Habit Design: A Starting Place

Among the greatest means to promoting sustained behaviour change is to create healthy (beneficial) habits. The science of behaviour change provides many recommendations for how to form, break, and maintain good habits.

While we often believe that beliefs change habits, we often find that behaviours themselves can just as profoundly affect our beliefs.

There are many ways to shape the design of habits with good research and we’re going to introduce you to a few of them.

  1. Pay attention. The first step toward understanding habits is recognizing which ones we have — as individuals and organizations. Doing sufficient research to observe and record the degree to which we perform an activity repeatedly is essential. A habit is something that requires little or no conscious decision-making. It’s not that we don’t know it doesn’t exist, we just do it with the most minimum amount of ‘friction‘. Observation, recording, and reflection all contribute to this part of the process.
  2. Model the benefits. All of our habits benefit us in some ways. The key is to determine what those benefits are and if those habits are harmful or detrimental to our goals. By knowing what we are doing we can begin to change what we do. By understanding the benefits of harmful or unproductive habits we can also start to determine how we might be able to replace them down the road with our designs.
  3. Understand history. How salient is a habit? Once we know what we do, it’s important to see how strong habits are. For example, someone who started using cigarettes two weeks ago will have a different habit structure than someone who’s smoked for 25 years. Whether its consumer habits, health, productivity, or otherwise, the salience and strength of a habit is tied partly to a person’s history with that behaviour. The same applies to organizational practices as well.
  4. Model the context. It’s not enough to know what we do, it’s important to understand what context we do it in. The environment is a powerful force in shaping what habits we engage in and to what degree. By understanding our context, including how and what triggers our habit, we can start to begin to re-design this context. This can be done by tracking what behaviour is performed, where, and what other variables were present at the time.
  5. Identify leverage points. A leverage point is something that can be adjustedamplified or reduced — that can yield large benefits indirectly within a system of activities. Most of what we seek to change is one behaviour among many that are, as we’ve seen, often connected to one another. For example, to use the cigarette example, many smokers cite drinking alcohol as a co-habit (the two are done together). In this case, reducing or changing the way one behaviour is done can also affect the other. This is called habit stacking. It’s having one behaviour affect another.

By engaging in systematic inquiry — observation, interviews, surveys, or reflective practice — we can start to illuminate some of these powerful hidden forces that shape and direct our choices and behaviour.

Try these methods out. The application does not need to be complicated, just systematic.

Need help or want more detailed design research to help your organization change and design for something different? We can help you – contact us.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

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