
It is also essential that the learning you are engaging with is appropriate to your current knowledge and abilities. If the materials are too challenging or too easy, you will be bored and quickly disengage.
4. Make a plan
Starting a new habit is often the most challenging part, and your brain will come up with all sorts of strategies to thwart your progress.
If this experience is familiar to you, a plan might help. If you know you find it difficult to concentrate when learning at your desk, booking a quiet meeting room might make it easier. On the days you are learning, bring your headphones with you. Do whatever it takes to help you focus and get started.
Another great strategy is working with others. If you and another colleague have both agreed to set aside a particular time in the week to complete learning, you will hold each other to account, and you won’t want to let each other down.
5. Be patient
Understand that Duhigg's framework is only a pathway to creating new habits: it won’t always work, and it can take time. It might be a real challenge for the first month or even the first six months, but stick at it, and you might find that you are soon in the habit of regular learning practice.
At the very least, by sticking to a routine, you will have eliminated learning from your to-do list and saved yourself time for other tasks.