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If you’ve ever tried to break a habit, you understand the often-tormented pattern of emotions that come with the effort. The initial rationale and brave resolve, the pull of temptation, the powerless surrender, the fleeting satisfaction, the crushing guilt. 

And I’m talking here about regular late night snacking on chocolate cheesecake, never mind more life-threatening or professionally destructive habits. Yes – some of us do get that emotional about chocolate cheesecake. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Breaking a habit is not all about loss and deprivation and the discomfort of a behaviour pattern disrupted. We’re hardwired for habits—good, bad and ugly—and while we can never really break ‘bad’ habits or change ‘bad’ behaviour, we can replace the behaviour with a preferable alternative. And yes, there is a short, simple, scientifically proven method to the process, as explained by Melanie Wilding performance coach and human behaviour professor at Hunter College, New York.

Want to break a bad habit? Science says: Do these 4 things;

First, you need to get to grips with the psychology driving habits. It’s a pretty simple but extremely powerful behaviour/response loop of cue, routine and reward. For me, the cue is 10PM; the response is a quiet meander to the fridge for “just one skinny slice” of chocolate cheesecake. The reward, in this case requires no explanation.

  1. The first step to changing behaviour is identifying the particular cure, routine, reward that leads to your habit. What’s your cue? Coffee = cigarette? TV = gummy bears? Rough day = double cheeseburger? Notice your environment, mood and how the habit makes you feel when you stop to think about it. A little guilty, maybe?
    Then, consider positive alternatives that feel good, because they’re helping you achieve a goal you set for yourself. Maybe a rough day calls for a brisk walk in the park to improve your health plan ranking. The coffee = cigarette is a tough one, I know, but if you’ve made up your mind to quit, maybe chomp a rusk with your coffee? Sure, it’s a few extra calories, but a reasonably good substitute for the rote hand-to-mouth motion of smoking.
  2. Make a commitment to changing your habits. Take a pledge, write it down, tell your best friend, whatever you consider personally binding. And, don’t stress if you slide. As long as you make a commitment to change you can work on the execution.
  3. Honestly, there aren’t many people who can abandon entrenched habits without a few stumbles. It’s ok. Anticipate and try to pre-empt circumstances that may lead to slip-ups. That may mean staying away from your favourite coffee shop for a few weeks or skipping a few parties on the weekend circuit. Just be easy on yourself.

The idea here is to work with, rather than against, the psychological realities of forming and changing behaviour. Want to get fit? Be more productive? Improve your IQ? You can find an app to hold your hand through pretty much any kind personal self-improvement mission. The best ones are built on (no surprise) gamification principles. Personal change is not without challenges, but the challenges are fun and what works at home works in business, too.

Working gamefully

Take the psychology of habit, plug in business objectives and you’re on your way to establishing a gamified work culture. And remember – adding a gamification facet to your business processes is not about creating a pleasant experience for the sake of it. The objective is to tap into basic human responses to challenges, rewards and recognition, to secure engagement with a task at hand and reinforce the behaviours that drive business goals.   

How do you do it?

Most businesses are sitting on a store of data just begging for analysis. Use all you’ve got to hone your business objectives and then establish gamification rules and measures set against goals. Reward behaviour that leads to specific outcomes. Not the behaviour you think you want, but the behaviour you need.

For instance, if you think setting your sales team a goal of 50 cold calls a day will produce more leads, consider that it may just inflate your phone bill. Nothing more. Perhaps you need to reward better quality leads. Your data will reveal all.

And set rules for the journey not the destination. The human brain prefers instant rewards to long-term payoffs. We’re just programmed that way. Design for small wins, incremental rewards and fresh challenges that spark personal commitment to achievement.

Changing behaviour, nurturing culture and building success is a long-haul journey. Gamification can smooth the ride.