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The power of habit: 4 steps towards a new routine


How often have you resolved to change certain of your everyday habits? Eating less sweets, being more punctual, eating the right breakfast, putting your cell phone away while eating – we all have habits and routines that we know are not good for us.

If you’ve ever tried to break old habits and establish new ones, you know how hard this can be. In the present article, we’ll tell you more about the reasons for this and explain how you can do it anyway.

Why humans are creatures of habit

People usually form habits unconsciously. A psychology professor from England enjoys demonstrating this with a fascinating mini-experiment he does with his students at the beginning of each semester: He takes a photo of the lecture hall in the first lecture and shows the photo to his students in the next lecture. In the second lecture, most of the students automatically sit down in the same seats as in the previous one.

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Why? Because in everyday life, the human brain seizes every opportunity to automate a decision. Automated decisions and processes make us more efficient, and it is precisely this efficiency that is essential for survival.

In fact, studies show that around 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts run through our heads every day. That’s about 40 to 50 thoughts per minute, or almost one thought per second. In order to cope with this incredible amount of thoughts and to not have to consciously process each of them individually, our brain automates as many processes and decisions as possible.

Reaching for the toothbrush, locking the front door, switching on the PC – all of these are automated over time, they’re all habits. Without automatic routines like these, we would not be able to cope with our everyday lives. Our brain would simply be overwhelmed with all the decisions that have to be made minute by minute. With routines, on the other hand, our brain saves energy for all the day-to-day decisions it can’t avoid.

How to use the power of habit for you and your team

Habits are a double-edged sword: brushing our teeth every morning without thinking about it is a good thing. But if we start biting our nails or eating sweets when we’re nervous, our brain has created automatic processes that can harm us. Yet the brain fancies habits so much that it is often quite difficult to change them. That said, new habits can significantly increase our productivity, performance, and satisfaction.

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For a way of thinking or a behavior to become a routine, it can take up to six months. That means you need patience and a fair amount of perseverance. However, the reward at the end is great, because once the desired behavior or thought pattern has become a habit, it runs automatically and effortlessly and you will have long-term success.

The following steps can help you and your team establish and sustain new habits:

Step 1: Identifying a new habit

Before you start changing anything in your daily life, think about which new habit you want to start with. What do you want to achieve? What do you want the new habit to change about you or your environment? Which way of thinking or behaving will benefit you? Which one aligns with your values and goals?

Let’s look at the following example: You find that you often have less energy and motivation to complete your tasks in the afternoon. You’re sagging and even coffee doesn’t give you the kick you need. You are aware of the fact that you tend to sink into your work for hours in the morning without taking any breaks. Like this, you might get a lot done in the morning, but you feel drained for the rest of the day.

Your goal could therefore be: In the future, I want to get into the habit of taking regular short breaks so I can stay productive in the afternoon.

Step 2: Becoming successful by setting the right goal

Set a SMART goal, meaning one that is:

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Attractive,
  • Relevant and
  • Time-bound.

We’ll look at what that means exactly by focusing on our goal of taking short breaks:

→ Specific: “I take at least a 5-minute break every hour and at least 20 minutes at lunch. During the breaks, I do a short meditation, prepare a cup of tea, or take a short walk in the fresh air.”

→ Measurable: “I set reminders in my calendar and check off my hourly breaks on a checklist so I don’t forget. By the end of a full workday, I’ve taken at least seven short breaks and one long break.”

→ Attractive: “I get more done because I can still concentrate in the afternoon. I feel less exhausted at the end of the workday. In return, I accept regular interruptions.”

→ Relevant: “I have everything I need to achieve my goal. I know how to set reminders on my calendar and I also see the reminders on my phone if I’m not on the computer.”

→ Time-bound: “After one month, I have taken all scheduled breaks on at least three work days per week. After two months, on four work days, and after three months, the short breaks have become habitual enough that I no longer need reminders.”

The more detailed and tangible you phrase your goal, the better. A concrete goal gives you clarity and focus, and keeps you focused on all aspects on your way there.

Step 3: Celebrating successes and rewarding milestones

In addition to an overall goal, define smaller stage goals and milestones such as, “In the first week, I will manage to take at least seven small breaks and one larger break on at least two work days.” It is important to keep a record of your progress to verify that you have met this goal.

In the case of our example, this could be a simple list where you check off each break. This way you can always keep track of your progress. This will motivate you and help you stick to your goal.

And don’t forget: Reward yourself when you reach one of your milestones. For example, treat yourself to lunch at a restaurant on Fridays or order something from a delivery service. Get your afternoon coffee at your favorite coffee shop around the corner or invest in new headphones if you like listening to music at work.

Step 4: Overcoming obstacles

It’s best to think ahead about what might help you reliably implement your new habit and create an environment that helps you achieve your goal. In our example of short breaks, for example, it might be beneficial not to start during the most stressful week of the year and to use your calendar on your PC or cell phone to set reminders so you won’t forget to take regular breaks.

Also, you can tell your colleagues about your goal and ask them to remind you of your breaks if they notice you haven’t left your desk in a while. This way you will have allies who will help you implement your new habit and you will feel more committed to pursuing your goal.

Last but not least, don’t let setbacks throw you off track. Bad habits are hard to break. That’s their nature. But you know how your brain works, and if you stick with it long enough, the desired behavior will take on a life of its own and become a new habit. So the motto is to keep going.

New routines for everyone: how you as a leader can support your team

You’ve already taken the first step by reading this article. Knowing how hard it can be to change ingrained habits, you can do a much better job of helping your team establish successful new routines.

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In addition, you could:

  • Mention the topic at your next team meeting and give advice to your team
  • Celebrate small and big successes together with your team
  • Create optimal conditions, for example, by motivating employees to take breaks or addressing unnecessary overtime
  • Set a good example and address your own setbacks as well as successes
  • Create positive incentives, for example by making a team challenge out of it

Conclusion: There is great potential in positive routines and habits

Even if our brain doesn’t like to discard old habits at first and replace them with new ones, it’s still worth the effort. Because as soon as a new habit becomes a routine, everything runs automatically and you will get long-term success: You are more productive and more satisfied, feel proud to have achieved your goal despite resistance from your brain, and have once again proven that you are in control (keyword: self-efficacy).

And if things don’t work out right away with one or the other habit, don’t hesitate to get help. A coach, for example, can provide you with support in implementing the habit and regularly motivate and accompany you.

Any idea which habit you’d like to address next?