Changing the Habit Loop, One Commute at a Time

At the beginning of nearly every learning and development session we deliver, we reference a simple diagram from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. His habit loop is a simple neurological pattern at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. It’s important as a starting reference when it comes to any effort to change human behaviors, because it applies to so much of what we do.

Sometimes the cue is as simple as being bored. Our routine might be to reach for our phone, and our reward is a minute or two of entertainment. But the habit loop applies to more sophisticated behaviors as well. Our work lives are filled with habit loops, and sometimes those loops subconsciously quell creativity or spark negative reactions to common events.

When something isn’t working or just needs to be improved, it’s all about hacking the habit loop and replacing those routines to find new rewards.

As consultants, we are often asked (through a variety of polite questions) how we practice what we preach. Of course, a culture-oriented company must walk this walk as often as possible, but we too understand how hard it is to break habit loops both organizationally and individually.

So, we try to formally attack habit loops with fun but thought-provoking team challenges. Recently, our team completed The Transportation Challenge, where for one month you could earn points by omitting a car trip from your travels. As a company that prioritizes sustainability and environmental consciousness, we didn’t need too much motivation to give it a shot (although the prizes were pretty nice). The real rewards, however, came from the insights we gained:

Insight 1: We’re more reliant on cars than we realize.

It’s easy to conceptualize that many of our lives are built around cars, but nothing helps us understand a habit loop like FEELING the habit. Arranging alternate transportation to kids soccer practice or even resupplying groceries without a car were points well earned. Some teammates reported how awkward it felt to try and arrange carpools, but those conversations grew easier with practice.

Insight 2: Leadership by example

What helped participants join in on the challenge? Consultant Matt Newman points to the large scoreboard tracking point in the kitchen. “Peer pressure definitely has a part to play. I felt a little guilty when I drove past Ryann (our CEO) in my SUV while she was trudging away on foot in the rain.”

Insight 3: A little ownership of a big problem goes a surprisingly long way.

After the initial difficulties of changing the loop, many of our teammates reported a deeper personal satisfaction than expected when it comes to doing their part to help a world problem (even if it is just a little bit by saving car trips for when they are absolutely necessary). Each little bit of progress toward helping a higher cause helped keep us motivated.

Insight 4: Surprising benefits

Beyond doing our part to care for the planet, everyone reported unexpected benefits from breaking the car habit loop. More calories were burned. A rediscovery for the love of bike riding was uncovered. Minds were fed by more podcasts on public transportation. Relationships were strengthened by driving together rather than alone. Money was saved, and, on some occasions, time was saved by flanking rush hour traffic.

You don’t need a high stakes initiative to gain insights into the brains that are driving your business. Take a moment to think about your team’s basic habit loops and create a fun exercise to challenge them. The insights will reward you. It shouldn’t take too much effort but should be done somewhat regularly. Dare I say, you could even make it a habit.

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