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New Habits

Health, Marketing, Psychology

Image by Flickr user Miguel M Almieda; used under Creative Commons Attribution licence

We talk a lot about how difficult it is to break habits – those ingrained, patterns of behaviour we all have slightly too many of. The things we do routinely without any conscious thought, seem perfectly normal and rational to ourselves but are often infuriating to others.

But, what about how easy it is to create habits?

In the past week I have developed many new habits, very quickly.

I have just ignored a vacant bathroom in the office because it has had an ‘out of service’ sign on the door for three days. Three days is just 0.5% of the time I have had the previous habit of checking each door meticulously, then seeing none are vacant, walking up or down to another floor and doing the same.  In just three days, a habit I have had for almost three years has been replaced, based on multiple trips a day, 5 day weeks (minus holidays etc.) that’s a well established habit.

Last week, I updated my iOS software (I even managed to do it myself). At first I hated it. I couldn’t find my way around, the calendar operates differently, there are no lines in the notes, etc etc. But now, I can’t recall how it used to be. Similarly, each time Facebook updates, there’s a backlash demanding it be returned to its previous form. This only ever lasts a week though, people soon get used to it and sink into a new habit of operation.

New products, whether technology, food or transport innovations, at first seem strange but soon become a normal and habitual part of life, from pull ring cans, to start button ignitions, to tablet computers. Can you recall the first time you saw touch screen technology? We don’t need that, it’ll never take off. Now we hear reports and see YouTube videos of people trying to generate responses by clicking/touching any number of inanimate objects. Grown adults years of manual operation, replaced by the comparably minimal few years since the touch screen revolution began.

Habits may be hard to break but they’re also very easy to establish.

Especially if routed in an existing habit, for example:

Electronic cigarettes, which allow the same behavioural habit, are already the most popular method of attempting to quit in the UK. Keeping the pills we need to take daily next to the pot of tea we open every morning ensures they are taken. Going to the gym is far easier if we go to the one en route home from work, with the friend we would normally hang out with on a Tuesday evening.

As a marketeer, one of the best campaigns I have seen tapping into existing habits is Lifebouy’s chapattis. This aligned a new habit of hand-washing at the crucial pre-meal time by intervening with the existing eating rituals/habits, embedding their message (“wash your hands with soap”) on a chapatti. Another, great example is the infamous ‘Got milk?’ campaign, associating the drinking of milk with the nations habitual cookie eating.

Lifebouy 2

Or instigated right from the start, for example:

Whether or not we take the stairs in an office is established within our first week of work. Similarly, our commute route is defined by the way we first travel.  The Cola we habitually choose is defined by what we grew up drinking and the super market we frequent is usually the one we first went to when moving to a neighbourhood. Coming back to the touch screen example, kids born in the last few years automatically tap magazines and toys. Touch screen to them is the norm and they are completely confused by anything that does not respond to touch.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXV-yaFmQNk

Another health example, but initiatives encouraging children to wash their hands from their first day at school are far more successful in establishing the hand washing habit than when the intervention comes later in the term.

Too often businesses, brands, government and friends try to ‘break a habit’. Research, as well as common sense and personal experience show that this is really hard. Aside from the psychological and behavioural difficulty, starting something holds more positive connotations and is more likely to drive a change.

Rather than ceasing life as a smoker, embracing life as a non-smoker. Starting to eat brown bread, not stopping white. Starting to turn lights off, not stopping leaving them on.

Change for Life is a great example of this, encouraging people to make small changes across their lifestyle, starting to be more active, eating well & choosing less booze. I particularly like (which is no reflection on my lifestyle) the poignancy of ‘choosing less booze’ opposing the usual tact of ‘drink less’.

We should look forward, not backwards.

Strive to make active changes, create new habits and where possible, in line with existing routines or right from the off.


Emma Rose Hurst is a communications and marketing specialist with expertise in the application of behavioural science and psychology in the real world. She tweets @EmmaRoseHurst.

© 2015 Warwick Business School and the Design Council