Disrupt routines to change habits

Of all the tools at our disposal, the one we tend to use least — in life and in the workplace — is stored inside our skull, more or less between the ears.

I’m referring to the ol’ thinkin’ meat. The head-based smartness generator. Zombie chow in a cranium wrapper. The beautiful, oft-ignored human brain.

Consider how often you follow familiar routines at work with little thought as to why you’re doing something a particular way. Or, if you’re a manager, how often you implement changes without really considering how the brains of the people who work for you might respond.

“One of the things I always said is it’s sort of unfortunate that everyone we know has a mind and almost nobody knows how it works,” said Art Markman, founding director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at the University of Texas at Austin. “We basically set people free to think for a living, but then we teach them very little psychology, very little cognitive science. People walk around with very little knowledge about their minds.”

So we do things without questioning why or considering a more efficient approach. We listen to management principles and “best practices” that often have no grounding in the science of the mind.

In a recent piece Markman wrote for the Harvard Business Review, he discussed how the brain — which consumes huge amounts of energy, as much as 25 percent of our daily supply — is always looking for the easy way out. That’s what drives people to, as Markman wrote, “minimize the amount of time and brain energy they spend thinking about a choice.”

That explains, at least in part, why companies big and small can be so reluctant to change.

“Once you’ve planned something in the workplace and figured out how to do it once, you tend to keep doing it the same way, even though there might be a more efficient way to do it,” Markman said in an interview. “The root of that stubbornness is the brain fiercely trying to keep from having to do more work.”

What’s key here is that Markman is identifying something most people already know — that we tend to be creatures of habit — and then taking the extra step of explaining why that behavior happens. The explanation is often the missing piece.

You can recognize a problem or a particular behavior and then take scattershot approaches at fixing the problem or changing the behavior. But if you understand the root of the problem or behavior, the solution will be much clearer.

Learning about the brain allows us to be more strategic in how we control ourselves and manage others.

When it comes to the brain’s natural tendency to conserve energy — basically by reducing the amount of thought required to perform different tasks — Markman said: “The basic principle is any time there’s a desirable behavior you want out of people at work, make it as easy as possible to do and make undesirable behaviors as hard as possible to do.”

In his Harvard Business Review article, Markman wrote that if you want people to schedule shorter meetings, set up your office scheduling program so the default setting for a meeting time is “15 or 30 minutes rather than an hour and needs to be adjusted to be longer if necessary.”

“Although people will still end up scheduling a number of hourlong meetings,” he wrote, “the need to expend energy to override the standard option will shorten many of the items that end up on people’s schedules.”

Another example Markman gave: “If you want to make your office more physically fit, slow the elevators down. People hate waiting. Time that you spend waiting gets to be physically painful because your brain starts thinking, ‘You’re wasting all my energy.’ So more people will just opt to take the stairs.”

Also: “If you find that you check your email too often, close your email program. If the only thing you need to do is flick your eyes to a part of your computer screen to check your email, you’re going to do it every 10 minutes. But if you have to actually go to a menu and click on it and let it load, you’re going to be less likely to put in the work.”

These solutions sound absurdly simple.

They are, but most of us wouldn’t arrive at them right away. We’d start by sending out a memo about trying to curtail meeting lengths.

Or we’d print out fliers encouraging employees to take the stairs. Or we’d bring in an “expert” to help workers manage their time and not be as distracted by email and other electronic communication.