Habits and disruption

30 July 2012 0 By Viv McWaters

Recently I facilitated a couple of workshop with visiting academic Professor Bas Verplanken. He specialises in habits. Here’s a few things I gleaned.

When looking to unearth habits it’s sometimes worth searching for the habit in the behaviour. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not.¬†We often associate a habit with behaviour, yet a habit may also be a way of thinking. The behaviour then might be a consequence of habitual thinking. This can be good or bad. For example, we might want to develop a habit of exercising, yet the real habit might be the decision to exercise, with the behaviour being the exercise itself.

Another really interesting point was about the problems that our habits reward. Some habits help us navigate the world, they help us short-circuit everyday decisions so as we can get ourselves to work without having to make new decisions at every step. This is called fluency – we don’t want to have to think about what we are doing all the time. Even bad habits solve some problem for us.

Some habits don’t bother us but bother other people. People delivering ‘behaviour change’ programs are often trying to change habits that are seen by others to be troublesome.

And then there’s the conditions that contribute to, maybe even reinforce, particular habits. In trying to change habits, it may be worth looking at those conditions rather than the habit itself.

The way to start thinking about changing habits is to begin with some form of disruption. Disruption might be voluntary, or it might be something we’d rather avoid (such as becoming suddenly unemployed, or a serious disease diagnosis). The disruption provides a ‘teachable moment’ – an opportunity to explore alternatives.

Which of course, got me thinking about disruptive facilitation, providing a circuit breaker to group habits. Or at the very least, becoming more mindful of our actions in groups.

More about habits and a list of published papers by Prof Verplanken can be found here.