Monday Mornings with Madison

The Amazing Power of Habits – Part 1

Part 1 – Where Habits Reside

Have you ever driven home from work and then realized when you got home that you had no recollection of doing it?  Or you got up in the morning and did your morning routine (brush teeth, shave, groom hair, shower and dress, make bed, etc.) but could not remember actually performing some or any of the tasks.  It was as if you were on auto-pilot.  In a sense, you were.  But instead of drawing on information from your memory bank, you were drawing information from a different, deeper part of the brain that doesn’t involve either learning or memory.  You were performing a habit.

Until recently, most scholars believed that learning, memory, and habits were all inextricably connected.  A person learns how to do something, remembers doing it and then, through repetition over time, becomes habit…. a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior acquired through frequent repetition.  Based on this, it stands to reason that without the ability to learn and remember, a person could not form new habits or perform existing habits.  But research has proven that that is actually not true.  The latest brain research is revealing that learning, memory and habits all ‘live’ in different parts of the brain and are not actually connected. A person can form and perform a new habit even if the person has no ability to learn or remember new information.  And research has found that habits are more powerful and persistent in controlling individual behavior than conscious thought.  This can be invaluable to business.

Habits and Business

Before we dip just a toe into the research to understand the makeup and mechanics of habits, some may wonder what benefit – if any — this could possibly have for businesses.  Why is it important for businesses to understand how habits are formed and work within individuals?  Understanding and leveraging the power of habits can be incredibly beneficial for all businesses — ranging in fields from medicine and technology to construction and retail.  It has value for both HR and Sales.

First, consider that much of what employees do in many jobs boil down to repetition.  From accountants to surgeons and from sales clerks to roofers, many tasks of a job are repeated over and over and over.  Some processes, rules or steps may change or evolve, but a great deal of the work is rote.  Tasks are done so often that they become habit.  If that seems like a bad thing, it’s not.  In fact, for businesses, work habits (good ones) are actually more important in producing consistent results than either intelligence or skills.  Habits happen on auto-pilot, without requiring full engagement of thought.  Things done out of habit are done often at the same time, in the same order, and in the same way, with little or no deviation.  Boring?  Perhaps.  But it also produces fewer mistakes. Thus, businesses have a vested interest in understanding where habits live in the brain and how habits are formed.  This information can be used to help employees establish good work habits that can increase productivity, improve quality and reduce workplace stress.

Second, it can also be used in marketing strategies that persuade customers and increase sales. It is here where the most opportunities lie for companies.  But before we delve into the ways in which companies can leverage the power of habits, it helps to understand how it was determined that habits are not tied either to memory or learning.

Where Habits Live

Habits can be formed and performed even when the ability to learn or remember is totally and permanently disabled.  Just how did scientists figure that out?  New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg describes in great detail the science and understanding of habits in his book The Power of Habit.

It appears that habits live in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia, a tiny neurological structure located deep within the brain, near where the brain stem meets with the spinal column.  This is the same part of the brain that controls automatic behaviors such as breathing and swallowing.  The basal ganglia’s function is to maximize the brain’s efficiency by automating processes that are repeated thereby freeing up the brain to focus on more important mental activities.  Memory and learning, on the other hand, take place in the outer layers of the brain, which handles the most complex thinking.  The two are not connected, or if they are, only loosely.  The basal ganglia’s ability to create and implement habits is not dependent on memory or learning to work.

The realization about the separation between habits and memory came to light when two different doctors — treating two different patients (50 years apart) who had suffered damage (either through illness or as a treatment) to the portion of their brain that deals with memory and learning – found that the patients were still able to form new habits and then perform those habits, even though those patients had no ability to learn anything new or retain any new memories.

Case in point.  The patient – Eugene Pauly — was a retired man who had been a successful engineer in his career.  Mr. Pauly, who had been until that point healthy, became very sick and ran high fever for a few days.  It was determined that he had contracted viral encephalitis.  He was given medicine which stopped the virus, but the damage was done.  The virus had already destroyed a lot of the medial temporal lobe of his brain, which is responsible for cognitive tasks, recall of past information and regulation of emotions.  It was determined that the damage was irreversible.  While Mr. Pauly could move, see, hear, speak and function, he had lost the ability to learn or remember anything new.  He could not retain any new information for more than 20 seconds.  He could not even remember whether he had eaten 10 minutes earlier or the name of his doctor with whom he met on a daily basis.  Eventually, Mr. Pauly went home.  Mrs. Pauly sold their home and moved them closer to their children who could help care for Mr. Pauly.  He required constant care and could not be left alone because Mr. Pauly could not remember something as basic as his new address, or even where the kitchen was located in the new house.  Over time, however, it was discovered that certain things that he did many times would become ‘habit.’  For example, Mr. Pauly could go to the kitchen to get a snack from the refrigerator even though he didn’t ‘know’ where the kitchen was.  After taking many walks through his new neighborhood with his wife, Mr. Pauly came to know how to find his way home even though, when asked, he didn’t know what street he lived on or which house on the block was his home.  He was acting out of habit.  He lived for 15 years without the ability to remember or learn a single new thing and yet did many new things that he could not even recall doing later simply because – from doing them over and over – they had become habits.

How might this be important to businesses?  Habits allow people to do things automatically, without thinking or remembering or accessing any cognitive brain functions.  Good habits – such as hand-washing for doctors after seeing each patient or putting a safety-latch on a power saw for carpenters after every use – ensure that important tasks aren’t overlooked or forgotten.  When a habit process is engaged, the basal ganglia ensures that the habit is performed the same way as usual even if the person is tired, hungry, busy or distracted… or even if the person isn’t consciously remembering to perform the task.   This reduces the opportunity for human error.  For businesses, this opens the opportunity to reduce or completely eliminate safety mistakes and increase product quality.  The habit will ‘kick in’ even when the active mind is absent.

Next week, we’ll examine how habits are formed and what it takes to make good habits stick and break bad habits.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” Brian Tracy

© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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