Every Great Journey Begins With A Single Step

If asked about our working life, most of us would probably say that we are doing okay but perhaps not flourishing. We perform well but not always at our best. We could be better but things are okay. Neuroscience research offers a powerful opportunity to make small but significant changes to our lives, which can help us to enhance our thoughts and behaviour. With the help of neuroscience we can be at our best – optimized and flourishing. That is the purpose of this column – to take neuroscience findings and apply them to everyday workplace contexts. The aim is promote increased productivity for employers and managers, and promote well-being, engagement and flourishing in employees.

Let’s start with how an understanding of ‘habits’ can improve our day.

We all know what a habit is and we all have some patterns of behaviour that we might consider to be bad habits. In fact habits usually get a bad name – it is so rare that someone comments on a good habit or healthy routine and that’s a shame. A surprising amount of our everyday behaviour is controlled habitually and so the healthier and more productive our habits, the better for us. What I’d like to achieve in this article is to answer two questions: what is a good habit and how do we ensure we employ good habits and not bad?

First though, what might we consider to be a habit in the workplace? Well, at one end of the spectrum it could be about actual behaviour: taking the lift rather than the stairs, nail-biting when nervous, always eating lunch at our office desk. At the other end of the spectrum it could be more of a habitual thought pattern: always taking criticism personally, procrastinating until a deadline looms, being defensive and argumentative when ones authority is questioned. These examples are all from the ‘bad habit’ category and so the questions remain – what is a good habit and how might we promote them? Well, a good habit would be having a routine for time-management – focusing on one task for a set period of time at the same time each day or week. Or it might be arranging to always play squash with a colleague at the same time each week. It could also be having a strategy to always spend an hour per day on new projects, rather than leaving them until the deadline is approaching. And it could be showing restraint when someone is critical – not reacting impulsively but reflecting prior to responding. Workplace habits promote goal commitment and achievement, and develop personal traits of conscientiousness, commitment and a strong sense of self-control. As such, healthy habits also lead to you being a role-model to those in your team.

In order to understand how we can develop good habits, let‘s turn to neuroscience and see what insights it can provide.

Back in the 90’s Larry Squire suggested that our brain organizes information in one of two ways: knowledge was stored in ‘declarative’ memory in the temporal lobes; whereas skills and habits were stored in ‘procedural’ memory in the basal ganglia (Squire and Zola, 1996). This dichotomy has proved a very useful guide to understanding brain function. In his recent book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman develops this idea: that behaviour is determined by a fast, automatic, habitual mechanism, which competes with a slower, rational and more thoughtful system (Kahneman, 2011). He calls them System 1 and System 2 respectively, but we’ll call them the habit system and the thoughtful system (for ease of understanding if nothing else!).

Whenever we are faced with a decision, the habit system jumps in and tries to provide the answer. The thoughtful system takes more effort and has to work hard to overcome the habit. That’s why we tend to be creatures of habit – it is less effortful (costs less in energy for the brain and body) and usually keeps us out of trouble. In fact, recent work by Roy Baumeister (2012) has shown that as we become more tired we are more likely to defer to our habits and default responses – he argues that brain levels of blood glucose (sugar!) determine whether the thoughtful system has the energy to resist and control behaviour.

A rather worrying study demonstrated this recently – Parole judges were much more likely to award parole to defendants just after breakfast and just after lunch (Danziger et al., 2011). Outside of these times, for example approaching lunch or late in the afternoon, defendants had an almost zero chance of parole. As the thoughtful system gets tired we revert to habitual defaults – in this case, keep the criminal in prison. Which might be a good rule of thumb, but it suggests the when tired judges are not actually listening to the individual arguments of the cases.

So, how do we develop our own healthy habits that promote success, optimal functioning and prevent us from replicating the ‘parole judge’ mistakes? (Pity the employee who comes to ask a favour just before lunch!)

Here’s a list to whet your appetite – we’ll cover them in detail next month!

– Implementation Intentions
– Goal strategy
– Approach motivation
– Reinforcement
– Ultimately, to be aware of the conflict between your habit system (S1) and thoughtful system (S2) and use this knowledge to your own benefit

In the meantime – try making a list of what you consider to be your own good and bad work habits. You can then use them next month to optimize and focus them – we will rebuild you, better, happier and more resilient than before!

– Dr John –


Baumeister R (2012) The Psychologist, Vol. 25, no 2, pp. 112-115

Danziger S, Levav J and Avnaim-Pesso L (2011) Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 108, pp. 6889-6892

Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Allen Lane, UK. ISBN 1846140552

Squire LR and Zola SM (1996) Structure and function of declarative and nondeclarative memory systems. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 93, pp. 13515–13522

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