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The dangerous power of habit

Written 09 August, 2018, 2 minutes to read

Change – it’s one hell of a charged word. Working in the tech industry, change is pretty much the one constant you can count on; you need to be ready to adapt at any moment. But responding to change is a skill that benefits life in general – we can’t develop as individuals without locking horns with it.

As humans, we have a tendency of stalling our own progress. Even when change is clearly for our own benefit, we are often slow to adopt it and continue to potter about as we did before it rudely entered our lives. Why? Largely because we are creatures of habit.

Why we form habits

Habits are self-wired shortcuts, responses and routines we establish to ease our day-to-day cognitive processing. They form part of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes as our “System 1” way of thinking. These programmed responses help our mind take the path of least resistance to complete a task or solve a problem. They help us function without needlessly wasting energy.

But they’re also emotional artefacts: they express our deep-rooted perceptions and needs. We hold on to habits because they are familiar and comforting, and by repeating patterns we can be sure of a certain outcome. New patterns, in contrast, are unpredictable and threaten our sense of security.

When habits block change

We all give huge privilege to our habits, sticking with them even if they’re massively ineffective just because they’re “good enough”. They are easy and comforting, whereas taking a new approach would require effort – learning a new behaviour, perhaps experiencing failure on the way. These short-term costs rarely justify the expense.

To use an illustration close to home, many Timely users still choose to use fiddly manual timers to track their hours even though we have invented a technology which can track their entire workday automatically. The most common reasons we get are “I like to feel in control of time tracking” and “I’m just comfortable using timers” – clear indicators of established, familiar routine overpowering innovation.

But habit isn’t just limiting; it can be dangerous. When we cling to “the way we’ve always done things” as justification for avoiding change, we are leaning on a highly emotional, irrational response. We’re using an unconscious knee-jerk reaction to overrule change which may enable and enrich us for the long-term. We're essentially not consciously engaged in our own decision making.

Towards conscious change

To continue to grow as individuals, organizations and societies we all need to be a lot more vigilant in our own self-reflection. And that starts with how we approach our habits – constantly challenging our worldview, checking our behaviour and casting off methods that no longer serve our interests.

Ultimately, positive change is made consciously – weighing opportunities rationally and finding the effort to bear short-term discomfort for long-term reward.

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