Leveraging the Power of Habit to Sustain Change

Leverage the power of habitCh-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Don't want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time
David Bowie

What do you do when you want to change? Whether you want to change yourself or bring about change in others or your organisation.

Change is difficult and sustaining change more so.

To do so, we want to leverage the awesome power that is in every one of us, and that is the power of habit.


Nobody likes to change

Asking someone to change is fraught with difficulties.

Oftentimes, we forget that as leaders and influencers we are encouraging people to change. If everything was meant to remain in the status quo, there would be no need for leadership or influence!

And our brains prefer the status quo. It is known and your brain has done a fantastic job of keeping everything in this environment in the right balance to keep you alive and thriving.

Change disrupts that status quo, however small that change may appear to you, to someone else it will be uncomfortable and may even be frightening.

Turn and face the strange

Change is uncomfortable and strange.

Even the smallest change in the status quo is uncomfortable. We've gotten used to a certain way of doing things.

A couple of weeks ago I was enjoying the delights of Positano, Italy. It is a truly beautiful town clinging onto the mountainside that plunges into the azure Mediterranean Sea.

Positano from the Path of the Gods view

Positano from the Path of the Gods view

Our apartment was perched high above the town and the view was truly spectacular.

We had a simple choice in the morning to get into Positano town.

The narrow road into town wound around the mountain with hairpin twists and turns for several miles or we could walk down the steps and be on the Grande Spagio within 700 metres.

We went fully aware and ready for the steps. We had even been certain to get in “step” shape by forgoing elevators and escalators in Singapore. Even finding our very few hills and crazily to onlookers, climbing straight up and down.

When we reached the beach area, thigh muscles began a little protest as we supped a welcome macchiato. At least they know how to make good coffee in this country!

It hadn't been especially difficult to climb down those steps. Probably a little more effortful than the 87 floors as measured by my watch but it was uncomfortable.

The 700m "walk" to the Grand Spagio

The 700m “walk” down to the Grand Spagio

My body simply is not used to climbing up or down so many steps. Not when you live in an almost hill less island.

Could I get used to it? Sure. But it would take time.

How long before it becomes comfortable? Well, after a week of much walking and many more steps I was finding it to feel “normal”.

Had I not persevered, it would have taken much longer.

And the same is true for any change in anything that we do. From a simple thing like crossing your arms in the opposite way to usual to re-organising your company: the change causes discomfort.

Until it becomes the new way of doing things around here.

That's the way we do things around here

The biggest issue in making change happen inside organisations is: “That's not the way we do things around her.”

The entrenched Mr or Ms Jobsworth who feel threatened by change either because it might undermine their position, or show them up in some way.

For a lot of “obstacles” whom I have had the pleasure of working with, the underlying concern about change was that they would get found out (for being less than capable in their current role, let alone any new role!)

Many more people than you can imagine harbour a secret and limiting belief that they are not good enough. For a very few, it may be true, but for most, it's just humility taken too far (and usually initiated by bad parenting or poor teachers in the past.)

Whatever the cause of the fear to change, if you want to sustain a change, accept that most people are not just uncomfortable with change, they genuinely fear it.

And yet, a lot of people do crave the change because it promises to be so much more exciting than the status quo.

The comfort zone and amazing things happening

comfiort zoneI remember attending a Coverdale training, many years ago, and the facilitator drew a large circle on the flip chart and labelled it “Your comfort Zone”.

Then beyond this big circle, drew another small circle with an arrow pointing to it and the words: “Where all the excitement happens!”

But what appears to be exciting for one person, could be way beyond for another.

I've known Steve since we were in boarding school together. Last week, he was in Queenstown, New Zealand and jumped off the highest bungee jump in the world with a huge smile and without hesitation.

To him, that is exciting. To me, that is utter madness and utterly, completely terrifying. You will never, ever, and I mean never, get me to do a bungee jump. Heck with my heart, I doubt they would let me now.

But there are many things that I have done, that perhaps you would find terrifying.

What I'm saying is just because you don't think that this change you want is much to worry about', that in fact, it is exciting, does not mean that everyone else will see it your way.

And, for the belligerent amongst you, they are no more wrong in their assessment than you are.

Change is frightening

Change is uncomfortable and it is frightening.

Anything that alters or threatens the status quo is noticed by your Anterior Cingulate Cortex in your brain.

Like a trigger-happy security guard, the ACC scans the environment (and your internal systems) for any difference to expectation.

The instant any threat is anticipated by the ACC, it calls for the stress hormone, cortisol to be produced to increase your attention.

You, that is conscious you, then get a sense of alertness that you may, or may not be consciously aware of what the threat is yet.

It's OK, you'll catch up soon, but you, the conscious you that is, are much slower to respond than unconscious you.


This sense of alertness is generally a good thing. But when it is a continuous state, your stress hormones build up in the blood and become toxic producing anxiety and even panic.

Chronic stress is seriously detrimental to health and can be brought on by the uncertainty of the future.

The problem with even seemingly minor changes to the environment can be deemed as uncertainty by any individual.

Without clarification or assurance, such uncertainty beds down and becomes anxiety about the future.

And an anxious person is not a productive person. Energy is diverted to allow worry to fester inside the executive part of the brain. Other cognitive functions are closed down whilst the continuous turning over of the deadly duo:

“What if?” as you worry about the future, and “if only” as you regret decisions of the past.

Instead of allowing anxiety to fester, you could always fight it or run away.

Freeze, flight, fight

Then norepinephrine is produced in your body, you'll more likely know this as adrenaline. This is the freeze, flight or fight hormone. Your three de-facto responses to a threat –

  • Freeze: to make yourself as small as possible and therefore not noticed by the big creature about to eat you. Recall how your child reacts you catch them being naughty?
  • Flight: You are ready to run for the door and the hills at great speed away from your predator, or
  • Fight: Time to ball those fists and stand your ground. OK, maybe just refuse to accept this new point of view and maintain a fixed viewpoint in spite of being completely wrong.

Adrenaline in your blood prepares you and diverts energy from your thinking brain to your arms, legs and lungs and heart. It also diverts energy from the digestive tract leaving “butterflies” in your stomach.

Once fear kicks in, your brain is less capable of rational thinking, such that any logical supporting arguments in favour of change are ignored and literally fall on deaf ears.

Acknowledge and address the concern or fear

Dick looked genuinely sorrowful as he explained the perfectly logical reasons for reorganising the team.

The fact that the business situation had changed and I was no longer required did not prevent the lurching feeling in my gut. The undercurrent that I had been rejected from the team whilst others, less capable but longer serving than I, held onto their jobs.

My ex-team mates were trying to be kind in telling me “not to worry”, that “all will work out fine”. Of course, it did in the end, but what I desperately needed was a shoulder to cry on and someone to punch and listen to my concerns.

When leading someone to change, we need to accept that emotions and fears are involved. Logic does not cause the fear to go away, but showing genuine concern and support, empathy and, dare I say this in a leadership context, love for your fellow human being goes a long way to help that person handle the change.

How do you sustain change?

Change thrust upon you is one thing. When the status quo is no longer an option, you cannot revert to it. What happens when there remains a choice. That is, you are changing to B, but option A is still possible.

All the logic shows that B is a better route, but since we've done A for so long, why not go back to A.

You're more familiar with the old way, the job got done. Perhaps not the best way, but the job did get done.

It's tough enough to get others to change and to sustain that change, but there's something that's even more challenging:

Changing and sustain change yourself!

To do that, we need to tap into the power of habit.

The Power of Habit

Charles Duhig's book, the Power of Habit is a fascinating and entertaining look at the edges of the science of habits, why we do what we do and how to change it.

Earlier, I mentioned that your brain is energy hungry and any threat to the status quo diverts energy from our thinking brain to other areas.

Just consider, for a moment, that your brain consumes about 25% of your daily energy. And the biggest gas guzzler in your brain is the Pre-Frontal Cortex or PFC. This is the executive centre of your brain and the place where you make decisions.

Every decision requires enormous amounts of energy so let's take a simple task of breathing.

For sure you know how to breathe. Or do you? If breathing were a conscious decision, would you remember to do so?

So take just a few moments to think about driving. Remember when you last drove home, arrived there and had a momentary thought that the entire journey had flashed by. You went on autopilot and it just happened.

Now, remember the very first time that you drove a car.

Even if you learned in an automatic car, you'll recall the incredible complexity of this process.

I know, there are many people who continue to drive today as if they had only just learned how to do so, but for the most part, after sufficient practice, the process of driving became habitual for you. You no longer think carefully and rationally about steering or accelerating or braking or changing gear, you just do it.

It's a routine, like walking, that has been delegated to the basal ganglia in your brain. The routine of driving no longer requires much conscious thought.

Indeed, some people appear to have a personality transplant as they sit behind the wheel of a car becoming monsters when outside they are sweet as pie.

Perhaps, as a leader, you have developed standard routine behaviours that also no longer require your conscious effort.

You've gotten used to the tell, yell, sell approach of managing people. After all, it's business, not personal.

You're under pressure to deliver results and your staff and colleagues should understand the need to keep their noses to the grindstone, There's no need to greet each other, nor spend time on pleasantries. A simple: “do this” instruction should suffice.

And for years it has worked well.

Now you want them to change something. A new technology to use instead of the old method. Or you've heard that you need to improve your communications skills or maybe you have taken on a new project that requires a few new ways of influencing and leading to be successful.

It's going to be uncomfortable because it is a change to the status quo, so how?


Duhig identifies a powerful model of habit that will help us sustain change.

There is a cue that triggers a routine that gains us a reward.

So, your driving routine could be opening the car door, or putting your seat belt on, or turning the key in the ignition. Whatever your cue is.

Then the routine takes over the heavy lifting. You turn into an ill-tempered monster and negotiate some of the most dangerous roads in the world surrounded by similar monsters – some of whom have routines that include the use of indicators, others who seem to own the road and desperately need to gain a 3-metre advantage over you.

Your reward is that you get to your doorstep within a relatively short amount of time without a great deal of physical effort.

Your habits may be good habits for you or bad habits.

I used to have a smoking habit. With numerous cues leading to the routine of rolling (yes I was a “baccy” fan) lighting and smoking a cigarette. A coffee would trigger this routine, as would the end of a meal, or a pint of beer, or taking the dog out. I had way too many triggers for this routine and it came extremely close to killing me.

Quitting was a nightmare, but after 3 years I can safely say that the habit has been destroyed.

I had a terrific boss when I worked in Saudi Arabia. As anyone walked into his office, he would greet them heartily and ask what solutions they had for him today.

When we want to change a habit we face one big problem, they are largely, if not completely, unconscious. That is, we do not consciously know what we are doing and sometimes even why.

The problem with habits is that they are unconscious

When you want to sustain a change, especially a change in the way you lead yourself or others, one way to ensure this is to make it habitual.

Our willpower is better described as “won't power”. When we want to change the way we do anything, we need to stop ourselves going into our more normal and habitual routine. And the braking system in the brain is right beside the pre-frontal cortex, the place where we consume most of the brain's energy and hence the “hottest” part.

Now the brakes on a car are in the wheels and open to the air to help keep them cool. But our brains braking system is next to the hot engine. And they wear out quickly.

That's why most people who try to quit addictive habits like smoking or booze “cold turkey” need incredible amounts of braking power to stop the old routines. And few have it.

A better way is to change something in the original habit.

Just gonna have to be a different man

When we want to break bad habits or implement good habits if the change is going to be sustainable we need to leverage the awesome power of habits and either change the cue or alter the routine or both and either way, we want to be rewarded.

Change the cue

Change the cue – i.e. do NOT allow the cue to trigger the routine.

So smoking quitters stop going to the pub where they always smoke “socially”. Or change from coffee to tea in the morning – works for me.

  • Chocoholics avoid the chocolate aisle in the supermarket.
  • Drivers who wish to improve their skills change the position of their seat so that it is deliberately less comfortable.
  • Leaders who want to smile when they walk into the office climb the stairs instead of using the lift.
  • External stimuli can help too:
    • leaders who want to remember to observe what people do well in their job right a message with a whiteboard marker on their bathroom mirror, or on their computer screen background.
    • An app that reminds you to stand up and move on your computer or smartwatch.

Another option is to change the routine.

Create a new routine – similar to the old way

You start by understanding the exact steps of your currently unconscious routine and then choose one thing to change in it.

A quick(ish) way to do this is to audio or video record yourself as you go into normal routines.

I was coaching one particular senior leader who truly wanted to stop by peoples' desks and greet them instead of heading straight to her office. A small step along the way to building more amicable relationships and understanding her people as well as building trust and respect.

When I asked how she normally walked into the office, she was taken aback when I wouldn't accept: “I just walk into the office.” So we set up a video camera to record her for the next couple of weeks.

After reviewing the video she knew what was happening and could identify one tiny change to make deliberately that would change her routine. She turned left after the office door instead of right.

Indeed, you can make subtle changes to your environment, such as moving your desk to face a different angle to disrupt your old routine enough so that you can stop and choose a different way.

Just remember to reward yourself for doing so.

Remember the reward

Rewards are an important part of habits.

Whatever routine you have, the way you do things around here. Once something changes it is critical that the new way is similarly or better rewarded.

And this is not to incentivise you to do something new, but simply to reward your brain for the extra burden you are placing on it.

And make no mistake, changing habits or implementing new ones increases the brain's demand for energy.

The existing way of doing things is like a superhighway in your brain. It's quick, straight, wide and easy.

Your new way of doing things is clearing a path through the thick jungle.

And whilst you are clearing this path, you can see the superhighway right nearby. It would be so much easier and less effortful to take the superhighway.

So, for those that stick with it, the rewards need to be there.

And the chemical you are after is dopamine.

Dopamine, often referred to as the happy chemical, is the hormone that makes you feel happy. It has a huge role to play in motivation and in memory consolidation.

And dopamine production is triggered by being rewarded for achieving things. (Money, by the way, is a dreadful reward to use.)

If you want people to change the way they work, then reward them with clearly expressed praise and acknowledgement, will work better than a couple of extra bucks in their monthly wage.

And if you are doing it for yourself, then reward yourself.

After that it's practice, practice, practice. Before long, it's a habit. I shared about this aspect in an earlier podcast on leveraging your talent.

Time may change me, but I can't trace time.

Finally, if it's safe to do so right now, give yourself a jolly pat on the back from me and say “good job, well done.”

What for you ask? For passing this on to someone who needs some help to get them self or others to change.

Good job, well done. Be blessed

John K

Professional Leadership Caddy

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

Proven systems. A personal coach and mentor.

I combine time-tested systems, behavioural neuroscience and psychology research and practical tools with the accountability and guidance of a 1:1 coach and mentor to UnLock your Talent, UnStuck Your Potential and UnLeash Your Performance.

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