Habits & Embedding the Change

'Arm Folding'

5 December 2022
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
Short stories with key learning points for personal development and professional development. Often to make you smile, and always to make you think.
A brilliant yet simple way of emphasising how the key element in effective change is not about making the change, but embedding it...

you'll like this story if you're interested in...

Follow this exercise:

Fold your arms, naturally.

Now fold them the other way round. (For example, if your normal arm folding has one hand on one bicep, and the other tucked underneath, then reverse them).

If you need more specific coaching, here are the steps to take:
1) Fold your arms as normal
2) Put the hand that’s underneath your arm on top, on the bicep
3) Take the hand that’s on your other arm down and away from your body
4) Bring it over the top of the other arm and tuck it under the arm.

Note how this feels. Uncomfortable? Strange? Awkward?... Now fold your arms naturally again. Have you gone back to normal? How does that feel?... How long would it take you to fold your arms naturally, automatically the other way round? What would it take for that to happen?

This exercise is an excellent metaphor for change, and in particular, for the difference between making a change and embedding the change.

In the this example, the chances are you made the change– that is, by following the instructions, you were able to alter the way you folded your arms. But you also probably felt very uncomfortable like this, and given the choice, would revert to your ‘normal’ way of folding your arms.

This is what happens with a lot of changes – people find it uncomfortable, and though they may have been trained for the change, given the opportunity, they will slip back to old, comfortable habits.

How long did you estimate it would take to embed the arm folding change? 

Typically it takes 30 times longer or more to embed a change, than to make a change... 
.... with a lot of changes – people find it uncomfortable, and though they may have been trained for the change, given the opportunity, they will slip back to old, comfortable habits.

Habits, persistence and time

Making any change to an existing habit requires the three Ps: persistence, perseverance and practice. And of course, the hidden element in all of these three is time. You cannot persist, persevere and practice ‘in an instant’; you have to have sufficient time available to work on those 3Ps. So it is no good introducing a change that involves changing habits, and expect overnight success. So there is a simple relationship to consider: the more the change affects a habit, and the stronger the habit, the more time is needed to succeed with the change.

Replace rather than remove

Changing habits work better when the change involves replacing, rather than stopping, the habit. In the arms folding metaphor, the old way is replaced by a new way – so that has more chance of working than, for instance, simply asking someone to stop folding their arms altogether. So if you wanted to eat more healthily at home, it is no good just emptying the fridge: it needs to be restocked with healthy foods.

Is supervision and external control necessary?

Left to their own devices, most people with a habit will revert to the habit – that’s the nature of habits. And that will not be a wilful act – because most habits are unconscious; so no one is making a conscious decision to revert to the habit – they do so automatically. So one possibility for ensuring the habit is changed is to provide external control and direction through supervision; the supervisor does not have that habit, and has the brief to watch for any such habits recurring, and intervene if that happens. Of course the downside of this is that providing supervision is expensive, and most people do not like being invigilated in this way. The general rule in this area, though, is to provide more supervision the more a return to an old habit increases risk. So having two pilots in the cockpit instead of one is an example of this.

How well would an incentive work?

Another external device to encourage a change is to offer an incentive or reward for a successful change. Whilst this may seem more appealing than invigilation, it is also potentially expensive, and someone would have to decide how the incentive or reward operates in practice. The whole point about habit change is that it takes time – and to be successful, the change has to be as reliable and consistent as the previous behaviour was. And such a change will take time. So to work, the incentive has to be given when the new way is as embedded as the old one (which could be some time away for the potential recipient), and be confident that on receipt of the reward, the individual, having gained their motivational reward, does not actually slip back to the old ways…

The power of teams, norms and socialisation

Another way of encouraging the change is to place the person, or people, who need to make the change into a setting where the majority present already operate such required behaviours. Most humans are social animals, and often adopt group norms in order to fit in. Research shows that an individual with habit A, left to their own environment, will struggle to change, whereas once placed in a group where the norm is habit B will pick up that habit, instead of continuing with habit A.

Triggers and anchors

A change can be encouraged by associating it with an existing behaviour, so that when carrying out behaviour 1, it acts as a reminder to carry out new habit 2. Here’s an example: When arriving home in my car, I used to park it on the drive, take out my work briefcase and laptop, lock the car, then go into the house and into the study, where I would leave my stuff, but also, usually, check emails and messages, and not re-emerge to join the rest of the family for half an hour or more. I didn’t want this habit to continue. So I parked on the drive, then locked the car with my briefcase and laptop still inside it, then entered the house and joined my family. I then returned to the car later, to bring in my case and pc…The trigger was locking the car before taking out my stuff, rather than after.

Effective Storytelling - Podcast
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