The Truth About Building Habits: No You Don't Have to Do This Forever

Many times in the course of working with clients, they hit a point of realization about using a scientific approach to behavior on the job, and it sometimes sounds like this: “You mean I have to do THIS for EVERY behavior?”  The short answer is yes and no. Let me explain.

The answer is yes in that using a scientific approach to manage behavior is simply a more precise way of doing what most leaders spend their time doing anyway. As long as any of us are in the business of dealing with the behavior of others (which is most people in the workplace today), then we will be doing some version of THIS. Applying behavioral tools like pinpointing, shaping, feedback and positive reinforcement are simply more precise and deliberate ways of doing what leaders, managers, teachers, coaches, parents, etc., are doing in the course of their everyday interactions.

The answer is also no in the sense that not every behavior requires the same level of attention and even the ones that do, don’t require that attention forever. The value of pinpointing is that it helps narrow the vast universe of behaviors that are occurring all the time, down to a few that are mission-critical for some result or outcome we are trying achieve.

Even when focused on just a few key behaviors, it’s not necessary to stay focused on them forever. The intent in focusing on those behaviors is to turn them into habits that reliably occur with little or no additional attention from anyone.  Once those habits have formed, they are maintained by naturally occurring prompts, reminders and consequences in the workplace or in your environment.  Those behaviors become part of the culture or just how we do things here.

In a more technical sense, when we target a few pinpointed behaviors we are arranging planned antecedents and consequences to initiate and maintain a desired frequency for each behavior. As that behavior reaches a desired, reliable frequency or specificity, other naturally occurring antecedents and consequences begin to take hold and maintain that behavior. When that happens we tend to say that a habit has formed.

A simple example is wearing a seatbelt while driving or riding in a car. The first few times in a car, the act of fastening a seat belt isn’t natural or particularly comfortable. But antecedents or prompts (e.g., seat belt chime from car, reminders from other people), will result in people fastening it. The feel of the belt on the body, the sound of the click as it fastens, the termination of the chime function—are all forms of consequences.  Over time, this pattern of antecedents and consequences becomes fairly routine, to the point where driving or riding in a car without a seatbelt feels awkward or uncomfortable. The bottom line: seatbelt wearing has become a habit that no longer relies on instructions, laws, public service announcements, etc., to be maintained.

The important thing about habits is that they tend to stick with almost no additional effort on anyone’s part.  They simply become, how you do things.  So in that sense the answer is no, you don’t have to do this forever. You only have to do this until you have turned pinpoints into habits.

Posted by Tim Nolan, Ph.D.

Tim Nolan is a trusted advisor to business and organizational leaders, partnering with his clients to achieve the outcomes they seek for themselves and for their businesses.