Willpower is highly correlated with future success, it’s also significantly eroded by stress. This is a fun video from the research of psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford.
First published in The Huffington Post on 10 March 2015
The cold light of day
“I can’t believe I did that!” Ever had that sensation, when you look back and wonder what the hell happened? In the cold light of day it seems so stupid. It might be as simple as eating far too much despite your every intention of sticking to your healthy eating plan. Or it could be finding yourself in a meeting room debating with colleagues in the organisation how others have behaved in a way that seems to defy logic. I’ve experienced many such conversations over the years. It’s wearisome. Maybe it’s because I too have found myself doing things in the heat of the moment I’ve later regretted. More likely it’s a phenomenon that the economist Lowenstein calls the ‘Hot-cold’ empathy gap.
When you are in the hot state, for example right in the middle of choosing your lunch options, you are likely to under-estimate how much your decisions are affected by the state you are in – hungry and in a lunch queue – rather than the ‘cold’ dispassionate analysis of your situation. The opposite is also true. When you are in a ‘cold’ state – e.g. you’ve had your lunch and you are now contemplating what you will eat for dinner – you will fail to fully appreciate the impact your state at dinner time will have on the choices you make. Similarly, someone who is not in the same state as you may not fully appreciate what it really feels like.
Breaking habits is difficult. Breaking habits under pressure is even more so. In the previous article, I talked about the despair felt by the IT Director of a logistics company that the drivers in the firm would insist in re-scanning goods before they loaded their vans. In the ‘cold’ light of day it made perfect sense. But it shows a lack of empathy for the drivers. Under significant pressure from management to increase their effectiveness and with an expanding workload the drivers are trying to do the best they can. I spent time with the drivers and I saw them skip breaks and take questionable risks in an attempt to meet ever tougher targets. They may not have been achieving the targets, but it was not for want of trying. Over years they have developed the habit of re-scanning as it was incredibly effective in the past, and now their difficulty is breaking the habit. In the heat of the moment, the drivers are doing what they’ve always done – but faster. The trouble is, in the ‘cold light of day’ the behaviour of the drivers seems incredulous. Why would they not want to do it the right way?
Those of you with bad habits – like buying a chocolate bar when you fill up the car with fuel, or in the habit of drinking every night, will testify how hard it is to break the routine.
Paradoxically, the pressure from management to change behaviour exacerbates the problem. Neal and Wood’s research into habits has shown that when we put people under pressure (in their research it was students studying for exams), people tend to default to their habits – both good and bad. It’s as if we simply don’t have the bandwidth to cope with the effort required to be vigilant to changing our habit and do everything else as well.
The message is clear, if we want people to change their habits we need to give them the bandwidth to be able to do this. But there is one more important lesson worth considering.
I recall attending a meeting in the same logistics company where an incredibly bright member of the finance team set out the clear logic of what people on the front line needed to do to hit the business targets. It made perfect sense, was delivered in a compelling way and many people in the room were won over. I got talking to the presenter later and it turned out that neither he, nor any of his colleagues had actually spent any time on the front line experiencing what the job entailed. Worse, due to a relocation of the headquarters, almost all the finance team were new and with a few exceptions their time in the business was less than a year.
There was no appreciation of what being a delivery driver meant in terms of repeatedly getting in and out of a van in all weathers, all day, loading and unloading parcels, coping with traffic, school runs, roadworks, flooding, and IT equipment that did not do what it was meant to do. Not only was there a hot-cold empathy gap there was a complete lack of understanding. Years ago, when total quality management was all the rage, ‘going to the gemba’ was a key part of the process. In essence – going to where the action takes place to better understand what’s happening.
I find it depressing that I come across so many senior managers who rarely get out and visit the front line and spend some time experiencing the challenges and seeing the consequences of decisions taken in the warm comfort of a corporate office.
Oiling the wheels
Given all of this, I have two requests.
Firstly: Next time you find yourself struggling to understand why someone has done what they have done ask yourself:
– Have I ever eaten way more than I should have done?
– Have I failed to exercise when I know I should?
– Have I ever got carried away and done something I later regretted?
If the answer to any or all of these 3 questions is ‘yes’, now go back and consider why they did what they did and see if you can bridge the ‘hot-cold’ empathy gap.
Secondly: Get out and spend some time with the people on the front line. Do their job for a few hours. Watch, listen and learn – not to criticise but to understand. Let the experience sink in and use it as a frame of reference when thinking about what it is you need them to do. The ‘front-line’ goes beyond work. Why not remind yourself what it’s like training in the cold and dark in winter when you take your child to sports practice as but one example.
And if you can do these two things, you’ll be all the richer a manager / parent / human for it. You’ll make better decisions and gain much respect.
Dominic Irvine © 2015 All rights asserted.
First published in Huffington Post on 3 March 2015:
“What’s wrong with these people?” Frustrated at the drivers’ seeming inability to stop rescanning all the parcels prior to loading the vans, the IT director of a logistics company had his head in his hands in despair. In the cold light of day it seemed incomprehensible to him that they would continue to follow the same routine day in day out even though they had been asked to change. His conclusion was similar to that reached by many people in similar position – to question their intellectual capability.
Absent-mindedly he reached for another biscuit from the plate. Now here was a paradox. The IT director and I had talked about the challenges of losing weight and the seemingly endless struggle it involved and yet even though he knew he didn’t need the biscuit, he’d still taken it and eaten it. So how come it was unacceptable for drivers to fail to do what was required but it was okay for him to slip up and eat biscuits? And why did both the drivers and the IT director continue to do what they both knew they should stop? In this article and the next, I’ll attempt to answer these two questions and suggest some things you might want to do.
Life’s a habit
Much of our day is made up of a series of habits. From when we get up, the route we take to work and a lot of the things we do at work become habitual. I bet when you sit in front of your computer you open the same programmes (email, browser etc) and for the first few minutes do what you always do – probably without even realising it. David Neal and Wendy Wood have done some amazing research into habits. They define habits in essence as repeating the same behaviour every time you are in a particular situation. For example, always putting your bag down in the same place in your office, automatically seasoning your food at the table, or always parking in the same space at work. It’s the repetition of the same behaviour over and over again in the same situation that helps it become a habit.
More than a word
A habit is more than just a word for repeating the same actions. Research by Ann Graybiel has shown that as something becomes a habit – for example, parking on the drive at home – the part of the brain involved is different to that involved when you are doing something consciously to achieve a specific goal, e.g. working out where to park in an unfamiliar location.
The impact of something becoming a habit is that it is initiated by contextual triggers. For example, opening your office door might be the trigger that initiates you to drop your bag in the same place. It is no longer a rational choice, it has become a response. So powerful are these triggers that they will set you off doing what you always do whether you intended to do that or not. Sometimes they can overwhelm your intentions. For example, when my stepson was a youngster, I sent him to the bathroom to wash his hands before dinner. Instead he cleaned his teeth. The trigger of going into the bathroom had set off the habit of cleaning his teeth and over-ridden the desired behaviour of washing his hands. In the same way, the ping of an email can have you opening your inbox before you’ve realised it.
The stages of a habit
There are three stages in a habit.
1. The cue: In this case opening the bathroom door.
2. The routine: In this case cleaning his teeth.
3. The reward: Clean teeth, and probably more importantly feeling good that he had remembered to do what he was meant to do without being told!
According to Ann Graybiel, brain activity during the routine phase of a habit drops significantly when compared to doing something that isn’t a habit. In other words we simply aren’t thinking much about what we are doing. This is important because most of our efforts to change habitual behaviour are focused on getting people to change their routine – the precise point when the person is not really thinking about it.
Habits generally arise because we do the same things again and again because they get us what we need. They only become a bad habit when we don’t need what the habit delivers. The poor drivers cited in the opening paragraph have been rescanning loads for months, if not years because it was an effective way of ensuring an efficient route. It was, at one point – a good habit. Changes in IT now mean it is a bad habit.
Changing habits is a tough thing to do. It requires a great deal of motivation as well as being attentive to what you are doing, attempting to really notice what you are doing and to have to follow a new pattern of behaviour to follow when cue kicks off the old behaviour. It’s hard! Just as it is hard for the IT director to stop taking the biscuit from the plate in the meeting room. It’s become a habit. The difference between changing rational goal oriented behaviour and habits is that in the former you need to focus on the behaviour. This is pointless when changing a habit. Here the emphasis needs to be on being attentive to the cue that triggers the routine and determining what you will do instead.
Habits can be broken, but let’s not treat it as a workshy lazy response. Let’s recognise it for what it is, a completely different neurological response to a situation that demands a focus on vigilance and a focus on cues rather than on routines.
Dominic Irvine © 2015 All rights asserted.
Read Part 2 of this article here.