Brain Hack for Breaking Bad Habits

June 7, 2017 1:51 pm

Find it challenging to break a bad habit or start a new one? Blame your brain.

A lot of routine behaviour is controlled unconsciously in our brains. So simply setting a goal and trying hard is not enough.

Recent research has shown that the environment can have a bigger influence on how quickly and easily we make changes than setting goals or even willpower. This is because most of our habits and routines are buried deep in our brains and triggered by cues in the environment that we are not even aware of. A good example is when you drive to work, stopping as required for red lights, using your turn signals as needed and not even remembering the trip.

It’s only when the environment shifts – such as changed road conditions, flashing lights or a detour sign – that we become more conscious of the decisions and actions we take while driving.

The same is true for any habit we want to shift.

If the conditions have changed and we need to shift our way of doing things, we have to create flashing lights and detour signs to snap us out of automatic pilot.

Traffic lightFlashing lights tell us to pay attention now. They are a signal to power-up the conscious thinking part of our brain at the moment we need to do something different.

To create your flashing light, you need to either:

  • Physically change the environment or
  • Redefine the meaning of cues that are already there.


Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 8.21.58 PMDetour signs tell us what we need to do next. They give us a viable alternative to replace the ‘habit’ that is no longer effective.

To create detour signs you need to either:

  • Experiment with alternative responses until you find one that works or
  • Plan and implement an alternative response that you know will be more effective.


Here are two case studies for putting hacks in place

  1. Activity-based working
  2. Merged/acquired organisations

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 9.01.09 PMOne of our clients is in the process of shifting to activity-based working. They are familiar with the research that says that once in the new space, there are frequent complaints of ‘not enough meeting spaces for groups’, while at the same time the property team observes unused collaboration space and misuse of conference rooms.

The transition team for this business knows that challenges around space utilisation come about because many people working in large organisations have the ‘habit’ of automatically booking a conference room for any meeting. We rarely think about what we are trying to accomplish in the meeting and what type of space would serve that purpose. This was a good ‘automatic habit’ when the only space that would not result in disturbing others was a conference room. But for this business things have changed.

Activity-based working typically comprises a variety of collaboration areas. Each is set up to cater for different needs and group sizes. To benefit from the enhanced environment, people have to ‘break old habits’ and either experiment with new spaces or consciously choose a space that is known to facilitate the desired outcome.

Flashing Light

Team leaders and meeting organisers must redefine the scheduling of a meeting to become a signal (flashing light) to consciously think about the space for the meeting. They could set their system up to alert them every time they book calendars, or when they go into the system to book a space or even a note on their computer desktop or note taking app to remind them that they have better options now.


Here are a few questions the person planning the meeting can ask themselves to determine which of the available spaces is most appropriate.

  • How many people will attend in-person and how many via video/tele link?
  • What is the purpose of the meeting?
  • What type of engagement do you require: share information, active debate, creative problem solving or blue sky thinking etc? If it is pure one-way provision of information, ask do you even need a meeting?
  • What type of technology and other resources do you need: video link, internet access, whiteboard etc?
  • What technology, if present, will distract from the purpose?
  • What mindset do you need: relaxed, intense, competitive, collaborative?

You can also ask the questions from the other direction, for example:

Will our purpose be facilitated best by:

  • A more open or more closed-in space?
  • Relaxed/casual seating or traditional boardroom table and chairs?
  • Flexible furniture or non-movable?
  • A variety of seating/standing options or one-size for all attendees?


It is also helpful to evaluate the alternative you chose based on how effective the meeting was at achieving it purpose.


Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 9.00.44 PMI have a colleague, Russ, who works for a recently acquired business. He comes from a fast-paced, agile sales oriented business and the new company that they merged with is a large multi-national with deep hierarchy and lots of processes. He’s had a few run-ins with new colleagues from the new business. He wants to get along but at every team meeting he find himself going back to his natural high-energy competitive style.

For example, he puts forward an idea that he believes has lots of upside and some people immediately oppose it as too risky. He quickly counters with comments about their ‘risk aversion’, lack of agility, creativity and commerciality, with the predictable result that his colleagues are ‘put off’ and even more resistant to his ideas.

Because of his position in the business, Russ knows he is expected to not only get along but to provide an example of ‘collaboration’ for the rest of the organisation. He is committed to doing something different but it is hard to change a pattern that has worked well for a long time.

This is not a motivational issue. Russ is falling into a well-learned habitual reaction that is no longer serving him well in this changed environment.

Ideally he could change the environment to 1) prevent himself from reacting in his habitual way and 2) encourage him to respond in a way that is more likely to get a positive result in this new business. These could include:

  • Asking someone to facilitate the meeting such that diverse perspectives are drawn out
  • Creating a process for the meeting flow that ‘forces’ a balanced discussion
  • Asking a trusted colleague to signal him when he is reacting in a way that will not get the result he wants and perhaps create more friction with colleagues.

However, this may not be ‘his meeting’ to modify. Fortunately, there are also some things Russ can do to change his own habits in any meeting.

Flashing Light

In preparation for the next team meeting, Russ could take one minute to predict what are the issues and who are the people who will ‘cause’ him to respond competitively. He could describe to himself exactly what he expects someone will do and say and what his typical reaction to what they do/say would be (this should be fairly easy, if it has already happened a few times).

This would then let Russ redefine (in his mind) these behaviours as a signal to pay attention (not just react, but engage his thinking brain).


Next, he needs to identify a response that is likely to get the result he desires e.g. after calmly describing his idea he will: listen attentively, acknowledge various points of view, ask questions to understand what’s is important to his colleagues and what they are concerned about and then give a thoughtful (calm) response that acknowledges and addresses their concerns and how they can be mitigated and/or engage them in a discussion to work out a risk mitigation strategy together.

For well-entrenched habits, taking a few minutes to ‘rehearse a new response’ makes the implementation a lot easier. So in this case, Russ could visualise or even practice ‘his new pitch’ and think of a few questions he can ask to draw out concerns. He could even write himself a note or create another visual cue to remind himself to thoughtfully respond – not just react in the heat of the moment.


After the meeting, Russ should take at least one minute to assess how he went and modify his approach. Rather then focusing on the outcome, Russ will make more progress on changing his habit if he pays attention to what triggered him to either follow the old path or implement his new routine.

Key take-away

The key is to identify the environmental cues that ‘trigger’ the habit/routine and either change them or consciously redefine their meaning. This will stimulate the conscious part of your brain to take charge and prevent you from ‘falling into’ unconscious routines that no longer get the result you desire.

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Dr Connie Henson, author of BrainWise Leadership, runs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience research through Learning Quest. For information visit Follow on twitter @LearningQuest or Linkedin.


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