My organization has just rolled out a new collaborative software tool and my manager let us know we are expected to use it. I’m excited about the new tool, as several people on my team have used it at previous organizations and swear by it. Yet, I still don’t use it. When I need to connect with someone, I send a quick email or—and this will make me seem old—I pick up the phone and call them. This has worked for me for years. I want to adapt to this new way of working, and I know I need to if I am going to stay relevant in today’s workplace. The problem is not my willingness to change; the problem is I keep defaulting to old habits. What should I do?
Old Dog Wanting to Learn New Tricks
Dear Seasoned, Mature, and Experienced Dog,
I hear you. I know what it’s like to get stuck in that space between wanting to change and actually changing. Everyone has been there at one point or another. We are wired to build habits. Our brains efficiently automate routine behaviors. And our habits serve us well . . . until they don’t.
It sounds like collaborating through email and phone over the last several years has served you well. But now you are faced with a change in your environment. Your old habits are holding on in the face of that change. You are in what we refer to as “the lag”—the delay between wanting to change and actually making a change. Living in the lag results in regret, frustration, anxiety, and unhappiness on a personal level, and diminished performance, engagement, and efficiency on an organizational level. The key to reducing that lag is to understand how habits work so you can change them.
Most of us think of a habit as a behavior. But that is just one part of the habit. A habit is actually a three-step process that begins with a cue (the trigger), that triggers a routine (the behavior, or what we tend to refer to as the habit), that results in a reward (the reason your brain remembers and repeats the routine). Without the cue and the reward, you don’t have a habit.
Right now, you have a habit that probably looks like this:
- Cue—you need some information from someone
- Routine—you email the person
- Reward—you feel a sense of satisfaction for completing a task on your to-do list
This habit has worked well and now you want to change it. And change is the right word. Because as much as we might want to, you can never break a habit, you can only replace it. This is the Golden Rule of Habit Change.
So, you already have your new routine—communicate with coworkers using the new collaborative software. Assuming you know how to use the software, the routine is not the problem. You are likely getting tripped up by either the cue or the reward. Ask yourself, “Am I forgetting the new routine?” If so, this indicates a cue problem. Or, “Do I remember to do the new routine and choose not to?” This would indicate a reward problem.
If you tend to open your email and send a message before you even think about using the new software, reconfigure your cues to make the new routine more likely and the old less likely. You might try the following:
- Keep the collaborative software open on your primary desktop and minimize or close your email program.
- Put a sticky note or other reminder on your monitor to prompt you to use the new software.
- Set an alarm on your phone that prompts you to connect with someone using the new software.
- Allow all notifications from the collaborative software but silence all notifications from email.
If, on the other hand, you remember to use the new software but decide that it’s easier or better to use email, you may have a reward problem. You are remembering to do the new routine but choosing not to because you aren’t sufficiently motivated. So, add some rewards:
- Track the number of messages you send each day with the new software and make it a game—give yourself a target to hit each day and reward yourself when you do.
- Eat an M&M each time you send a message in the new software.
- Take a 10-minute break after sending your tenth message of the day with the new software.
The reward can be anything that will motivate you, but make sure it’s immediate and obvious. This is where most people fall short. They consider the cue and the routine, but they fail to implement a reward. They assume that the outcome (my manager and coworkers will be happy I am using the new tool, and I’ll be more relevant and effective) will be sufficiently motivating. But while the promise of positive outcomes can spark a desire to change, it rarely sustains us—outcomes are only realized as long-term consequences. When building a new habit or replacing an existing one, you will need to implement an immediate and obvious reward.
So, implement cues and rewards to reinforce the routine. If you falter, experiment with different cues and rewards until it’s clear you remember and want to do the routine. This should get you out of the lag and onto using the new software.
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in The Power of Habit Training. Learn more about The Power of Habit.