Make a Splash at Work with Your Healthy Habits

So, apparently habits can be a good thing. They help us to achieve goals, help us to stay on track when distracted, they free up our minds to focus on important issues and they sit quietly in the darkest recesses of our minds waiting for the right trigger to bring them to the fore and drive us forward to success (Kahneman, 2011).

I am trying to learn (relearn) to swim, as I am going to do a race in May. Unfortunately, I am rubbish at it. Well, actually, when I analysed my behaviour I realised that it is not so much that I am rubbish at swimming but rubbish at getting myself into the swimming pool to begin swimming! On Monday morning I resolve to ‘swim this week – probably Tuesday.’  I am full of enthusiasm, I will make progress! However, on Tuesday morning there’s this nagging thought at the back of my mind – ‘I’m a bit tired today, maybe I should swim Wednesday instead.’ By mid-morning the voice is louder and more concerned – ‘I’m too busy today, things will be easier by Thursday.’ But they never are. And so I don’t swim. If I went back over my diary I’d find more missing swims than completed swims. Now we can analyse the problem (why am I not swimming), or we can focus on the solution (develop the habit to swim routinely).

I won’t dwell on the problem as this is not the place for it (though it has nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with cold, wet, cramped changing rooms!). What I will do is suggest some tried and tested (and evidence-based) solutions.

  1. Approach motivation – This is about developing a habit mind-set. An overarching attitude to achieving goals by focusing on the benefits of success, rather than on the costs of failure. In the preceding paragraph I said that I wouldn’t focus on the problem. That’s mainly because evidence has shown that we are more successful if we approach success rather than run from failure (Wiegand and Geller, 2004). So don’t dwell on why things aren’t working – that’ll just get you down (and frustrated). Instead focus on ways of triggering your newly developing habits. You can do this by (1) focus on implementation intentions (the triggers), (2) focus on the reducing barriers and approaching the goal (the strategy), (3) find salient rewards (the motivators).
  2. Implementation intentions (IIs) – If you are familiar with programming, then you will have come across IF->THEN routines. A way of automating a process so that the presence of a cue triggers the routine. That is how IIs work. Essentially, you identify a trigger and you identify the resulting behaviour. So, for example, if your new goal is to spend at least one hour in the morning reading articles, then you might say that the trigger is the clock turning 11am. And the behaviour is to take the phone off the hook, close your email and read from the pile of articles you have waiting. The II process is simple:
    1. Create the If->Then plan – write some code for your brain:

i.     “If it gets to 11am and I haven’t begun reading, Then turn off email and phone and start reading.”

  1. Commit to the plan:

i.     Write down your plan and put it somewhere prominent

ii.     Repeat your If->Then statement out loud three times

iii.     Make a public declaration of commitment in some way – tell friends, put it on Facebook etc.

  1. Commence the plan. Perhaps set an alarm for 11am in the first instance – help the trigger!

Gollwitzer (the King of IIs) has shown that if you do this, you will significantly increase the likelihood of successfully developing your new healthy habit (~75% success with IIs vs ~30% success for a control group; Gollwitzer and Branstatter, 1997). Last month, I mentioned the Declarative/ Procedural distinction in the way the brain stores information (Squire and Zola, 1996). Well, IIs capitalize on this by forcing the Procedural system to code information when ordinarily it would have been your Declarative system. In this way you are helping to create healthy habits by talking to the brain in its own language!

  1. Reinforcement – simple really. If you do something well, then give yourself a treat. If you didn’t, don’t! It’s amazing how easily we miss this sort of thing. Takes a bit of will power to deny yourself something nice if you haven’t performed – but it will be worth it in the long run.

So, for my swimming I should: (1) think about (visualize) the health benefits of going (higher energy levels, better upper body muscles, physically fitter and in a better frame of mind to deal with subsequent work challenges.); (2) set up an If->Then routine for when to go swimming; and (3) have a bacon and egg toastie as a reward for a swim session. What does this have to do with business? Lots. Leaving aside the fact that exercise is a great way to promote enthusiasm and energy, and gives a great break in the day, the above techniques can be applied to many many workplace issues and situations. Last time I suggested that you made a list – now look at your list and see how you can apply the above 3 techniques to promoting healthy habits and business success.

Remember, every time you are successful in running a routine, your ability to use it in future will increase. You are not trying to suppress or block old habits (as they will fight back!) but simply to shift the ‘points’ so that you set off down the healthy track and not the unhealthy one.

– Dr John –


Gollwitzer PM and Brandstatter V (1997) Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 186-199

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

Wiegand DM and Geller ES (2004) Connecting Positive Psychology and Organizational Behavior Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24:1-2, 3-25

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