More than a decade of scientific research now suggests that developing our strengths is good for us, our teams and our organizations.
Researchers at Duke University (Neal, Wood & Quinn, 2006) estimate that up to forty percent of your actions each day are not conscious choices but mere habits—that’s a little more than six hours! No wonder William James, the father of modern psychology, cautioned us almost a century ago that, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual— systematically organized for our weal or our woe, and bearing us irresistibly towards our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
But let’s be realistic—eighty percent of New Year’s resolutions get broken every year because building positive habits can be hard work. Why? Because we think that when it comes to building ingrained life habits, we can go from zero to one hundred in an instant on the sheer force of willpower. Social psychologists have discovered that the problem with this approach is that the more we use our willpower over the course of a day, the more it wears out, making new habits difficult to sustain. In other words, our willpower is like a muscle that wears out (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011)
Luckily, Ann Graybiel (1998) and her colleagues at MIT has found that there’s a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit. The loop consists of three paths: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic until a habit is born. By using this model to break a habit into these three components, it becomes possible to fiddle with the gears to make your strengths habits easier, more enjoyable, and lasting. It makes it possible to realize James’s sage advice to “Make your nervous system your ally.”
Studies have found that a cue can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a chocolate or a TV commercial, to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people. It just needs to be clear and simple (Duhigg, 2012).
You can create a cue for a new habit by anchoring it to habits you already have. This way your existing habits—like getting out of bed each morning; traveling to work; turning on your computer; having your lunch; or getting ready to leave the office each night—act as a cue for your new habit.
You can also create a cue by embedding an action trigger in your environment so that you almost “fall into” the habit. Consider the examples of putting your alarm clock on top of your running gear for the morning; leaving the article you want to read across your computer keyboard; or attaching a Post-It note to your car keys to remind you to thank someone at the end of each day.
A third way you can also create a cue is by trying a when/then statement to prime your brain to spark the desired behavior in particular situations. For example: when I go to the restaurant, then I will order the healthy salad; when I get to work, then I will spend ten minutes checking in with a colleague; or when I eat my lunch, then I will research one new idea (Achor, 2010).
You can combine all of these approaches to create super-charged cues to get your habit started, or just use the one that works best for you. Just try to ensure that your cue—in addition to triggering your routine—also triggers a craving for the reward. You see, when your brain starts to associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges that starts the habit loop spinning. Cravings are what drive habits and make forming a new habit easier (Duhigg, 2012). So, as the cue triggers your behavior, give yourself a moment to really anticipate and savor the reward that will follow to make your habit more automatic.
Researchers continue to discover tested routines that are specifically tailored to help you improve each of the twenty-four character strengths. For example, creativity can be improved by challenging yourself to come up with new uses for everyday objects; bravery can be boosted by continually stepping outside your comfort-zone; and gratitude can be lifted by counting your blessings each night. On the Strengths Habit Database page you’ll find a database with more than 70 different habits we’ve helped people to create at work.
When your routine is complete, make sure you take the time to enjoy your reward. In our rush to get everything done, it can be easy to whizz right past this important step. Rewards are the secret to consolidating your habits because they trigger a cascade of dopamine, your “feel good” neurological reward chemical, which sets up a craving for more of this behavior. It also helps to accelerate the creation of those neural connections that you’ve been building (Achor, 2010).
Rewards can range from experiences that cause pleasurable physical sensations—such as food or relaxation—to emotional payoffs, like the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation. For example, you might treat yourself to a green smoothie, a relaxing massage, or a new book to read. Or you might tick your habit off the list, use social media to share your accomplishments with friends, or report what you’ve achieved to a coach. Just try to do something in order to ensure a rush of dopamine hits your brain and sets up the craving for repeating the habit again—preferably without chocolate or alcohol. Often we’re not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors, so initially you may need to experiment with different rewards to see what works best for you.