How to Harness Habit to Drive Behavior Change

Not long ago, one of my co-workers leveraged the volunteer help of our company workforce to help a deserving organization win recognition for public service.

What interested me about this exercise –– in which my co-worker asked us to visit a website and click on a button (almost) every day for 12 weeks –– was what it taught me about habit and behavior.

Habit is a powerful driver of what we do. One study from Duke University estimated that habit, rather than conscious decision-making, drives 45% of our daily behaviors. Understanding habit has become a huge field of research for everything from medical centers trying to create treatments for anxiety, depression, obesity, and addiction to corporate labs trying to figure out how to get people to consume more stuff.

Perhaps the best known example of how marketers learned to leverage habit is the story of Febreze. Procter & Gamble introduced the scented spray  in 1996 as a way to remove bad odors. The company ran advertisements focused on clothes that reeked of cigarette smoke, smelly pets, and stinky car interiors.

It was a flop. Early sales were so disappointing the entire project was nearly canceled.

But then P&G tried a new approach. Interviews showed that consumers liked Febreze, but they used it so seldom they often forgot it was in the house. It turned out that bad smells simply didn’t happen often enough to make Febreze a habit.

So instead, P&G zeroed in on the act of cleaning a room, something studies showed the target audience did almost every day. New commercials showing women spraying Febreze on a couch in a picture-perfect living room, or on a perfectly made bed. They framed the product as a final touch that completed and ritualized a daily task. Sales skyrocketed, and Febreze –– which is mostly sprayed on clean rooms, clean clothes and clean cars –– continues to be one of P&G’s greatest product successes.

So what can we learn from habit research –– as well as my recent foray into attempted habit formation? Here are a few takeaways.

Find a way to insert the activity into something people already do. In my co-worker’s quest to get people  to participate in the contest– one of those where you ask friends and fans to visit a website and click on a name, and whoever gets the most votes wins — she created a daily entry on our shared Google calendar for 10 a.m. It was perfectly timed for after people had a chance to get coffee and plow through their inbox, but before deadlines and to do’s start piling up.

At the start of any behavior change effort, it’s important to ask: Is there any way you make your behavior part of, or a simple addition to, something people are already doing?

Make it easy. What, you might say, could be easier than taking a few seconds to visit a website and click a button once a day? Turns out it wasn’t quite easy enough. When I saw the calendar invite while looking at my daily agenda, I followed through about half the time. When I got an email reminder from my co-worker, it increased the likelihood that I’d set aside the 60 seconds needed about 60% of the time. But when a senior leader started weighing in every few days with an email that included a hyperlink to the website, I was in 100% of the time.

How can you make your behavior easy? How can you make it even easier than that?

Leverage influencers. I think for me, the ease of clicking a hyperlink was the biggest behavioral driver. But it certainly helped that not one but two people in my company were making a personal ask. It also helped that they are both people I really like.

How can you make your behavior infectious? Can you leverage social influencers, or showcase people who are like your target audience, to model and norm the desired behavior?

Find a time when habits are in flux. New York Times reporter and habit expert Charles Duhigg notes that once consumer habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them. But there are brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and habits are in flux. Moving to a new city, getting a new job, having a baby, or starting school are key times when old habits have less of a hold and new habits (good or bad) are easier to form.

How can you link your behavior to one of those flux times? For example, if you want  families to eat dinner together more often, can you link it to the start or end of a school year? If you want to launch a campaign to change how people fertilize, can you time it to just before the growing season?

Check your strategy. Although I enjoyed observing my own behavior throughout my foray into habit formation, there were two things I found most interesting of all. The first was that after just a few weeks and just a little bit of nudging, the habit of daily voting became so ingrained that I also voted on weekends.

But perhaps my biggest takeaway was this: in three months of casting my vote online (almost) every day, I never managed to remember the website name or URL. I developed a habit of voting out of a sense of commitment to my colleagues, but that didn’t create any buy-in for the contest itself. Today, I couldn’t tell you the name of contest sponsor, the purpose of the contest, or even what it means for our favorite organization that it did, in fact, win. (Booyah. Victory!)

So here’s a final tip: if you decide to leverage habit to influence behavior, be sure that the behavior you are promoting also means success for your strategic bottom line.

Sara is Principal + Director of Strategy and Planning at Marketing for Change.

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