Want to rise to the top of the corporate ladder? The path to success may not be the painful, determined slog you’ve been led to believe. Instead, says Charles Duhigg, New York Times business reporter and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the secret may be cultivating the right habits. “People who are successful in business pay a lot of attention to recognizing keystone habits,” he says. “Everyone only has 24 hours in a day, and what seems to be different with successful people in business is that they’re deliberate about thinking about their habits – especially habits of willpower.”
If you create and nurture the right habits – whether it’s a daily jog or cleaning out your inbox every Friday afternoon – what once seemed like an arduous decision becomes, instead, an automatic behavior that you can leverage to move your career forward. The right question to ask, then, is what habits you’d like to cultivate. “There are a shockingly large number of people who don’t discipline or organize their thoughts that way,” says Duhigg.
There’s no fixed amount of time it takes to develop a habit – biology makes some people more susceptible to habit formation, for good (exercise routines) or evil (drug addictions). But in every case, practice makes perfect. “Habits are an accretive process,” says Duhigg. Each time you perform the habit, “there’s a thickening of neural pathways. It’s more automatic the third time than the first, and even more automatic the 21st time. Every single time you do it, it gets easier and easier, and eventually you cross the line in the sand where it feels automatic and it’s an almost thoughtless activity.”
What if you’re already trying to break bad habits? Duhigg says there’s hope: “You can change any habit; we know from experiments that any behavior can be changed, regardless of how old you are or how ingrained the pattern is.” Note that simply voicing your desire for change won’t cut it. “Ultimately the reason why people want to change habits is they want a new behavior” – so if you’re stuck in the camp of still wishing you could have the same behavior (eating a lot) but get a different result (weight loss), your quest is likely to be disappointing.
Once you establish your new habit, you’ll need to avoid the temptation to slip back into your old ways. “You can’t eradicate a habit,” says Duhigg. “You can only change it, because once the neural pathways are there, you’re not able to ignore them completely.” The key is to identify your original cue (you’re feeling stressed at work) and substitute a new behavior (instead of yelling at your staff, go for a jog). You’ll want to ensure the new behavior also provides a sense of reward, which is what made the original habit so “sticky.” So now, instead of the emotional release of yelling, you can enjoy the physical release of a run.
We can all recite the recipe for professional success – getting enough sleep, exercising, developing new skills – but it’s nonetheless a challenge to execute. Habits can be a powerful force to ensure you’re doing the right things to move you forward – and that goes for corporations, as well as individuals. Says Duhigg, “When I talk to Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner, people who’ve run companies, and ask them what’s the most surprising thing you think about, they say they think about their company’s habits and culture. There’s no way to reflect that on the profit & loss statement or the business plan, but it’s essential to the success of their firms.”
What are you doing to develop the habits of success? And what are you struggling with?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 22, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.