As a leader, you want your teams to be motivated and engaged. You want your employees habitually thinking about adding value to your company while harnessing the programs and tools you create to facilitate and drive innovation.
It’s important to acknowledge and understand that humans are very habitual in their behavior. The more ingrained a behavior is, the more automatic it becomes and the harder it is to change. Just think of behaviors that you execute almost subconsciously such as driving a car or checking your phone. How often do you become conscious of the behavior after the fact? Imagine if the habits that can help drive innovation and add value to your company were ingrained in your employees to the extent that they happened automatically? The results would be quite astonishing.
There is a science behind cultivating good habits and eliminating bad ones. Understanding how habits are formed, why it can be so difficult to change habits, and how good habits can be ingrained can completely transform the way you approach leadership and the programs you design for your teams.
To begin, let us take a look at why getting your employees engaged can be difficult and how you can reshape your thinking when it comes to driving new behaviors.
Why is organic engagement so difficult?
If you are like most managers and business leaders, you are actively engaged in discovering new strategies to help your employees to be more driven and motivated to do their best work.
As it turns out, there is some really convincing science behind our ability to learn to love difficult tasks and enjoy the fruits of labor. You may have heard of the classic left and right brain scenario, where one side of the brain is responsible for logical processing (in the cerebral cortex), and the other for more emotional thought processes (the limbic system). There is an important disconnect to acknowledge here, and that is the disconnect between the want or desire to do something and then actually doing it!
Andrew Huberman, a popular neuroscientist and Stanford professor with an amazing podcast called “The Huberman Lab”, coined the term “limbic friction” in his podcast episode on The Science of Making & Breaking Habits. The term captures the barrier to motivation, or friction to overcome, when trying to establish new habits. The longer a habit has been practiced, the deeper ingrained it is and the harder it is to break. The more effort a task requires, the more “limbic friction” there is to overcome and the harder the task is to execute.
With a deeper understanding of how the brain works and strategies to address some of these elements, leaders can help employees develop new habits contributing to the success of their engagement strategies.
Understanding The Science of Habits
You want employees to establish new habits that help drive more value for the business. Whether it’s active participation in continuous improvement or creative thinking and engagement in transformation, getting employees doing new things and enjoying them is critical. To start, let’s take a look at some concepts that may change the way you think about habits.
Huberman notes that people are typically very habitual in their behavior. Without intentional interference, habits tend to carry out in the same way. The more ingrained a habit is, the more habit strength it has. Habit strength, Huberman tells us, is measured by two main criteria:
The first criteria is how context-dependent a given habit is. The more context-dependent a habit is, the less likely it will carry out if the environment changes and the less habit strength it has. For instance, if you go from one environment to the next, do you do the same thing in the same way at the same time of day? Brushing your teeth is a habit that is typically not context dependent and therefore has strong habit strength. Most people brush their teeth in the morning no matter the context (i.e. at home, on vacation or elsewhere).
The second criteria is how much limbic friction there is to execute a certain habit. In other words, how much conscious effort there is to override the state of mind and body to execute a certain habit. No matter how tired someone is, they will likely brush their teeth but can the same be said of exercising or preparing a healthy meal?
What does this tell us? The more context-dependent a habit is, and the more limbic friction there is to overcome in executing that habit, the harder it will be to perform the habit.
In your company, consider how environmental and cultural factors can contribute to limbic friction. For example, a culture of risk aversion, the avoidance of experimentation and the preference to resort to how things have always been done, are likely strong contributors to limbic friction. Think about your leadership and how you are adding to limbic friction? It is important to demonstrate that it is encouraged and acceptable to take risks and that it is ok to fail when there is valuable learning taking place. This type of cultural shift takes time and effort but you can ask yourself in your leadership what you truly recognize and reward and how your environment and culture either helps or impedes the formation of new behaviors you are trying to encourage.
Identity vs. Goal-Based Habits
Another concept Huberman explores is that of identity-based habits and goal-based habits. Identity-based habits refer to habits that are tied to an identity. For example, exercise and healthy eating might be habits contributing to an individual’s identity as an athlete. Goal-based habits, on the other hand, are habits motivated by a specific goal. As you can guess, identity-based habits have a much more intrinsically-motivated nature to them and contribute to greater habit strength.
Think about various characteristics that contribute to the identity of an amazing employee? Examples might include engagement, alertness, responsiveness, efficiency and empathy. Celebrate habits that emulate these characteristics encouraging others to value and emulate the same.
When trying to adopt a new habit, Huberman identifies that getting into the mindset of procedural memory is very important to overcome limbic friction. This can simply be running through the sequence of steps required to execute the habit from start to finish like a recipe. Doing this exercise even just once makes it more likely the habit will be performed. The reason this tool is effective is because it involves various areas of the brain (i.e. hippocampus and neocortex) that engage in procedural memory which in turn reduces limbic friction. It sets into motion the same neurons that are going to be required to execute the habit - priming the pump so to speak.
When trying to help your employees cultivate new habits, think about how clear the process is for the execution of that habit. If you want more creative engagement and participation on various challenges from your employees, what does that look like from start to finish? We realize some of these objectives are complicated and will vary among individuals. What we’re talking about are simple steps to consider taking advantage of procedural memory to facilitate the neurochemistry that will make it more likely the habit will be executed.
Task bracketing involves the events right before and after execution of a habit. This is not just the sequence of steps in the execution of the habit discussed in procedural memory, it includes the framing of events that happen just before and after we initiate a habit. These events play an important role to ingrain the habit.
Huberman tells us task bracketing relates to certain neural circuits in the brain (the basal ganglia) and that these circuits are involved in what he calls action execution (doing certain things) and action suppression (not doing certain things).
The area of the basal ganglia called the dorsolateral striatum (DSL) is particularly important. Studies that have recorded the electrical activity in the DSL have found that the DSL becomes active at the beginning of a certain habit and at the end and after a particular habit. This is super important because it will determine whether a habit is context dependent or not and whether it will be likely to occur under different circumstances.
We introduced the idea above that environmental and cultural factors can contribute to limbic friction. This is in part caused by the no-go circuits of the brain that may be activated when an individual is asked to do something new.
You can build up task bracketing so that whatever you are trying to learn, there is a greater chance you are going to do that thing. In other words, you can align yourself in the task bracketing process so that your nervous system is shifted towards the execution of a certain habit. Huberman uses the analogy of warming up your body to exercise. When the DSL is engaged, your body and brain are primed to execute a habit and you can insert which particular habit you want to perform. The important takeaway here is that the state of the brain and body is critical when executing new habits or behaviors.
Lynchpin habits are habits that make a lot of other habits easier to execute. These will always be things the person enjoys doing and executes consistently. When looking at employee engagement, do an analysis of which habits are easy for someone to perform, which ones are hard to perform and which habits the person wants to break.
Combining task bracketing and lynchpin habits can really help you ingrain new habits. Consider things your employees are already habitually doing. When you’re trying to get new ideas for instance for a challenge, think of bracketing the desired behavior with a behavior or series of behaviors employees are already habitually doing. For example, if a group of your employees provide a weekly report of some sort, you can shift that activity to incorporate elements of the new behavior you are trying to promote. For example, soliciting new ideas and engagement on innovation challenges at the same time. How much you add on will of course dictate the amount of limbic friction so be cautious!
Periods of the Day
As we introduced the concept of task bracketing, we learned that the state of the brain and body is critical in the execution of habits. The level of activation happening in your brain and body is significantly affected by neurochemistry at different periods of the day.
Understanding the neurochemistry of the brain at different parts of the day can help you to understand how to organize your days around these neural activities. Huberman breaks the cycle down into three phases, the first phase being the first 8 hours after waking, the second period being the ensuing 8 hours and the third period being the remaining 8 hours.
Phase 1 and Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Epinephrine
During the first phase of the day, the neuromodulators norepinephrine and epinephrine (noradrenaline and adrenaline) and dopamine tend to be elevated.
There are other activities that can help contribute to these elevated levels For instance, viewing sunlight, exercise, cold exposure, caffeine ingestion and fasting will lend themselves to increased norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine. These activities can often be habits in and of themselves! Foods rich in tyrosine, which is a precursor to dopamine, can also be helpful. Foods rich in tyrosine include almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, bananas, yogurts, and chicken among others.
All of these together (the already elevated level of neuromodulators and complementary activities) help place the brain and body in a state in which it is easier to engage in activities that have a high degree of limbic friction which needs to be overridden.
By placing activities that have high limbic friction in this first phase of the day (not necessarily the exact same time every day) you’re creating task bracketing - your nervous system will predict when you are going to lean into limbic friction to get things done.
Phase 2 and Serotonin
In the second phase of the day, a different neuromodulator called serotonin begins to rise in the brain while dopamine, norepinephrine and cortisol begin to decrease. Serotonin lends itself to a more relaxed state.
During this second phase of the day, there are certain things we can do that lend themselves to a state of mind and body that is going to be beneficial for the generation and consolidation of certain types of habits. For instance, during phase 2 you should taper the amount of bright artificial light that you are getting. Other activities that support the serotonergic state at this period of the day include non-sleep deep rest (NSDR), self hypnosis, meditation, heat and sauna, hot baths, hot showers.
What types of lighting do you have in your offices? Have you considered dimming lights later in the day if possible? Perhaps you can incorporate lamps instead of overhead fluorescent lights. When are you planning certain engagement activities? End of day or after hours? This is probably not ideal! The takeaway is that during the second phase of the day you should really be trying to taper off stress level and engage in activities that require less limbic friction to overcome.
Obviously there are exceptions such as when people like to do certain things like exercise in the second period of the day. What we are talking about though are new behaviors you want to develop and placing those at the appropriate period of the day with the concept of limbic friction in mind to help engage the task bracketing mechanisms we have explored.
Phase 3 and Neuroplasticity
The third period of the day is ideal for deep rest and sleep. This is when neuroplasticity occurs which is the basis of habit formation.
While the concept of neuroplasticity may sound pretty scientific, the concept is simple. Huberman tells us that the brain has an exceptional ability to change itself and how it works through learning practice as well as environmental influences. Neuroplasticity enhances patterns of thinking, making relevant networks stronger and irrelevant ones weaker, thereby improving our learning and memory. In other words, you can actually change the structure and function of the brain by what you choose to do.
If you want habits to stick, the brain needs plenty of sleep and deep rest to allow the brain to imprint new habits into place; so the software can be updated so to speak. Research shows that sleep plays a very important role in both memory and learning for this reason.
Understanding the importance of sleep can help you to facilitate healthy sleep schedules for employees, and allow them to properly wind down at the end of the day and take care of their minds. This means that late-evening emails, meetings or similar stresses should be avoided.
Huberman also addresses the concept of reward prediction error which impacts the neurochemistry of the brain. He tells us that reward prediction error effectively governs all aspects of effort and learning because of the state change in our bodies with dopamine release. Essentially, the research tell us the following:
1. If you expect a reward and the reward comes, a particular behavior associated with the generating of that reward is more likely to occur again. Pretty straight forward right?
2. However, the amount of reward (dopamine release) associated with a particular behavior is even greater if a reward arrives that is unexpected.
3. Finally, if we expect a reward and it doesn’t come, the level of dopamine will drop below the baseline level when you started the habit execution.
So we know that unexpected rewards create strong dopamine responses which can be stronger than expected rewards. Consider when you provide unexpected rewards if at all and be mindful of the neurological benefit from incorporating unexpected rewards in your innovation strategies.
We also know that the anticipation of reward creates a strong dopamine response long before the reward is actually received. Consider your communication plan for employee strategies. Are you clearly communicating rewards to promote anticipation and excitement?
Finally, an expected reward that is not received is a killer. Consider the simple and often overlooked reward of acknowledgement and expressing appreciation. As a leader do you express acknowledgement and appreciation often? When do you do this and for what kinds of behavior? Are you following through on your promises and the expectations that you establish?
Let us put this information in context. Think back to the concept of task bracketing and limbic friction discussed earlier. Do not just think about the procedural aspects of what you are doing, but the events that precede and follow that habit and the amount of effort to execute that habit. Start rewarding task bracketing in addition to the execution of the habit itself. You are applying reward prediction error to the entire sequence of things that requires getting into, through and out of the execution of the habit. By calling this entire sequence into habit execution, you will engage reward prediction error in the proper way that the dopamine surge can lend itself toward motivation.
You should now have a better understanding of Huberman’s concept of limbic friction - the barrier to motivation, or friction to overcome, when trying to establish new habits. You should appreciate how engaging in procedural memory and task bracketing can reduce limbic friction as they can help align your nervous system towards the execution of a certain habit. You should also appreciate the importance of our neurochemistry during different periods of the day because the state of the brain and body is critical in the execution of habits. Finally you should be thinking about reward prediction error and how it governs all aspects of effort and learning because of the state change in our bodies with dopamine release.
While you do not need to understand neurochemistry at a deep level, understanding some of these basic concepts can help you empower your employees to habitually think about adding value to your company while harnessing the programs and tools you create to facilitate and drive innovation.
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