What if unproductive work is simply a habit?

Why do we keep doing things at work that we know are wrong?

We know we shouldn’t overuse email or have too many meetings; create slides with unreadable bullet points or waste time compiling status reports. We could all make long lists of things we should stop doing that are ineffective or just plain wrong.

So why don’t we change?

One (not-so-great) approach

I used to think that changing how people worked was an education problem. That I just needed to show people how inefficient they were and teach them how to improve things. So our team focused on creating all sorts of materials and tried to reach as many people as we could. Surely, once they saw a better way, people would change.


Over the last 20 years, the US government has tried that “better way” approach, trying to educate us about what to eat. But our consumption of the “bad foods” at the top of the pyramid (like refined sugars) has steadily increased anyway.

And we didn’t fare any better at work. We just created our own equivalent of the food pyramid efforts by focusing on education while inboxes and calendars got fatter and fatter.

Viewing work as a set of habits

The problem isn’t that people at work are stupid. It’s that much of what we do – at work and at home – is un-thinking. Much of what we do is a set of habits.

In Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, he cites a study that “found more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.” And he goes on to show how habits “shape our lives far more than we realize – they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” provides a neurological explanation for this. Simply put, our brain favors doing things that require less cognitive effort.

“…if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

With repetition, effort decreases over time as the brain changes and the activity becomes easier, more automatic, and eventually becomes a habit. Changing that habit – acquiring a new skill or behavior – requires effort which the brain has a natural aversion to.

It’s not just smoking and eating that become hard-to-change habits. It’s our use of email and Powerpoint. It’s the way we schedule and run meetings. It’s “the way things are” at work.

Some surprises

The good news is that we’re starting to better understand how habits form and how to change them. Duhigg quotes a developer of habit reversal training:  “…once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it…It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” It’s certainly not simple, but recently there has been a lot of research and new insights into changing habits.

Now, for example, we know why the food pyramid didn’t change how much people eat and we’ve discovered what will: smaller containers.

In “Switch: How to change things when change is hard”, Chip and Dan Heath open with a story of a popcorn study run by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. In the study, moviegoers are given, for free, medium and large buckets of popcorn. Both buckets were too big for individuals to finish and the popcorn was stale (“one moviegoer compared it to styrofoam packing peanuts”) so that people weren’t eating it for pleasure. Yet people with the larger buckets ate 53% more popcorn.

They re-ran many variations of the experiment and each time the results were the same: “People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.”

Applying this to your firm

It’s far easier to change the size of a popcorn container than to teach people to think differently about food. And so by viewing work as a set of habits, and applying the recent research, we can open up a whole new set of possibilities for improving what we do every day.

Next week, I’ll write about how changing one particular keystone habit at work just might change everything.

About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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22 Responses to What if unproductive work is simply a habit?

  1. nick milton says:

    Good post John, Thanks

  2. Thanks John, this has spurred me to install an analysis tool to tell me what I’m doing with my time in email. I expect I’ll be (a little) surprised.

  3. brianinroma says:

    I now see the source of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s push to ban large soda sizes.

  4. john, excellent thoughts and post. i’ll grant you that for those workers who feel good enough about what they do, who they do it for and who they do it with, changing habits would go a long way towards improving productivity. my favorite concept is to shut off email and calendars from 9-12 and 1-4 every day — how many people would be frozen in place with nothing to do!

    i’m just wondering, however, aside from my belief in the goodness of people, what percentage of workers fall in that category? for those that recognize in their hearts that they’re overpaid (you know, those that always complain they are underpaid), that work in a job because they need to and who just go through the motions of contributing because people are fundamentally good, no gimmick will change things — they’d rather expend energy on finding workarounds.

    wouldn’t it better if people just had clear goals with well-defined roles and tasks, coupled with clear rewards, incentives and consequences?

  5. Provocative and sensible post John. Awareness of a habit is certainly a great starting point. Keen to read next week’s addition.

  6. Gia Lyons says:

    Looking forward to hearing what the equivalent of “smaller containers” is in the workplace! I subscribe to Kathryn Everest’s motto: “If you give them no other choice, adoption is 100%.”

  7. Thank you for the post. Quite a while back, one of my teachers told me “nothing worse than habits”… I have been appreciating the full effect of such a comment in a medium and then large organization for more than 10 years… How many things are missed or failed because of (bad) habits and unability to adjust behaviors?
    From a brain point of view, habits allow us to run in “auto-pilot” and to consume less cognitive resource; the laziness from Kahnema, as you truly mention. Also note that habits give a feeling of control, key factor for a balanced psychology. In counterpart, it freezes most of our ability to change with the possible negative effects that we know. The challenge obviously becomes to develop healthy habits and to re-use the released cognitive resources while in auto-pilot to enhance further the existing behaviours.
    Hence my 2 cents as a conclusion: always challenge the existing condition (is my behaviour still adapted to the situation? Do I need to adjust?) and shake your habits randomly (go to work using a path you have never tried, try a veggie restaurant at lunch, go and speak with this other department colleague you do not usually work with); hopefully a new world will open!

  8. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Thanks for a really interesting and thought provoking post. I would like to add a couple of things: I think it’s important to distinguish between habits that are due to patterns of brain behaviour (email) and those habits that also have a related and potentially lethal physical addiction – like smoking . Both are hard to change habits, true, but only one is a killer.

    When changing habits in a “collective” environment e.g the “workplace” you are right – people need to be taught collectively to change their habits similar to the food pyramids and your “container” experiments. But the experiment of the popcorn containers involves a kind of duping – participants always eat relative to the size of the container – so even if they left some of it, it seems obvious they will eat more from the bigger container. It was also offered for free!

    I’m intrigued by what you will be offering up next week about changing one particular keystone habit!

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Marie (Marie-Louise?). For sure, addictions like smoking, etc are harder to change. By alluding to them, I hoped to show that if we can change those habits, then we have an even better chance with habits at work.

      If I get it right, the next 2 posts will go beyond a popcorn metaphor for work and instead talk about particular work activities and a useful framework for changing them.

  9. Great post, John. Seems like you can reduce the switching cost (or introduce some guideposts to to reach better habits) or increase the rewards to make the switch. For the latter, Andy talks about the 9X problem here http://andrewmcafee.org/2006/09/the_9x_email_problem/

  10. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Thanks John. The trouble with habits at work, and unlike smoking (again), it ‘s not enough to give up on your own. It requires a cultural change which I’m sure your framework will allude to and which I very much look forward to reading. Thanks again for providing such an interesting post and discussion

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  13. John Hunter says:

    I think the power of habit is really much more than 40% (he measured decisions I guess). But habit even defines what decisions you get confronted with. http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2009/12/10/habits/

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  16. What if unproductive work is simply a habit? Actually it’s an addiction and should be treated as difficult to change as getting someone off heroin. Companies should be calling in experts in addiction studies to change behaviours rather than ‘culture change experts’. Is this going too far? I’m not so sure.

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