Habits And The law Of Unintended Consequences

Habits And The law Of Unintended Consequences

New Year is a fast-receding memory now and, for many of us, so are the resolutions we made to improve ourselves and transform our business. Whatever happened to the 6 A.M. runs and eating healthy lunches instead of grabbing a sandwich and a coffee at your desk? Where are the improved time management and the promise to stop trying to do everything yourself instead of leaving it to those who could do it better? As the great Bob Dylan knew, the answer my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Isn’t it really the truth that we already know these resolutions won’t happen the minute we make them? My daughter holds the family record for broken resolutions for declaring as the chimes started that she would stop cracking her knuckles, only to crack them again before they had finished.
Why did she do that? Because cracking her knuckles was a habit.

The OED defines a habit as:
A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

This applies to working long hours, not listening properly or, indeed, cracking your knuckles. Something, as ingrained in us as that, won’t be turned around simply because we make an announcement.

The OED also defines a habit as:
An automatic reaction to a specific situation

A habit is not just ingrained behaviour

This takes us even deeper into our subconscious. A habit is not just ingrained behaviour; it is an automatic response to a given situation. This means that every time we face a similar situation, we react in the same way. So, we’re doomed (Private Fraser’s stock response in Dad’s Army). Fraser saw disaster as the inevitable result of any problem, just as we all jump immediately to our own stock responses. Let me give you a few examples:

Let me give you a few examples:

Faced with an important deadline, the perfectionists among us may well obsess about small details, not acting until everything is perfectly in place. Our dithering means we leave everything until the last minute and end up rushing, or missing out altogether. Either way, the result is imperfection and missed opportunity – the very things we were desperate to avoid.
Or, if we are impulsive, we do the opposite; diving in and making mistakes because we didn’t stop long enough to plan and prepare. We end up taking on too much, over-complicating things and making mistakes that take longer to sort out than they would have to prevent. This leads to more unproductive work, more discouragement and perhaps abandoning something we were originally excited about as too much trouble.

So, why do we so often cause the very thing we are trying to avoid?

What’s that all about? And, if we do, how can we stop doing it and instead behave in a way that brings about the results we actually want? How difficult can it be to do what we want to do?
There are two principles at work here, and recognising them is the key to deciding to do something we want to do and, sooner or later, accomplishing it.

The comfort zone

The first is the comfort zone. Comfort zones are not necessarily comfortable! A comfort zone is simply something you are used to. You can work in the same company for twenty years feeling resentful, or bored, or just slightly miffed off, but you still get up in the morning and go into work. Why don’t you leave? Because you’re comfortable with getting up each day feeling resentful, bored and miffed off. You know how it feels. Critically, you know how to cope with the situation because you already have – for twenty years!

If we really intend to change our behaviour, we need to understand that our subconscious will always pull us back to our comfort zone. This is because of the second principle:


Our subconscious seeks security: it’s the number one priority. This is why people resist change – even change they want, like a new year’s resolution.
Many of us go about change in the wrong way, giving our subconscious a great excuse to stop us changing. Resolutions are about big gestures – and big gestures are hard work. Given that hard work is, well, hard, our brains are more than happy to come up with reasons why it’s a bad idea.

We are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Get up at 6 A.M. and go for a run? Or lie in, where it’s warm and comfortable. No contest. Trust someone else to do something you’ve always done? Or keep doing it yourself? Easy. A few days of running and your brain (Ok, and your body) will tell you what a good effort you’ve made and isn’t it time you had a rest. Do a bit of half-baked delegation and then take it all back again as it isn’t worth the risk.

Diets generally don’t work because we still associate pleasure with eating, and pain with not eating. Think of the offices where people sit around talking about diets only to join in the next bun round. The new habit has no chance to get established.

I remember one job I had where nothing seemed to go right, yet I was working ridiculously hard. When I got home at night, I rewarded myself with a doorstep peanut butter sandwich. I saw it as compensation for a hard day’s work. What I was actually doing was rewarding myself for failure. I wasn’t achieving, so I deserved a reward. That’s like saying you’ve stuck to your diet for two days so have a bar of chocolate, or staying somewhere for twenty years because you know how to be unhappy.

The set-piece resolution is meat and drink to our subconscious. It’s typically so big, so ambitious and so absolute that your brain can easily dismiss it in favour of something safer and vaguely reassuring. What your brain is doing is keeping you in your (often uncomfortable) comfort zone. It does this by justifying the old habit and preventing you from trying to build a new habit.

Only you can overcome this, and the way to do it is to associate pain with continuing with the old negative habit and pleasure with establishing a new positive habit.
Try these few simple techniques and let me know how you get on:

  • Avoid generalisations and absolutes (I’m going to stop wasting time: I will be more decisive)
  • Introduce specific results rather than wishes (I will be able to take my dream holiday or I will run a half-marathon by the end of the year)
  • Reinforce the benefits of the new to prevent the old from seeming more comfortable

What we focus on, we get more of. Focus on the benefits of the new habits, not the comfort of the old.

Focus on your worries and they multiply. Focus on your goals and they just might get delivered.
Oh, and don’t wait until New Year’s Eve…

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