How Healthy Is It for Businesses to Rely on Habits and Established Patterns?

Key Takeaways:

  • Forming habits may be described as a way for the human brain to automate recurring tasks and processes.
  • This has obvious benefits in terms of time saving, consistency and predictability, cognitive availability, and more. 
  • However, it can also be argued that we are prisoners of our habits — unless we manage to balance them out with open-mindedness, flexibility, and agility.

“We are the sum of our actions, and therefore our habits make all the difference”, Aristotle said. A habit — which can be defined as something that one does regularly without even thinking about it — can be seen as a behavioral shortcut that’ll take us to an expected result without having to make conscious decisions at every step of the way. 

Automating routines has obvious benefits in terms of time-saving, consistency and predictability, cognitive availability, and more. However, it can also be argued that we are prisoners of our habits. Once they are engrained, habits — whether they are good or bad — can prove fairly hard to shake off. And relying too heavily on established patterns can jeopardize a leader or team’s ability to come up with the best response to new situations. 

Here are a few considerations about the pros and cons of depending on habits in a business context.

Habits as a Driver of Efficiency

Forming habits may be described as a way for the human brain to automate recurring tasks and processes. It’s all about turning a behavior into an automatic routine that can be consistently repeated and even optimized with time and practice. 

Being able to replicate best practices, to implement time-tested methods and solutions without having to reinvent the wheel, and to analyze situations in the light of lessons learned from past experiences obviously saves huge amounts of time and effort. 

In fact, what we usually call experience is to some extent related to habits. A good part of the productivity gap between a senior worker and a junior employee can be attributed to the former’s ability to leverage a “library” of good work habits that makes it possible to perform a given task faster and often better.

Relying on habits will boost overall productivity and empower workers to focus their intelligence on high-value issues.

Hence the importance of encouraging the development of good habits in the workforce.

Habits as Markers of Identity

In a corporate environment, the power of habits takes yet another dimension. In addition to the unique habits adopted by individual workers, habits can be formed at the level of the team, of the department and even of the organization. 

When they are consciously and purposely defined and encouraged, these collective habits become akin to a corporate process. The way people are using the tools available to them, the way they are interacting and communicating (including the vocabulary they are using), the modus operandi they are relying on to perform tasks and activities, can all be elevated to “organizational habits” in order to improve consistency and alignment while boosting collective productivity. 

The habits you grow internally will become an essential part of the firm’s daily routine. Ultimately, they’ll contribute to defining your identity as a business.

An Agile Mindset to Make the Most of Habits

Relying on habits may save you precious time and help to create cohesion and efficiency at the organization level. But, on the flip side, habits can be associated with mental rigidity and inability to embrace change and novelty. 

It’s well and good to use past experiences to inform and facilitate present decisions and actions, but this doesn’t mean that “the way we’ve always been doing things” is the best way. Managers and workers should always keep their minds open to new approaches, methods, technologies and solutions — even if these are challenging their established habits. 

Habits can prove especially harmful when used unduly. Every action can’t be calcified into a process, every solution isn’t repeatable. Sometimes, trying to take a shortcut can actually cause you to lose your way altogether.

A number of cognitive biases can lead us to try and apply habits to situations and issues that require ad hoc analysis and creative thinking, resulting in inadequate responses.

You also need to account for the fact that habits — whether good or bad — are notoriously hard to break. Human resource management professionals and team leaders should monitor the habits and practices in effect in the organization to make sure that staff don’t form bad habits that’ll be difficult to root out. 

This also means that, before promoting a process or best practice, you need to be quite sure of its potential effectiveness and value: trying to change it too radically once it’s been adopted by your people may prove impractical.

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