Of Habits and Hiatuses – and what they have to do with Alcoholism and Customer Service!

13 Nov

inertia garfield

Want to learn to play the guitar?
Or tennis?
Or be part of a dramatics club?
Or drive a car?

What does it take to learn/ be good at any new thing? Well, apart from a natural aptitude at it, it takes continuous practice. Everyone has heard of the 7 habits book (I’ve never read it – hate these prescriptive types – give me trashy romance anyday!). But the essential premise of this one is that high degree of effectiveness is something that 7 habits can achieve. It’s a powerful concept when you think about it – the fact that you can learn to be successful – it’s not something that you are born/ blessed with. Opens up a whole new vista for everyone! Well, I guess it DID open up a whole new industry – the training/ soft skills/ project management/ leadership coaching one…..

The basic premise of “habit formation” is – you repeat an action over and over again till it becomes ingrained in you. Musicians and athletes call it “muscle memory” – apparently physiologically, you can wire your neural networks to anticipate and then execute on certain behavior – such that you keep getting better at it.

For those of us who have done/ are doing it, we know that hard work is addictive (dreams of “just chucking it all away” notwithstanding) – the good news is – in general, it leads to success – and, most people know, success is addictive. Ask any sales person – she closes 2 great deals – she will find it easier to close another two (You’re on a roll, baby!). The negative cycle unfortunately is equally repetitive – folks dogged by non-success find it all too easy to slip into a vicious cycle – thus kind of predicting failure, experiencing it, then predicting more — very self fulfilling prophecy types.

This is also, in a way, how substance addiction works – not very many people know that alcohol and drug addiction is a disease – it can strike a wide variety of people. Basically, doing one thing over and over again (in this case drinking/ using drugs) sort of takes over your psyche – such that the point of existence becomes – how can you get your next fix! (read this article on addiction to know more)

Look at kids – the ONLY way for kids to know tables is by rote – say them aloud time after time! The only way for them to get chemistry formulae is by doing them over and over again (its called “mugging” in Indian slang – something my older daughter hates and protests vociferously against every single day!). But also, and this may sound blasphemous to those advocating free thinking/ free play, I have a firm rooted conviction that children actually respond reasonably well to routine (habits again), and as long as you kind of combine this routine and “freedom” well, they turn out the better for it than just pure unfettered chaos!

Process organisations know this – they break up a task into minute sub components and then excel in repeating that sub task such that it can be done flawlessly. They then take it to the next level, and work at improving the way of doing that task – faster/ better/ cheaper, whatever.

Pavlov Dog Cartoon

Science bears it out too – the laws of inertia – actually say precisely this. An object at rest remains at rest unless moved, and so also an object at motion…Ofcourse, the best example would be Pavlov and his dog – drool drool at the trigger of a bell! All to do with habit.

But, the point of this post was not only what habit does, but what happens when there is a hiatus.

Thanks to my retirement, I had gotten into a good routine of aerobics class in the morning, and then, towards the latter half of the year, swimming in the evenings. People tell me I now look – well, not slim and svelte (I can NEVER be slim and svelte) but, “more toned” 🙂 (dammed with faint praise!). Ofcourse, Diwali came, I didn’t go a few days, and lo and behold – the hiatus just kept extending…on, and on, and on… It’s the same for the blog – I wrote a post every day for the first month, then it became twice a week, then once a week, till, for the past 4 months – nada! I guess the hiatus became a habit, and, as most of us know, it takes MORE effort to go BACK to something than to start it in the first place. Well, new resolutions and all, this week I started aerobics, swimming, and now, blogging – wish me well to take it to the next level – of it becoming a habit again!

You know, many women who take breaks from work for family reasons, fear exactly this – that, they will be either so used to the break, or so out of date, that they won’t be able to find a suitable position in the workforce post. I can empathise – for me, the retirement “hiatus” is now almost a “habit” – to the extent that I’m not sure I can go back to active working (nor do I particularly want to – I’m just having too much fun!).

Getting back to work on Monday after a weekend has kind of the same feeling – my younger daughter, a hedonist if there was one, told me one day, “Ma, I have a Friday feeling of euphoria, and a Sunday feeling of gloom!”

Just so you know, the FIRST step in any de-addiction program is – a complete break from drinking. So, most rehab programs actually advocate a month of keeping away from EVERYTHING – family and friends, reading, the phone, and ofcourse the substance – such that the brain gets time to get used to NOT having the addictive substance. Only after a month or so, are the users even allowed to talk to their family/ friends – because the brain has had a hiatus from the habit, and is now receptive to treatment and cure options.

It works the same way for organisations, doesn’t it – process organisations, who, of necessity breed habit formation – have to carefully engineer “creativity” via hiatus – so, it could be the innovation room/ an off-site, or just a few hours every week that are DIFFERENT from the normal. (See my earlier blog on process vs. creativity)

In today’s customer centric world, one needs to think about the customer journey in the same way actually. It is well known that getting a new customer takes 7 times as much effort as keeping an old one happy. But, to regain a customer after he has turned off your brand (in other words, after his habit of consuming your product has been broken), takes double that effort of new customer acquisition – with, only a 50% chance of success! That’s why, the customer service/ experience function is increasing in importance in most companies, and there are actually C Suite positions in Chief Customer Officer!

On this note, maybe too much Money and Power are also habit forming – who knows, maybe that’s what prompts falls from grace of erstwhile icons like Rajat Gupta, Ramalingam Raju and Tiger Woods (novel argument for the defense counsel, huh? “Your majesty, my client suffers from habititis, and couldn’t bring himself to hiatusitis!)


One Response to “Of Habits and Hiatuses – and what they have to do with Alcoholism and Customer Service!”


  1. What I figured out last year | joshsang - January 6, 2014

    […] That lethargy is addictive. (Look at another old post on habits, and hiatuses). So, not only does one have the ability to “feel busy” all the time, one can […]

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