I am inordinately fascinated by ordinary habits.

I had coffee recently with a guy in my swim squad who has swum the English channel.

When I expressed my horror at the sheer distance of the channel (21 miles across at the shortest point!) he said, as if it were nothing, "Anyone can do it, if they put the work in to train for it."

Advertising is about changing behaviour. I think we can learn something from humans' ability to form habits. Specifically, good habits. By harnessing the neuroscience behind habits, we can affect change.

Unfortunately I am not an expert on neuroscience. Fortunately, I can read books by people who are. I've been reading The Power of Habit lately by New York Times reporter and author Charles Duhigg. I used to think of habits as something people did when they were stuck in a rut, afraid to get out of their comfort zone. After a lot of thinking I now view habits as the keys to success - or failure - for individuals and organisations. Habits are way more commonplace than you might think: a 2007 study from Duke University found that more than 40% of our actions are the result of habits. 

If there's anyone who cultivates habits well - it's athletes. Channel swimmers. Marathon runners. Olympians. Cyclists. Putting the work in, day in, day out. Training. Routine. Visualisation. So how do they do it?

How Habits Are Formed

There is a part of our brain, close to the brain stem, called the basal ganglia. This is the part which controls routine behaviours or habits. MIT researchers discovered a loop that occurs in this part of the brain that forms the core of a habit. Every habit loop contains these three elements: a cue, routine, and a reward. 

  • A cue is an event, location, time of day or message that consistently triggers a routine. For example, you get a little bit tired and bored at 3:30 in the afternoon.
  • The routine is the behaviour itself. Walking to the shops with a colleague in search of chocolate, a Diet Coke, etc. 
  • The reward is the most important part - and the hardest part of breaking bad habits is pinpointing what the reward is. For example, Duhigg says, you might be rewarding yourself with socializing with a colleague on the walk, instead of the act of eating the cookie itself.

But once you crack the psychology behind the habit loop - the world is your oyster.

Habits Breed Success

Habits are actually more than just a 'nice to have', like making your bed every day. The trait of self discipline is scientifically proven to be a better indicator of future success than IQ. A 2005 study from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth graders and found that self discipline in students was a better predictor of their future academic performance than IQ. And the best way to strengthen self discipline? To make it into a habit.

Michael Phelps' swimming coach, Bob Bowman, believed that for swimmers, the key to victory was creating the right routines. When he first met Phelps, he could see that he had the obsessive nature that would make him an ideal athlete. This part was not coachable - it was inherent. But what Bowman could teach Phelps were habits - habits that would make him mentally the strongest swimmer in the pool. Bowman taught Phelps the habit of visualising his performance under an array of conditions - some favourable, some not. "Put the videotape in," he'd tell Phelps, which was the 'cue' for Phelps to begin his race routine. In the 2008 Olympics, Phelps' goggles began to fill with water during the 200m butterfly. Phelps, instead of panicking, remained calm. He had visualised not only what the perfect gold medal swim looked like, but also how he would react if things went wrong. He went on to win the gold medal for the race (one of 11 he would win). 

When asked by a reporter who asked him what it felt like to swim blind, Phelps replied, "It felt like I imagined it would."

"Champions don't do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they've learned." - Charles Duhigg

Brands and Self Discipline

So that got me thinking

Habits are really powerful. They're powerful in enacting change. People would kill for the discipline needed to journal daily. Exercise regularly. Follow a budget. This stuff is hard. But it is possible to cultivate these habits.

Technology creates new opportunities for brands, people and marketers to solve people's problems.

Apps like Strava, Day One, and Mint are the perfect examples of using the habit loop to turn a product into a cue, using customers' intentions into actions and then rewarding positive behaviour. This reward can come in the form of 'sharing' with social networks, completing a beautifully formatted journal entry, or logging onto your bank account to see a very favourable balance. Once you receive positive reinforcement, you're well on your way to cementing a habit (remember - cue, routine, reward is the magic habit forming formula!). What brands like Strava, Day One, and Mint do well is identify the desire in customers to establish a behaviour, and then provide the reward.

We're in the business of behaviour change. Habits are a massive part of that. So the question we should be asking ourselves is not what habits do we want to create in people - but what habits and routines are people trying - and failing - to establish - and how can we help them succeed?

Because if they succeed, we succeed.