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5 ways to start changing your not-so-valuable habits

To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. - by Tommes



We are all looking for ways to be the best we can be. Especially in current times of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – and the urgent need for collaboration (see this post), we seem to get thrown back on ourselves a lot. By ourselves, that is. How awesome would it be to fully experience that we don’t have to solve ‘the world’s problems’ – or the challenges we encounter in our daily work to start with – alone?


In a previous post, I ‘ranted’ a bit about the fact that “it” doesn’t work anymore. In subsequent conversations (thanks for that by the way, you know who you are!) we started to explore the individual levels of change that needs to happen. One of the things it boils down to is creating new, more valuable habits.


“To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”


I didn’t come up with this, Charles Duhigg did. In his book “The Power of Habit” he explains the habit loop: the neurological loop that governs any habit. The habit loop consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Basically, you have to break current habits to form new ones, by utilising the neurological patterns around the cue and the reward that are already there. Fascinating! Combined with the concept of a Growth Mindset - the idea that intelligence can be developed rather than it being set in stone – it is pretty clear that habits can indeed be changed, mindsets can be shifted and developed. And it’s all based on solid neuroscientific research that has taken place over the past years.

Let’s add another angle. Our emotions are driven by our social environment. We share mirror neurons that cause us to match each other’s emotions, immediately and unconsciously. We even anticipate each other’s emotions when we feel a positive connection to someone else. All because we seek connection: we thrive on positive connections with other human beings, and we get pulled into negative emotions when we are not.


We can actually change our mindset. We can actually replace a non-valuable routine into a valuable habit. This has impact not only on us but on our fellow human beings as well. Changing ‘useless’ habits is almost a no-brainer, isn’t it? Even more so when we realise that it causes a positive feedback-loop. That will help us enforce that new, more valuable habit. This all hints to us being the architect of our own change…so why is it still so hard?


Psychologists, neuroscientists and many other -ists have been researching this big question for many years. And have come up with heaps and loads of answers – theories, concepts and ideas. Some really well founded in research, others more esoteric. All of them valuable, I suspect. When combined, that is. Which I am not going to even try. Two things are clear, though: change (especially behavioural, habitual change) is rarely a discrete or single event, and we all are afraid of change because we perceive a risk or fear associated to it.

A tough cookie. Having been involved in designing interhuman collaboration for many years now, the immersion in and study of behavioural patterns and designing processes that would help a system of human beings change their course, we have been able to pick up quite a few valuable insights. One of them is that as soon as you pose a change in a playful way, people are more inclined to try new habits and new behaviour. It is all about play and learn, learn and play. In this light, and adding a perspective on experiential and active learning in solving problems to it, I would love to share these following 5 easy ways to start changing your not-so-valuable habits!

  1. In creating products, deliverables, services, reports and such, let go at an early stage

The cue: anxiety about deadlines, quality of your work, feeling the need to make it perfect before you let someone review. The routine: head down, workworkwork, make it perfect. The reward: “Good work, you!” The habit to change: when the cue hits: hand it over! The improved reward: high speed, high quality, “Good work, us!”

The background for this is the combination of iterative work and the Pareto principle (applied: 80% of value can be achieved with only 20% of the total effort needed). Iteration makes ‘things’ better by combining different perspectives and different insights in short, focused cycles. Combined, they will allow you to achieve high speed and high-quality outcomes. You will end up with a product that is at least 7 times better than when you would have done the work alone. Give it a go!


2. In solving challenges, ask yourself who might know (bits of) the answer as well – and connect to them

The cue: “Hmmm…how do I tackle this…”. The routine: head down, workworkwork, solve it. The reward: “Interesting solution, you!”. The habit to change: when the cue hits: reach out! The improved reward: richer solutions at higher speed “Awesome solution, us!”

‘Group Genius’ rules. It thrives on collaboration. And there is a reason for that: we all know part of the answer already, collaboration allows for the parts of the whole to come to the surface. Give it a go!


3.    In ‘disputes’, start by telling yourself “I might actually be wrong…”

The cue: “Right, I’ve just stopped listening, as I need to get my own reasoning out there…”. The routine: brace in, ready for attack, swift thinking on how to tear down reasoning of the others. The reward: “I am indeed the smartest, I just won again!”. The habit to change: when the cue hits: think you might actually be wrong, start listening and combining perspectives! The improved reward: A rich dialogue leading to common understanding “That was a really good chat!” And, an additional reward for leaders: your team will experience more ‘space’ and will get a stronger sense of ownership. This will boost trust and confidence!

Discovering you don't know something is the first step to knowing it. That requires you to allow yourself this discovery. And to listen to others, without waiting to speak. Just give it a go!


4.    In conversations, change your language

The cue: “But this won’t work…I really truly believe this won’t work!”. The routine: gather all reasons why it won’t work and detail them out for everyone to hear. The reward: “Why can’t people think for themselves?! I might actually be the smartest one here…”. The habitto change: when the cue hits: shift into “How can I help make this idea better”-mode – and ask yourself exactly that question. (Of course, “Yes, and” will help in this as well…). The improved reward: A positive spiral in which together you will come to a better solution than each of you would have been able to figure out alone. “We are brilliant!”

We often forget the impact our language can have. Even though it might feel justified for you to go in like a bulldozer, the effect your words will have are usually longer lasting than that single conversation. People will remember others taking a stand and verbally defending their position strongly for a very long time after the initial conversation took place. This can be good or bad: context is king in this. So, if the context asks for it, show leadership and tune your words to it; if the context is different, shift to a collaborative mode and tone. Give it a go!


5.    In turbulent times, use this sign as a reminder and just do it!

As a condensed-down version (yeah, I know that’s cheating a bit) of all of the above, and in line with what I truly believe in: collaboration will help us shape the future of individuals, groups, organisations and whole systems. We will have to remind ourselves continuously that this will help us grow.

A team’s potential is not set in stone. It is defined – at a certain moment in time (growth mindset!) - by the most ‘intelligent’ and least ‘intelligent’ members, its ability to collaborate and willingness to get better at it. Collaboration beats genius 10 out of 10 times.


So the cue could be any of the above; the response should be us thinking about who to best collaborate with to get to where we want to get to. Because the value is evident.