Going Down the Habit Hole: Making Nudges Stick



March 22, 2019

Everyone has habits. Whether they are good for us (preferring to cycle to work than take the tube), or bad for us (one more glass of wine won’t hurt will it?), habits dictate what we do and how we do it. Many of us regularly want to change our habits, and when it comes down to it, we know it is us who stands to benefit and us who needs to drive the change.

However, in the business world, our daily working habits often impact our employers and the output and culture of the organisation. Therefore, they are often trying to change our habits through change initiatives and interventions, especially so when it can be mutually beneficial. Take relieving stress in the workplace, for example. Many of us want to work hard and put in the hours, but numerous studies show that habits such as taking breaks, reducing screen time, getting home in time for dinner, and taking time off actually improves productivity and is beneficial for both us and our employers.

However, giving people the opportunity for change doesn’t always mean they will break from an old habit. This is because our default behaviours often result from repetition and therefore become automatic. They also result from core beliefs and emotions.

Changing habits in the workplace

The challenge for employers is not necessarily how they communicate change or give people the opportunity to change, it’s about making the change stick. For example, in one study on the effects of nudges in the workplace, a government organisation created a nudge to reduce sedentary behaviour at work by changing the default position of sit-stand desks to the standing position2. This intervention saw stand-up working rates increase seven-fold. While stand-up working rates two months later were still higher than the pre-intervention rates, they were tailing off as the novelty depleted and people defaulted to their habitual sitting position.

Using nudge theory and behavioural science is key to changing behaviour, but it is equally important to focus on turning a new behaviour into a long-standing habit.

How do habits form?

Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter, researched the neurological patterns that help form habits and broke them down into three components: cues, repetition, and rewards. Duhigg calls this The Habit Loop. In essence, a habit forms when our brain recognises a cue (i.e. the table in standing position), learns how to respond to that through repetition (i.e. the table is in standing position enough times that it becomes the norm), and is rewarded to make sure the behaviour is worth doing (i.e. feeling less stiff and restless at the end of the day). By understanding how habits are formed, companies can use behavioural nudges to target and address specific employee habits that they want to transform.


  1. Create visual cues

Let us consider our example of reducing stress in the workplace. A company might first want to introduce a nudge which acts as a visual cue to remind people to take breaks from their screen. This cue acts as trigger, reminding our brains that we could act differently. This could be in the form of an on-screen notification informing people when they have been using their PC non-stop for two hours, or the lights dimming in the office from 6 p.m. onwards to remind people that standard work hours have ended. The cue could also be in the form of a prime, which is a technique that uses a stimulus to unconsciously influence our behaviour. For example, posters in the office might have images of someone standing up from their desk, sitting on a sofa with cup of tea, or taking a walk outside.

  1. Don’t rely on one nudge alone

One nudge won’t lead to lasting change. Repeating the message and using a variety of nudges are more likely to have an effect as they enable our brains to learn and get used to a new way of behaving. This may seem obvious, but nudges are too often introduced and then removed at the first instance that the behaviour adapts accordingly. Nudges must be repeated to have lasting impact.

  1. Harness the desirability of rewards

Finally, rewards are necessary to remove the initial friction that comes with changing old habits. It is important to note here the difference between an extrinsic (e.g. a bonus) or an intrinsic (e.g. happier work-life balance) reward. While people are motivated by extrinsic rewards, they are generally less impactful in the long-term than intrinsic ones. Therefore, in changing habits, the reward should be focussed on the outcome of the new behaviour, such as experiencing less stress at work or being able to enjoy more family time in the evenings. While extrinsic rewards may be required to motivate people to change their behaviour initially, without a longer-term intrinsic reward, a new habit is unlikely to stick.

All three components are equally important in forming new habits and the nudges individually are unlikely to be as effective long-term if they are not all taken into consideration. One local council in Australia wanted to improve its employees’ flexible working practices and introduced nudges such as making their Outlook calendars appear busy for out-of-hour meetings by default. This nudge had a positive impact, but it was only when a nine-week competition to award the team working most flexibly was introduced that a real and long-lasting improvement was made.

Studies show that up to 45 percent of our actions are dictated by habit. It’s essential that we recognise this and use it to our advantage to get the most out of our people. So, next time you see your team going down a habit hole (or even want to lead them down a different one), remember how behavioural science can best be used to shift mindset and change behaviour for good. Create a cue, make it repetitive and give rewards. Make a habit of it.

Our MCA award nominations for thought leadership and our work with the FCO are a reflection of our change management expertise. Our approach is strengthened by behaviour change techniques and behavioural science. Within this blog, one of our behavioural change enthusiasts has shared his views on how you can ensure these techniques embed lasting change and turn new behaviours into habits.