How To Make Long-Lasting Changes To Your Unconscious Habits

This startup is training employees at Starbucks and NASA to make long-term behavior changes.

How To Make Long-Lasting Changes To Your Unconscious Habits
[Photo: Mitch Gunn via Shutterstock]

There’s a popular saying in the military: “You never rise to the occasion, you only sink to your level of training.”


In other words, sustained success isn’t the result of something that’s done spontaneously once or even something that’s consciously done once a day, every day at a certain time. Instead, only through a high “level of training,” that is, something that you do habitually after a trigger to the point that it becomes unconscious behavior, can you continuously produce the highest outputs—without having to think about it.

Researchers tell us more than 50% of our daily lives are made up of habitual activity. If that’s the case, how do we form a habit strong enough where winning isn’t the goal or even the routine, but rather just becomes another automatic behavior in our daily lives?

To get a better handle on this, Michael Kim, a former Microsoft executive who is now Habit Design’s CEO, points to Michael Phelps’s training that made him the most decorated Olympian of all time. Phelps started training at the age of 7, but his coach knew habits—not skills alone—would be the driver of his success. So, Phelps’s coach built a series of activities before every race designed to give the competitive swimmer a sense of building victory. That way, the race itself—and winning the race—is just another step in Phelps’s laundry list of things to do, which includes stretching and exercising. By the time the race arrives, Phelps is already more than halfway through his unconscious habits and the pattern he lives by on a daily basis.

“About 40 to 50 percent of your day is made up of habits, you just don’t recognize them because they’re unconscious,” said Kim. “[Habits are] underneath the surface of the majority of your behaviors.”

As the nucleus of all behavior change, habit formation is a phenomenon every organization tries to crack. If companies can get their employees to make certain choices, creating new, positive, daily habits, imagine how much more productive an organization would be.


Training Yourself For Habit Change

This is the kind of task Kim’s Habit Design has set out to achieve. The Seattle-based startup calls itself “the leading habit training program” and was founded by a team of licensed, clinical psychologists from the University of Washington and Yale University along with game designers, people with PhDs in behavioral science, and techies from Microsoft and Xbox.

So far, Habit Design has over 100,000 employees on its platform and has trained over
500 companies, including Hulu, Starbucks, Mars, and NASA. At Starbucks, Habit Design helped the coffee giant improve its input of orders to get customers in and out the door in three minutes or less.

In Kim’s most recent role at Microsoft, where he was at for 11 years, he was tasked with thinking about what the industry is doing with gaming and expanding it to other industries, like health care. Kim’s work helped Nike develop its running app, Nike+.

“We thought, ‘wow, this could be a pretty big market,” said Kim. “It just turned out Microsoft wasn’t going to be the ideal place for that innovation to take place, so I took some folks from Xbox and other designers from Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon and we partnered up with a group of psychologists.”

Three Steps To Sustainable, Unconscious Habits

To create sustainable, positive habits, Kim’s startup focuses on three steps:


First step: A coaching experience is required to train other trainers, mostly internal people within the client company, like human resource professionals.

Second step: Participate in teams to practice the science of behavior change learned in the workshop. This step involves accountability with colleagues you trust, and employees can opt into the mobile model.

“You’re highly influenced by others around you,” explained Kim. “That’s why we took this organizational approach.”

Kim says he can’t divulge too much since the model is patent-pending, but he did allude that it supports “peer-to-peer coaching, using an Instagram-like model” that’s a “highly visualize experience of social training.” Additionally, he mentioned that ABC News once called the mobile model, “the Foursquare of habits” since there’s a way to “check into things.”

Third step: Reward teams for daily success using a virtual currency system like bitcoin. “Building a whole digital economy around people’s habits is a super, super interesting area that we’re really excited about it,” said Kim. “As far as we know, [our model] is the only virtual currency system for daily habits.”


Rewards using behavioral economics methods is something Kim learned while working with Xbox Live, which enables gamers to earn virtual coins–the equivalent of iTunes for Xbox–in the game, which gamers can then use to buy games and digital content.

Ingrained throughout the platform is the science behind a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” which is a three-part process made popular by New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit.

The Habit Loop Focuses On Three Simple, But Powerful Steps

1. Prioritize the cue. The cue is a trigger for automatic behavior to start the force of habit. Cues can be mastered for positive habits, just as well as bad ones.

Successful cues must relate to:

  • Only a single action, or else it won’t trigger to any specific behavior.
  • An audio or visual observable marker, which can be the sound of phone ringing or seeing the refrigerator door open. However, the marker has to be observable because thoughts and emotions don’t make for successful cues.
  • Context-sensitive, meaning be very aware of the context you’re in so that your triggers make sense to the action. For instance, you don’t want to trigger a habit to run if you’re in the car.

Cues work even better for new habits if they’re already something that happen regularly in the your daily routine. For instance, making coffee in the morning could be a trigger for you to take your medicine.


2. Set the routine. The routine needs to happen right after the cue and focus on mastery, not on the quantitative goal.

3. Establish a reward. The reward needs to follow the routine immediately in order to solidify the habit loop.

Going back to our example above, if making coffee is the trigger for taking your medicine, then the reward can be something as simple as drinking your coffee after. However, remember that you need to drink your coffee immediately after taking your meds in order for the habit to unconsciously form.

Habits are simple, but the tricky part is that they need to be unconscious behaviors that happen in the same context every time. In short, it’s not so much what we’re hoping on changing, but how we’re doing it that will prove to be successful or not.


About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.