It’s about time: how changing a keystone habit at work might change everything

Research shows that 40% of actions performed each day are habitual. So if people aren’t thinking about what they’re doing, then simply showing them better ways isn’t enough. You have to change their habits.

But with so many different things we do at work - different functions, processes, and skills - where would you start?

Keystone habits

In “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg highlights the importance of keystone habits. These are particularly important habits that, when changed, produce other, seemingly unrelated, benefits.

One such habit, for example, is regular exercise.

“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stress.”

Finding the keystone habit at Alcoa

Duhigg then applies the idea to companies. He tells the story of Alcoa’s transformation under Paul O’Neill, the former treasury secretary and CEO of Alcoa from 1987-1999.

In O’Neill’s words:

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

He was looking for something that everybody could agree was important, something everyone could get behind. And he focused on safety. While workers might not relate to improving ROE or shareholder value, everyone could understand making work safer for themselves and their friends.

Investigating and fixing the causes of injuries became a top management priority that filtered throughout the company. Safety proved to be a keystone habit because to prevent injuries you had to understand why machines broke, why issues weren’t communicated, why workers weren’t trained on safer procedures. You had to re-examine just about everything the company did.

As Alcoa became one of the safest companies in the world, its profits also hit a record high and its stock value increased 500%.

It’s about time

At a firm where they handle molten metals, Paul O’Neill used safety to get everyone to re-examine what they were doing. So what about firms that handle mostly information? What’s a problem at “that everybody could agree was important”?

It’s about time. It's that everybody’s too busy but not effective enough. A recent editorial in the NY Times calls it “The Busy Trap”:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” ... The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”

We know people don’t function well bouncing from meeting to meeting. We know that processing inboxes all day doesn’t generate a lot of value. We know there’s an endless list of wasteful processes at work. It’s just that many of us are trapped by deep-rutted habits and can’t see a way out.

So the keystone habit we want to change at work - what we want everyone to re-examine - is how people spend their time.

“One hour a day”

To make people feel differently about spending time - to make them care enough to re-examine what they’re doing and to do the hard work of changing their habits - you have to make it personal.

The campaign I’d run is “One hour a day.”

Drive everyone in the company to re-examine their calendars and their inboxes, their processes and routines, looking for their own hour - “Do I really need to do this?” “Is there a better way?”

And when they find that hour, block it off. Secure that time to do more great work. Or to eat a proper lunch with a colleague and further develop a relationship. To read. To exercise and be fresh for the rest of the day. Find the waste and reclaim one hour a day for yourself.

A practical imperative

I’ve seen it first-hand. Just by modernizing work - effectively using collaboration tools and practices, for example - you can cut out huge swaths of waste. You can move more work online where it’s searchable and discoverable (saving valuable meeting time for richer, more productive discussions). You can curate content so you find answers and experts more easily. You can highlight wasteful processes and connect the people you need to redesign them. You can uncover duplication and the people who should collaborate to eliminate it.

One hour a day is roughly 10% of your time at work. (Google makes headlines by giving employees 20 percent of their time to do work they choose to do.) It's a huge shift and it isn’t out of reach.

O’Neill improved both safety and profitability within a year. Once you identify a keystone habit - something each person cares about that gets them re-thinking and re-wiring what they’re doing - positive changes can ripple throughout your organization.

Next week, I'll describe the best framework for doing that.