I’m a creature of habit. I’d like to think my actions are unique and inspired 100 percent of the time, but in truth, it works out to be less than 60 percent. The rest of the time, according to Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” I’m a guy on repeat.
Take my grocery shopping ritual, for example. I shop at Trader Joe’s – a specialty grocery chain found in nine states including Washington, where I live. I like it for a lot of reasons (unique foods, good prices, etc.), but one thing in particular recently caught my attention: my ritual when entering the store. I arrive, grab my cart, and proceed directly to the back, where I pick up a free Dixie-cup-sized coffee sample before starting to shop. I do it every time I’m there – and in over a decade of weekly shopping trips, the coffee pot has always been full.
In “The Power of Habit,” Duhigg breaks down habits into three components: Cue, Routine, and Reward. The Cue is an external trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. In my case, simply walking into a Trader Joe’s grocery store is a Cue. The Routine is a physical, mental, or emotional learned behavior. I don’t think about going to grab that coffee – it’s automatic. Finally, the reward helps our brains know if the behavior is worthwhile. It can be as simple as the delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee along with a hit of caffeine.
Whether productive, destructive, or benign, automatic habit responses permeate our lives at home and at work. The good news is that habits can be broken and replaced with new patterns. The fact that Trader Joe’s stores maintain a full pot of coffee keeps my benign habit alive.
As the CEO of an enterprise SaaS company, I spend a lot of time thinking about productivity and how teams communicate. Like most of us, I spend most of my day in front of a computer screen, where I’m inundated with Cues designed to distract my brain. They range from emails to Facebook notifications, text messages, instant messages, and beyond. Each Cue triggers a response to stop what I’m doing and check something else – producing an ever-so-slight dopamine hit that’s just enough to keep my brain seeking more. The end result is a large quantity of shallow communication that feels like work but doesn’t help me accomplish my goals.
There are of course tricks to help with focusing and getting individual work done, but I’m particularly interested in how and what we communicate in groups. I want to make sure my team keeps urgent day-to-day messages in balance with bigger, strategic issues. So we’ve developed a simple process to sync the things that matter, on top of the day-to-day noise. It looks something like this.
We schedule a reminder every Monday afternoon (Cue), asking each person on the team to take a few minutes to write five bullet points about what they’re working on that week and what they accomplished the week before (Response). We challenge ourselves to keep the response short and concise, focused on just the things that matter. Finally, we share the report with everyone on the team and make an effort to help each other as needed and to celebrate accomplishments (Reward). It’s a simple habit with huge impact. Pausing once a week to think about and share our priorities keeps us aligned and working on the right things.
I personally love to review my reports at the end of each month and see what we’ve accomplished as a team. It’s great to see the progress we’ve made, contrasted to the hectic distractions of the day-to-day. The feedback loop isn’t as immediate as a “like” on Facebook, but it is substantially more rewarding and helpful for achieving our goals.