Development programs should help employees convert tasks into workplace habits.

When I begin a new instructional design project, I usually start by asking whether the desired behaviors are clearly defined procedures or are more tacit skills requiring judgment and experience. I've recently added another question to the list: Are any of the desired behaviors habits?

A habit is defined in the dictionary as "an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary." This describes many of the behaviors we all exhibit throughout the day.

For example, how much of being a good manager is based on habits? Two different managers could have equal knowledge and skills, but their habits—the habit of communicating, delegating, or giving clear and frequent feedback—could be the crucial difference between success and failure.

I spent several years teaching project management, including creating materials to prepare people for the PMP (Project Management Professional), a challenging test that people work hard to pass. But in my experience, the critical difference between an exceptional project manager and a poor one is not her ability to calculate the float in a critical path, but rather her habits of persistence, organization, and follow-through.

So how does habit design intersect with talent development? If good habits are crucial for success, then how do we help support the development of those habits?

Growing awareness

Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before are both signs that habit design is making its way into the general consciousness. The healthcare industry, in particular, is looking closely at habit design, because dealing with many of the most expensive health conditions relies on consistent healthy behaviors. Researchers at institutions such as Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to decode the behaviors and brain functions behind habit formation.

The software industry is paying attention as well. Books such as Nir Eyal's Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products are being read by software designers who would love for their new app to become a regular part of your day. Apps also are being designed to help you develop your own habits, whether you are trying eat better, manage your inbox, or avoid distractions.

Encouraging habits isn't a new concept in talent development; we've been developing support systems for employee coaching for decades. But deliberately identifying and designing to support the development of specific habits may be an opportunity for talent development professionals to improve their practice and to create more effective solutions.

The anatomy of a habit

Let's break down the definition of a habit.

An acquired behavior pattern. We typically need to learn the behavior that we want to make a habit. We aren't born with an instinctive desire to floss our teeth, for example. It's something we need to learn.

Like many habits, though, flossing isn't a particularly complicated behavior to learn. It's simple, and there isn't a lot of art to it. But it's pretty clear that teaching someone to floss isn't going to magically transform them into a daily flosser. So learning the habit may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for acquiring the habit.

Triggers. Most models of habit acquisition involve identifying the trigger that activates the habit. It could be a trigger that you are arbitrarily attaching to the new behavior ("When I get my first cup of coffee in the morning, I will take my vitamins"), or it could be a trigger that naturally occurs in the course of daily life ("When one of my direct reports emails me a deliverable, I will take a few minutes to give them feedback").

An "almost involuntary" behavior needs to have something that activates it. BJ Fogg, of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, has triggers as a key part of his behavior model, which illustrates that behavior equals motivation plus ability and trigger.

Motivation. No one can be told a habit. A habit may be a requirement of someone's job, and a required action over time can become automatic, but many desirable workplace habits are only going to become routine if the person is actively motivated, which means that person needs to have autonomy and control over the process.

Feedback. The most difficult habits to acquire are frequently the ones that lack any visible feedback. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg writes about how the addition of substances such as citric acid and mint oil to Pepsodent toothpaste creates a tingly clean feeling that reinforced the action of brushing (despite the fact that the tingly compounds don't actually affect cleanliness).

Habits for which the feedback is delayed or absent are frequently the hardest habits to acquire. For example, unless you are fortunate enough to get an immediate endorphin rush from the act of exercise, it may be weeks or months before you start to see the benefits of jogging daily. It's difficult to persist in an activity with no visible benefit, so most people starting an exercise program will attempt to measure or quantify their progress in some way. The rise of fitness trackers such as the Fitbit are a way to ensure that users can see progress much more quickly.

Practice. Using our definition, something can't be classified as a habit unless it's "regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary." We've probably all heard metrics for how long it takes to acquire a habit—seven times or 21 days—but, unfortunately, the real answer is "it depends." It depends on the complexity and difficulty of the behavior, the mechanisms set up to support it, the presence of feedback, and the motivation of the person forming the habit.


Environment. One of the other determinants of habit formation is how well the environment supports the habit. If I'm trying to acquire the habit of flossing, I dramatically improve the likelihood that I'll floss if I have a ready supply of dental floss handy at the necessary time and place. A supportive environment also can include creating social supports—for example, an exercise partner or someone you report back to who keeps you accountable.

Conversely, breaking an undesirable habit can involve removing the triggers from the environment. A friend wanted to break the habit of spending too much time on her smartphone before bed. She could keep the phone out of the bedroom altogether, but she had family members who would sometimes need to reach her at night, so she wanted to be able to hear the phone ring if needed. She settled on putting the phone in a box on her bedside table. It was close enough to hear, but because she didn't have the visual trigger of the phone, she was much less likely to idly pick it up and get distracted when she went to bed.

The benefits of habits

Daniel Kahneman, the behavioral economist and Nobel laureate, describes the idea of System 1 and System 2 thinking in his influential book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He describes System 1 thinking as fast, automatic, and emotional, while System 2 thinking was slower, deliberate, and logical.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt uses a similar brain metaphor of an elephant and a rider. Part of your brain is automatic, visceral, and emotional (the elephant), and part is rational, logical, and deliberate (the rider).

So, essentially, in forming habits, we are trying to move a behavior from System 2 to System 1 by practicing a habit until we don't have to think about it anymore. The benefit of doing so seems to be tied to effort and willpower.

Expending cognitive effort seems to have a cost. In an experiment to test this idea, researchers Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin tested the impact of cognitive load. They had two groups doing mathematical tasks. The first group was solving easy problems, and the second group was solving much harder problems. During a break in the exercise, the researchers offered both groups a snack. Participants could either have a healthy fruit salad or an indulgent chocolate cake. Groups that had been doing the harder cognitive task opted for the cake almost two-to-one over the groups that had been doing the easier cognitive tasks.

Researchers like Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs have found similar results in their studies of willpower. It's an exhaustible resource that seems to require time to recharge before we can tax it again. It appears to be tied to the availability of substances such as blood glucose—our brains are essential fuel hogs, and activities such as forcing ourselves to pay attention or using willpower to execute a desired behavior use that fuel pretty quickly.

So how does this interact with habits? There seems to be some evidence to suggest that habits (along with other automatic, System 1 actions) are fuel-efficient. Executing a well-worn habit requires much less willpower and energy than executing a new behavior. If you've ever had the experience of pulling into your driveway after commuting home from work and realizing you don't remember the drive at all, then you know the benefit of a habitual behavior. Both the well-practiced act of driving and navigating a familiar route take much less energy than they did the first time you did either, leaving willpower and cognitive load for other, more pressing questions.

Habit strategies

So what are some strategies we can use to design for habits? Several researchers and companies are working on this problem right now. Below are a few examples.

Writing the script. Researcher Richard Gollwitzer has done a lot of work on the idea of "implementation intentions." Essentially, this involves creating a script for yourself ahead of time, based on the habit trigger ("If X happens, I will do Y").

For example, you might be trying to extinguish a bad habit such as smoking. If you are concerned that cravings will derail your attempt to quit, you can create an implementation intention ("If I have the craving to smoke, I will distract myself"). That way you are leveraging a more automatic, predetermined path when you encounter the trigger.

Implementation intentions seem to be more effective the more specific they are. So instead of a general distraction intention, you could have intentions such as "If I get the craving to smoke because I'm stressed, I'll call my sister" or "If I get the craving to smoke because I'm bored, I'll play Candy Crush on my phone" or "If I get the craving to smoke because I'm in a social situation, I'll chew gum."

Creating a feedback mechanism. If a habit is difficult to acquire because it's made up of several smaller habits, and there's no visible way to measure progress, it may be necessary to make progress more explicit. Francis Wade, in his book Perfect Time-Based Productivity, identified that time management, rather than being a few small behaviors, is a series of large behaviors (for example, capturing, emptying, tossing, acting, and storing) that are each comprised of several smaller behaviors. He created a belt system (white, yellow, orange, green) to help people track their progress in developing the habits and skills of good time management (see figure, "Capturing Cheat Sheet").

This kind of tool can act like a fitness tracker does for exercise; it can enable you to see progress over time and track how your habits are developing.

Reducing the barriers. While numerous apps are being developed to track and monitor progress, technology also can be used to help reduce the barriers. In an effort to create an app to help office workers avoid sitting too long, the design firm Mad*Pow created an app called Hotseat for the consulting company Context.

It's an app where users are able to select a series of small physical activities that they will execute, such as walking up some stairs or doing a quick yoga pose. The app then prompts them to do these two-minute activities throughout the day. But to increase the likelihood that people actually do them, the app waits for open time on the users' calendars before it provides the nudge. The app can thereby increase the likelihood and decrease the friction for the user (nobody is likely to jump up and do yoga while in the middle of a project team meeting).

Deliberate design

Habit formation, while not a new concept, is undergoing both a scholarly and technological makeover that has the potential to add several new tools to the talent development toolbox. I've found in my own practice, just the act of identifying habits as their own behaviors (rather than just parts of larger skills) helps me make better and more deliberate design decisions about how to support the development of those habits for the audience I'm trying to serve.