Data deafness – How habits, more than information, rule us.

October 28, 2014

Our lives are awash in information. But what of it, if any, truly changes our behaviors – causing us to stop, think, react or change? The truth is, very little. Our senses are always on – vigorously sampling our environment, hearing, seeing, smelling and touching all that surrounds us. Given the processing required to handle all the details, the vast majority of our actions – perhaps as high as 90 percent – are purely driven by subconscious algorithms. These mindless decisions are our “habits.”

Much has been written about which habits are most likely to drive performance in the workplace, and millions have sought over many decades to pattern their lives on the habits of so-called “successful people.” Observing highly productive innovators every day reveals that subtle but powerful sets of habits – essentially operating background – give them their edge.

Graphic: Christine Daniloff

Graphic: Christine Daniloff

Fascinating work in the MIT laboratory of Ann Graybiel has begun to help us understand how, and perhaps why, the brain relies so heavily on stored routines. Using detectors that monitor communication at the single cell level, Graybiel’s team has discovered that the frontal cortex and basal ganglia operate in a looped circuit that are interconnected to acquire and execute habit behavior. In these looped interactions, the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine. This is known as “chunking,” and it is at the root of how habits are formed and stored.

These findings are telling. It would seem that the brain is specifically designed to rapidly shift our repetitive actions into these stored routines whenever possible. In determining if a given action is appropriate or not, the context or surroundings becomes a major contributor and part of a “cue.”  Are we in a familiar place? Does it look, feel, and smell like a place we have been before? If yes, the actions are rapidly dropped into recorded behaviors that sink into the subconscious of the basal ganglia for rapid, and often thoughtless, replay.

Within the data-rich environment we all operate at work, we like to believe that most of what we do is intentional, based on free will, and the product of a fact-based and rational decision-making process. For better or worse, this is true less frequently than we believe. Smokers still smoke and those who are overweight still overeat, despite knowing the risks. Outside of these overt examples, what is less noticed are the ubiquitous habits that each of us has, and how those largely define who we are – and in many ways, what we achieve.

Based on observation, highly productive innovators consistently exhibit interesting and recurring habits:

The first is simplicity, which enables them to convert complex activities into highly efficient routines. This is far from “simple minded.” Rather, they are highly precise and crisp in their use of time, words and actions, driven by a clarity of thought and communication that elevates those around them to see what they see and to engage with their approach.

Highly productive innovators are also interactive, using dynamic interpersonal engagement to explore the maximum range of possibilities. Diverse inputs are not threatening to their worldview; they are vital to it.

Effective innovators are also iterative; in the habit of building, destroying and rebuilding again, all in the search of optimization.

They also seem capable of avoiding the “habit trap” that could stifle their effectiveness over the long term, opting to welcome a steady stream of new experiences encountered in new settings which further broaden their perspective, rather than limit it. This may be why so many highly effective innovators choose challenge over comfort, rather than follow a predictable and “safe” career path. They are mobile and driven to explore.

From Graybiel’s work, we realize that habits, once recorded, are never forgotten. But what also becomes clear is that we can actively build new habits with the use of triggers and rewards to supplant old ones.

It is here that data and information about how best to integrate triggers and rewards to affect desired habits can be impactful. Understanding how to optimally promote the habit loop – cue, routine, reward – can provide powerful triggers for individuals and organizations to act, particularly in data-rich environments.

Building on this idea, in the next post we will explore how the habits of organizations emerge. How are they stored, cued, and replayed? Do rewards make them durable? How are they changed or supplanted?