Building a good habit at work shouldn’t be based on your level of motivation, which tends to wax and wane. This expert advises tying the habit to a positive emotion instead.
How long does it take to form a good habit at work?
Typing this question into Google delivers a variety of answers.
Twenty-one days comes up as a common result due to the conclusions drawn by Dr Maxwell Maltz in the 1950s. He noticed that it took his patients who had undergone plastic surgery around three weeks to adjust to their new appearance. He similarly observed that it took patients who had lost a limb only three weeks to no longer experience physical sensations in that part of their body.
The 21 day myth was quickly swept up in popular culture, but doubt was cast on Maltz’s conclusion in 2010 when Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at the University College London, set out to discover if a magic number indeed exists.
After conducting a 12-week study, she arrived at 66 days. But there were notable differences between participants. Some took 18 days, while others found it took them 245 days for a habit to stick.
The answer, it seems, varies widely from person to person.
We all want to know how long it takes for running to no longer feel like a tough slog, or how quickly we can put a stop to procrastinating at work, but there’s no hard and fast rule to determine how long it takes to make or break a habit.
Danielle Jacobs, Psychologist and Co-Founder of the Wellbeing Lab, says the time frame will be determined by the extent to which the habit is connected to positive emotions.
Make it joyful
People often think motivation needs to remain high in order for a good habit at work to stick. But Jacobs says the key is shrinking the behaviour and making small changes that mean high levels of motivation aren’t required to be successful.
“Despite our best intentions, our motivation fluctuates. It can start out strong at 9 in the morning, and by 10:30am, it’s already taken a hit. And by 4:30pm, it’s a little speck of dust on some days.
“Pinning the success of our behaviour change efforts to high levels of motivation can make success harder to reach, even for those blessed with very high levels of self-discipline.”
One technique that can help good habits at work to stick is the act of celebrating them. The power of celebration can wire new behaviours into our lives, and makes us feel great in the process.
“It’s all in the emotion that is driving people to either do that behaviour again because it felt good, steer clear of it, or reluctantly push your way through because it’s not joyful. So the key is to make it as tiny, easy and joyful as possible.”
If you fail in your efforts, you might have got the habit recipe wrong, but it’s possible to experiment and re-jig your habit recipe. For example, you might have fallen into the ‘go big or go home’ trap.
You simply expected too much, too soon, and you may not have had the right mix of motivation, ability or the right prompt to make your behaviour happen.
Jacobs’ advice can be put into practice by using BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habit Recipe technique, and by implementing techniques such as the Twenty Second Rule.
“If you want to do something more, ask yourself, ‘How do I make this behaviour 20 seconds quicker?’ Or, if you want to reduce or break a behaviour, how can I make this behaviour take 20 seconds longer. How can I make it harder to do?”
Taking the very simple step of putting your phone in a cupboard and closing the door can make you think twice before reaching to mindlessly scroll Instagram next time you’re putting off starting a new project, for example.
This short video about the 20 Second Rule from Project Better Self shows how taking the path of least resistance can help to lock in a good habit.
Having now formed a greater understanding of the mechanisms helping us form effective habits, let’s apply them to three good habits at work that can be cultivated to achieve success.
1. Continual reflection to build good habits at work
In these uncertain times, we’re required to adapt quickly to changing COVID-19 restrictions, and modify our routines to keep up with the rapid pace of change.
Active reflection on workplace projects, processes and interactions should therefore be occurring on a daily basis, says Jacobs. It’s not enough to put reflection time in the diary once every few weeks.
When reflecting with your team, her advice is to get into the habit of asking three questions at the end of each working day/start of your team meeting: What worked well, where did we struggle, and what can we learn/adjust?
The answers to these simple questions provide individuals and times with valuable insights that allow us to learn and grow from our constantly changing contexts and experiences, but also be highly agile and proactive in our navigation of substantial change.
Of course, given the importance of celebration in helping us stick to our habits, Jacobs reminds us, after reflection, to celebrate and bring some joy and positive emotion to the activity.
“Celebration fast tracks our behaviour change – it’s a habit fertiliser. After you perform your behaviour, immediately create a positive emotion, high five a colleague over Zoom, tell a joke, give yourself a pat on the back – anything that immediately gives you a good feeling.”
One way of building this into employees’ routines is by carving out regular, quick but powerful reflection time at the start or end of a team meeting.
“If we can create a culture within teams that celebrates and encourages playful experimentation, and rapid adaptation, when it’s messy as well as when it’s magical, then we’re building a positive culture where people are more adaptable, more resilient and more engaged.”
2. Build connections
When working from home, employees typically don’t interact as frequently with their colleagues as they would in a physical workspace.
There are scheduled video calls, and many interactions with members of our immediate team, but distant connections tend to fall by the wayside.
Jacobs says the extended periods of required physical distancing and isolation from colleagues has meant “many employees have lost their social confidence, and they are nervous and feeling rusty when it comes to connecting or reconnecting with colleagues – inside and outside their teams, as they return to work.
“It’s like trying to make sense of an instructor at an aerobics class after not having been to the gym for a year. There are times when in the middle of a class, someone might be standing there thinking, ‘I used to have this right but now I have no idea what to do next!”
As employees prepare to return to physical workplaces, making proactive efforts to reconnect colleagues will help them to more comfortably re-integrate.
Including a behaviour like this into your routine is likely to make the transition back to work a smoother one.
“Reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while and see how they’re going. Make a deliberate effort to make a human micro-connection moment,” says Jacobs.
Employers can also take an active role in encouraging their employees to connect with colleagues in different teams by allocating specific time towards networking.
3. Pay it forward
Soon after learning a new skill, the most effective way to retain the information is to act on it.
This could be by writing your learnings down or practicing a new skill. But Jacobs advises there’s one good habit at work that’s key to retention.
“As soon as you come across a concept, or something that interests you, the best way to lock in that information is to pay it forward,” she says.
Known as the protégé effect, teaching someone else a newly acquired skill helps to cement our own understanding.
“By doing that, you’re reinforcing your own capability and confidence in that topic, and giving yourself the best chance of recalling it… That’s how you can reinforce a good habit at work.”
Looking to help your employees build good habits at work? AHRI’s hybrid network forum on Habits at Work offers useful tips to bring back to your teams. Book in for the network forum on 12 October.