“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Last night I put toothpaste on my toothbrush before brushing my teeth for two minutes. This morning I turned my alarm off a minute before it rang and got out of bed. I did not brush my teeth after breakfast, even though my dentist has scolded me to do so at every visit over the past fifteen years. I biked to the gym and ran four miles on the same treadmill I have every morning. Following, I went to work and opened and responded to all emails. Since it’s the start of the month, I also checked up on ROI figures and sent a recap to my manager.

Habits are a powerful thing. Good — and bad — habits come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In fact, in Charles Duhigg’s book, he outlines the habits of individuals, organizations, and societies. This is fascinating because, more often than not, we think of habits solely on the individual level. Yet they extend far beyond this. Companies that run like well-oiled machines? Likely driven by many habits. Societies that seem to overcome every obstacle thrown their way? Probably also habits.

First, we’ll look at how individual habits form. Then, we’ll understand what kinds of habits can improve organizations internally, and how companies can better instill those habits. Finally, we’ll take a closer look at what habits all marketing teams should be practicing.

HOW DO HABITS FORM ANYWAY?

Habits make families run. Habits also make airplanes run. We love habits — the big, the little, and everything in between. In fact, habits are evolutionarily selected for: our brains are constantly looking for ways to save effort. As Duhigg explains, habits are so subconscious that they let our minds ramp down, enabling a more efficient brain. A more efficient brain means a smaller head size, easier childbirths, and ultimately fewer infant deaths. An efficient brain also means we can stop thinking about basic behaviors — like walking, talking, and eating — and instead focus our energy on inventing the wheel or running a company.

Indeed, the mental activity required to perform a task decreases with repetition of that task. The more often you check your email, the more automatic — and efficient — that routine becomes: you begin to internalize it. So, habits are evolutionarily selected for, with our brains trying to turn almost any routine into a habit. But how do we form these habits?

Our brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, a process known as “chunking” — effectively building underlying systems that help us function. We rely on these behavioral chunks throughout the entire day. One sequence of actions might be waking to your alarm, hitting the snooze button a few times, before finally getting up. Another sequence might be going into a meeting, switching your phone to silent, and not turning the sound back on again until the end of the meeting. These behavioral chunks are what turn simple routines into habits.

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But chunks of actions don’t just appear. The brain follows a very specific pattern, the habit loop, which fuels the habit formation process. The loop is comprised of three primary steps: the 1) cue, 2) routine, and 3) reward. The cue kicks the brain into automatic mode and tells it which habit to use. The routine is a physical, mental, or emotional response. Lastly, the reward is just what it sounds like: a prize telling your brain “this loop is worth remembering in the future”. Over time, as this habit loop develops, it becomes more and more automatic until finally, you are left with a deep-rooted habit.

CREATING NEW CHANGING OLD HABITS

On a rudimentary level, we now know how the brain forms habits. But how can we create new habits? Or better yet, how can we get rid of bad habits?

Really, there’s no way to abandon old habits — that isn’t the goal anyway. The goal is to replace bad habits with new ones; in other words, to change them. In theory, changing a habit is quite simple: keep your cue, provide the same reward, but change the routine. Let’s see what this might look like in practice.

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Imagine you’re trying to reduce your sugar consumption. Usually, you might face a trigger (like the smell of a doughnut), perform a routine (eating the doughnut), and receive a reward (feeling satisfied). Let’s keep the trigger and reward the same — you still smell the doughnut and feel satisfied a few moments later — but we’ll change the routine. Rather than eating the doughnut, you call your mom and wish her a good day. Suddenly, you’ve overridden your habit with a better routine.

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Of course, this process takes time and endless repetition, with some grit and outside help thrown in. But with this framework, you can change nearly any habit.

KEYSTONE HABITS: A DOMINO EFFECT

If individuals practice thousands of habits a day, and organizations are made up of individuals, it follows that organizations are rife with habits as well. In fact, it’s imaginable that the success of an organization would rest on its employees’ habits.

Some habits have the power to truly change an organization. These are referred to as keystone habits. Keystone habits change other habits as they move through an organization, transforming everything over time. They start a chain reaction, allowing patterns to be remade. Somehow, these initial shifts help other, really useful habits take hold.

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The most successful companies find ways to systemize habits to orient them towards better process. In 1987, metal manufacturer Alcoa hired a new CEO, Paul O’Neill. Profits had begun to drop and competitors were stealing customers away; it was time for new leadership. Within a year of O’Neill’s appointment, profits hit a record high. Annual net income quintupled in his thirteen-year tenure. How did O’Neill do it? Simply put: habits.

O’Neill managed to instill the habit of worker safety in his employees. As soon as a worker was injured, the unit president had 24 hours to report the injury directly to O’Neill. The cue — an injury — triggered an automatic routine — reporting it. But why should a safer workplace lead to the explosive growth Alcoa saw in the following years? As these safety patterns took hold, the company began to change in other ways as well. The safety habits spilled over into other parts of the business, causing costs to come down, quality to go up, and productivity to soar. In sum, O’Neill tapped into a keystone habit and was able to reshape the way Alcoa functioned.

HABITS IN THE MARKETING ORGANIZATION

Habits make tough choices easier, too. When culture and values are instilled in employees to the point of habit, they are able to respond to difficult questions accordingly. Imagine you must decide whether or not to purchase a technology for your organization. Imagine, too, that your company values efficiency to the utmost degree. In that sense, you must simply lean on the habit of increasing efficiency to decide whether the technology purchase is a worthwhile one. Suddenly a tough decision — spending millions on a new technology — is made (somewhat) easier. Your gut reaction to this tough decision is habit.

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Of course, the above example is oversimplified. A technology purchase is far more complex than that. But the crux of the argument remains: organizational habits and routines are imperative for companies to get any kind of work done. Habits also allow you to give your employees a greater sense of authority. If you’ve created the appropriate habits, you can rely on their ability to make a good decision in many different situations. Employees with a greater sense of autonomy bring greater energy and focus to their jobs, increasing productivity and decreasing mistakes.

But what might “good” habits look like anyway? What habits should your marketing organization aim to go after? Below are just a few examples of both conceptual and concrete habits your team should have.

  1. WILLPOWER: Create a habit of willpower or self-control in your organization and it becomes automatic. See employees make better decisions and productivity soar.
  2. SELF-DISCIPLINE: Make self-discipline habitual and employee performance and success will blossom.
  3. COMPANY VALUES: Engrain company values in employees from day one. Decisions made by employees in the future will subconsciously be driven by the habit you formed, namely your company values.
  4. ROI: “What’s the ROI of this action?” Develop a habit of ROI and more thoughtful decisions will be made.
  5. ASSET/INFORMATION SHARING: Instill the habit of opacity in your marketers. Often, they work independently, without transparency between individuals or groups. If they share information, marketers can work toward departmental goals that much more quickly.
  6. CLOSED-LOOP SYSTEM: Create a habit of centralization. With all marketing creative in a central location, you can create a closed-loop system. This saves time down the road and lets you extract valuable insights from marketing campaigns.
  7. DATA-BASED DECISION MAKING: Marketers follow habitual decision making. Oftentimes, the cue is the need to create a campaign, the routine is to just make it up on the spot, and the reward is completion. Instead, marketers need to change their routine to data-based decision making, resulting in more effective decisions.
  8. INTEGRATED WORK TECHNOLOGY: Marketers are used to working across different softwares. A habit of efficiency would drive marketers into a central platform. Consolidating work would speed everything up and increase transparency.

And that’s the beauty of habits. Plant the seed in an individual, and the effects will be felt through your entire brand. Your teams will run smoother, your processes will be implemented, and ultimately, growth will follow. Sound too much like rote behavior? Just as systems help make brands run more effectively, subconscious, automatic habits instilled in your employees give them much more time to be creative, innovative, and daring in all other aspects.