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Breaking Bad: How do we decide if we should focus on breaking bad habits or making new? - visual

Breaking Bad: How do we decide if we should focus on breaking bad habits or making new?

In his recent article, ‘To Change a Habit, Get Extreme. Progressively’, Nir Eyal (Behavioural Scientist, Sept 12, 2019) talks about progressive extremism. This is the idea that to make a change, rather than trying to create new habits, it is more effective to eliminate bad habits very progressively over a period of time. He helpfully talks about this in relation to bad eating habits and removing the need for a daily cookie. The idea is that rather than trying to create new healthy eating habits, an obese person is more likely to achieve health if they can identify where their urge for unhealthy eating comes from, and eliminate the bad habits associated with that rather than creating new habits. Eyal proposes that breaking bad habits is more effective than creating new habits. 

This got us thinking. Our philosophy of building inclusive cultures is based on raising awareness of the issues, working with teams to help them consider their behaviours and attitudes and take this learning to create new habits to build inclusivity. But what if this is not the full picture? Should we be focusing on breaking old habits rather than building new? And is it that clear cut anyway? 

As many of us that have habits that we’d like to break, or at least change, probably know that it can often be hard to see those habit in ourselves – in its entirety and from the root causes. We might be able to see the symptoms – poor diet, tiredness, feeling overwhelmed – but it takes greater insight to fully understand why we are living with the habits that cause these symptoms. Therefore, it is important to gather insights from others about both the reasons for and implications of our behaviours and attitudes. Without seeking these insights, we can be blind to our habits, let alone the impact these are having on ourselves and others. So perhaps the first question we should ask is ‘how do I objectively gather insights into what my habits are that I might have a blind spot to’ and ‘what are the implications of these habits on myself and others’. 

When we have gathered these insights, we are building self-awareness and are better placed to answer the question ‘should I focus on making new habits or breaking bad old habits? 

However, I would still return to the idea that things are rarely an ‘either/or’. If we are to use habits to build emotional intelligence and influence ours and others’ attitudes, we need to be self-aware, but also recognise the emotions of others, be able to discern between different feelings and reactions, have the language to articulate them and use all of this information to adapt. With this complexity comes the need to both break bad habits – and progressive extremism certainly sounds like a more attainable approach – as well as build new. After all, the human brain is incredibly complex and attuned to developing several neural pathways at once. And time is finite, we need to be making the most of our ability to learn, interpret, make decisions and change. 

By using the insights gathered, this enables us to make decisions about what needs the greatest attention, what is attainable, what do we care about most and what is going to have the impact we want to see. And at the heart of all this – the importance of that first step of gathering insights to ensure that we are aiming at what is important, rather than what is easy or obvious. 

In Diverse Company has developed several ways to measure behaviours and attitudes that have an impact on both inclusivity and well-being. We believe that data enables meaningful insights. By gathering data and analysing it to understand people’s motivations, actions, and attitudes, we can work with individuals, teams, and organisations to understand the habits that are at play and through our development programmes and coaching, to help people understand the implications and alternative approaches available. By using data science, underwritten by academic institutions, we can give you the greatest chance of getting the insights that will lead to the right decisions to be made.