Toe-socks and new habits

“I don’t know how I got this way

I know it’s not alright

So, I’m breaking the habit

I’m breaking the habit


Linkin Park. For those who know me, not an obvious choice for a Muse and Bowie fan; but relevant to the story all the same.

I am a Runner.

When I was 12 I swapped the habit of 5.30am swimming training (and hair that resembled cotton-wool from constant submersion in chlorine) for a love of galloping around a track or around the streets and fields of Sunderland. Running. It was an easy habit to get and keep. It fit neatly around my 12 year old life of homework, playing, mucking about and family.

My Dad patiently added “running taxi” to his list of Dad-duties and set about driving me around the North East and beyond as I competed and worked my way up in distance and rankings. He sat on cramped plastic chairs in stadiums watching me race in the rain, and without complaint allowed an exhausted, muddy cross-county version of a Tar-Baby to tumble into his just-cleaned car for transportation home.

Eventually my Dad got bored spectating and began to run too. He was younger than I am now but still qualified as a Veteran in running circles – a title I’m resisting. Over time he and I developed a shared running habit. I’d train with my club all week and then on days off gallop around Sunderland with my Dad. All year round and usually in the dark.

He’d get back from work, have his tea, read the paper and then we’d be off. He and I loved it. We had the streets to ourselves, we nattered about things together or enjoyed the companionable silence as our feet pounded along the streets covering the miles.

We had a particularly special running ritual every January that involved the pursuit of marzipan. My Nana and Grandad lived in Sunderland too. They were a round trip of 6 miles away and every January my Dad and I would set off on a run to their house. There we would stop, have a cuppa, a natter and a huge slice of left over Christmas cake. Dad liked the actual fruitcake – me not so much. I was there for the marzipan! We’d stop, scoff down the cake and then run back home.

A habit? Maybe. A sure-fire way to a stitch? Definitely. But it didn’t stop us.

We went on to run in the first ever Great North Run and my Dad beat me.

Habits are defined as “An action we do frequently and automatically in response to our environment.”

Studies show that we perform automated behaviours the same way in the same environment every single time. The chances are you’ll brush your teeth every day in exactly the same way without consciously thinking about it at all. If you floss, the chances are the cue of brushing your teeth with set up for the flossing to follow; again without conscious intervention.

Getting ready for work, are you a ‘Socks on before Trousers’, or a ‘Trousers on before Socks’? Or don’t you know, as it’s Habit that’s dressing you anyway? Let’s hope Habit has good taste.

In 2018 a study by M.I.T of mice found that the sets of actions that go together to form a habit (lovingly known as a ‘chunk’) have specific brain cells that book-end the chunks that correspond to habitual actions. Initially with new actions performed and before habits form, the brain can be seen to be firing off at every single action; but over time this changes. With the formation of a habit, only those book-end neurons fire up.

My running habit waned as I got older and by 19 studying, revision and a flirtation with drinking had replaced it at University. But eventually I returned and I run again. My running ‘chunk’ is now fired as soon as I pull out my Injinji toe-socks. Even just going to check on how to spell this bonkers name fired that habit off and I was ready to go run.

Business owners are not mice; and not many mice can manage a P&L – if the book’s to be believed, some can’t even find their own cheese once it’s been moved.

But both form habits.

In the work we do helping owners and leaders of business change habits that aren’t serving them or their teams well it helps to understand what causes habits in the first place.

Automatic behaviour is centred in a part of the brain called the Basal Ganglia. It’s not the same place where conscious decision-making takes place. Charles Duhigg in his book ‘The Power of Habit’ describes a 3-stage Habit Loop as being:

  • A trigger
  • A behaviour and
  • A brain reward.

If you add repetition to this, you’ve got habit. (Am I the only one who thinks that a Habit Loop should be a sugary breakfast cereal for Hobbits?)

It helps to understand the cues or triggers at play when habits show up at work. What’s going on at the time that prompts an automated unhelpful response? If you’re in the habit of telling rather than coaching or doing rather than delegating, what are the cues that fire these habits off?

Perhaps it’s an urgent customer query showing up really late in the afternoon; or tiredness on your behalf after a long week? Perhaps it’s not enough or too much caffeine that makes you less patient; or perhaps the office is stuffed with boxes, busy, noisy or messy and it fires your habit of telling or doing?

Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, but what’s the cue or cues that fire the habit that’s not helping? Often it’s a mix of environmental and emotional. Recognising them gives us choice over how we change them or respond to them in our behaviour.

So too does something the Psychologist Robert Cialdini refers to as “Ifs” and “Thens”

  • If I am asked how to resolve a customer problem, then I will ask that person what they think first and listen”
  • If I make a decision that effects my staff, then I will stop and explain the why and the how”
  • If I am offered dessert, then I will say no thank you”

And a final nod at brain rewards…

This is not the habit-making version of collecting Nectar points, accrued every day, reported every month and cashed in once a year. A brain reward should be focused on the new habit being created. It should immediately follow the behaviour; be related to that behaviour and be small. The reward should never become the goal in it’s own right (Hence keeping it small)

Rewarding your coaching conversation with 10 minutes of me-time over a cup of your favourite coffee – not the regular survive-the-day-on-caffeine-stuff, but that Danish vanilla blend that you can’t translate the front of the pack but smells and tastes like heaven in a cup.

Rewarding your delegation with 5 minutes of a fresh air walk to clear your head and calm your pulse.

Different rewards for different people and behaviours but find something that works for you and repeat it.

When I first re-awaked my love of running my habit was gone. It had left on a quest to Mordor, following a sugary breakfast hit. However, I quickly discovered that my brain reward for running is to warm down and stretch outside in the dark on my driveway listening to tawny owls having Hoot-Offs in the trees around me. Combining my love of nature and running is the brain reward that sustains my habit.

Toe-socks cue it and owls reward it…what’s not to love?

My Dad died 17 years ago, bouncing about on a tennis court in Sunderland. One of his bad habits was biting his nails when he worried. One of his best habits was running with his daughter.

And he still does that now, every night in the dark.