Forming Good Business Habits

habits, success, small business

The experience of good business habits.

Why should we, as entrepreneurs and innovators, focus on good business habits?  Don’t we have too much to do already?  Yes we do, and that’s exactly the challenge we can meet with good business habits.

This is a long post because I want you, at the end to have the knowledge and tools to form your own good business habits.  I’ll recommend a place to start that formation process, with critical business skills that are well worth the learning.  I’ll finish up with some links to further reading that can broaden and deepen your understanding.

All right then, let’s get to it!

“I’m overwhelmed… Beating the bushes for my first customers, working through all the problems with my new products, scrambling to build my business infrastructure, presentation after presentation to investors… I’m bone tired. There’s never enough time.”

Any startup founder

“I’ve been at this for a long time, and I’m good at it. But I don’t want to do the same thing forever, and I need to bring on the next generation. I can’t clone myself. How do I build the best of myself into my company?”

Endurance entrepreneurs

“I love the new. Whether it’s technology or process, I really enjoying working it out, launching it, and building it into my company. Recently, I’ve noticed that I’m doing some of the same things again and again. Innovation is always different, but there’s a sense in which it’s always the same. Can I do those repetitive activities faster and better so that I don’t burn out?”

The purposeful innovator

There’s a common thread running through these little set-pieces.

  •  We want to do things faster.
  • We’d like to ace core tasks consistently.
  • While our brains are wired for a single focus, we all know that that we need to multitask; can we at least put some of our work on “autopilot”?
  • We’d love to get that wonderfully low stress state where we know (at least some of the time) that we’re working with unconscious competence.

If we were doing that, and our businesses followed our example:

  • Our businesses would be more productive.
  • Our business processes would be more consistent.
  • Our staff would have more time to really, really observe the business world around them.
  • Our staffs’ morale would soar.

If you’re not yet convinced that forming good business habits can help both you and your business, please don’t waste your time by reading on. However, if you want the benefits of good business habits, then why make some coffee and read the rest of this article?

 Why Focus on Tradeskill Habits?

 For this post we’re going big and basic by focusing on the habits supporting core tradeskills. Skills and habits shouldn’t be confused. However… forming the good business habits of using core tradeskills every day is naturally complementary. It’s worth every minute of the time it takes to learn those skills until they become second nature.

I’ve written a number of posts about tradeskill; here are the five basic tradeskills that can make or break business, packaged in a short presentation.

  • Tradeskill; the essential business skill set.

If we’re going through the time and trouble to form good business habits, we should be doing something worthwhile, something that we’ll use for the rest of our lives.

 How far can tradeskills, practiced habitually, take us? Here’s Paul Hawken’s description:

“Tradeskill is really the set of skills that spell the difference between success and failure in a business.  It is the knack of understanding what people want, how much they’ll pay, and how they make their decision.  It is knowing how to read the signals of the marketplace, how to learn from those signals, how to change your mind.  Tradeskill gives you a canniness about how to approach a given product, market, or niche.  (The geniuses of trade skill are the turnaround “artists” who don’t even need to “know the business they are in.  They perform radical, successful surgery on the patient simply by knowing what the disease is.) Tradeskill becomes a sixth sense that gives those who have it the ability to make decisions quickly, cutting through months of meetings, brainstorming, market studies and bureaucratic shuffling.  Tradeskill is knowing how to handle money, how to buy and how to sell.”

Paul Hawken

What is a Habit?

 Wikipedia’s definition of a habit works well for our purposes:

“A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously. In the American Journal of Psychology (1903) it is defined in this way: ‘A habit, from the standpoint of psychology, is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.’”

We can’t directly observe habits in the human brain, but we can see them at work by the bursts of neural activity that enable them. While we’re forming habits, that burst of neural activity occurs in one of the most primitive parts of our brain, the striatum, helped out by the prefrontal cortex. By a process of trial and error, over time, our brain learns what activities produce the needed results. Interestingly, we learn habits best by using the same techniques we use for memory; the habit becomes a group of activities, and the brain learns to fire groups of neurons. There’s a cue, or trigger that starts the firing process, and when the group of activities finishes, there’s another burst of neural activity. When the habit is well-formed, the neural activity occurs at the beginning and end of the habit…. But during activity, the brain is relatively quiet.

Our striatums were a hive of activity when we were young, processing all sorts of neural activity as we learned to walk, run, talk etc. When we say about a habit “it’s as easy as walking” that’s literally true, because we form habits using the same process we learned to walk. That’s why we don’t “think” about walking. We decide where we want to go, it happens, and then we arrive at our destination. Our brains don’t work hard when we walk… (we can chew gum at the same time, after all.) That’s because the neuronal activity associated with walking is surprisingly small. The same is true from all sorts of other habitual activities.

When the habit is well formed, our brain “transfers” or imprints the block of neural activity from the striatum to the infralimbic cortex. Because parts of the infralimbic cortex are responsible for memory, it’s a good place to imprint the habit because it can be retrieved and reused whenever it’s triggered by the cue. There’s little or no conscious thought on our part because, like the neural activity in the striatum, there’s a burst of neural activity at the beginning, at the end… but with little activity during the middle, performing period. Further, the infralimbic cortex seems to handle habit in the same way as long term memory… that’s why fully formed habits are so persistent.

Here’s more good news; we can decide to stop doing a habitual set of activities. According to the most recent research, that’s best done by not responding to the cue that starts the habit. We can ignore the cue or substitute another cue in its place. (What doesn’t seem to work is actively trying to negate the cue, and that’s why willpower isn’t an effective habit-breaker.)

The Scientific American article I reference at the end of this piece explains the process and the neuroscience in much more detail.

Here are 6 take-aways from this discussion:

  1. In the brain, habits are handled as groups of simple activities with a definite start and end point. (Habits are ideal for putting business skills into practice.)
  2. It takes time to form a habit by trial and error.  (Habits are formed by patient repetition… lots of it.)
  3. The more our habit becomes a routine, the less we’re aware of it.  (It takes less conscious focus, less stress, and we have a better chance of multitasking.)
  4. While we’re forming a habit, we’re alerted (reminded) by a cue, we perform a series of actions, and there’s a reward. (Habits can either  help us do prescheduled work, or respond to some sort of unusual event.)
  5. Once our good business habit is fully formed, it’s always available for use, started by a cue or trigger. (We’re automatically productive in a repeatable way.)
  6. Yes, we can stop a habit (We can delegate “the habit” and go on to do something else.)

 How we Form Good Business Habits: A Tradeskill Example

 Finally, with all that understanding… it’s time to talk specifically about learning tradeskills as good business habits. We’ll use the tradeskill of facing business facts as our example of habit-forming.  (If you want to learn more about facing business facts before you read about forming the habit, I’ve written about it here.)

 The tradeskill of facing business facts is a group of activities that force you to see the world as it is, not how you imagine it, or as you hope it might be.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

-John Adams

We can use the emotions of discomfort and enthusiasm to cue/trigger the habit of facing business facts. Emotional triggers are especially valuable because we often sense that something’s wrong, or are inspired by something right, before our conscious minds perceive the problem or opportunity.

Here is the facing-facts sequence of activities we want to bundle together.

Separate facts from perceptions. To separate the two, it’s often best to actually make a list of your “facts” and separate the sentences that start out with “I feel” from the ones starting with “I observe”. We’re interested in the observations… those are the facts to be faced.

Sort and bin the facts so as to be useful. Often, a series of seemingly disjointed observations are actually related observations about a few (two or three) subjects. By arranging the observations under subject headings, we’re beginning to recognize possible underlying causes. And we can respond to those causes.

Test the facts. Before we go further, we need to ask: are the observations genuine? We should be skeptical because observations can lead us astray:

  • Observers can make mistakes.
  • Statistics are not facts; don’t treat them as such.
  • One observation doesn’t make a trend.
  • In business, conditions change; observations can become out of date.

 If all the facts grouped under a subject are suspect, maybe we don’t understand that subject. If so, we’re can save a lot of time and effort by deferring that subject for later reconsideration.

Act on the facts. Each subject may suggest one or more actions we can take in response to an underlying cause. Now we have something to do.

By taking action, we’ve closed the loop we started when we first decided to examine our discomfort or enthusiasm over some issue. Instead of responding emotionally or impetuously, we looked for (and found) evidence of what’s happening in the real world. Then we used that evidence constructively. That’s facing business facts the right way.

 Don’t forget that reward when you’ve closed the loop!  Rewards are individual, and should suit the circumstances… but they’re always big enough and individual enough to produce real enjoyment. (There’s physiology involved; the reward needs to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain so that our minds are encouraged to respond in the same way to the trigger. Neurologically speaking, the reward is effective only if we enjoy it enough to induce dopamine production.)

We can use the same 4 step method every time, for issues large and small.

  1. Decide on a cue or trigger.
  2. Group a set of activities that have a speicific start and a specific finish point.
  3. Commit to performing that group of activities, to completion, every time the cue or trigger ocurrs.  (For daily activities, that commitment might need 4 to 6 weeks.  Less frequent activities take longer to habituate.  Always, the key is repetition.
  4. Reward yourself with something clearly pleasurable.

We’ll be calmer, less hasty, and more action-oriented.  It works for us individually, for groups we lead, and for organizations we manage.  As our habit forms, we won’t be wasting time fretting; we’ll be thinking, organizing and doing.  It will happen automatically.

 Here are some frequently asked questions about forming good business habits…

 How long does it take to form a habit? The best answer I’ve seen is “… longer than you think”. I’ve read some articles suggesting a habit can be established in three weeks, for daily activities. I think it’s actually a longer time; more like 4 to 6 weeks. For weekly or monthly activities, it could take up to a year. In any case, the answer lies with your brain, and everyone’s is different.

I’ve lapsed… how do I get back on track? If you’ve gone off the wagon for a day or two, stop berating yourself and just keep going. For longer lapses, it’s best to commit to starting over.

When do I know I’ve been successful? Characteristically, fully formed habits are performed “automatically” and may even go unnoticed. So, when you find yourself checking off some chores at day’s end without really remembering that you did them, or finding things done without putting them on your to-do list, then your habit-forming work has really started to pay off.

Summing Up…

good business habits

The engine of habit

Our good business habits can be powerful, reliable and durable. Sounds good, doesn’t it? I often think of habits as a locomotive… prodigious load carriers, reliable and predictably useful.

Our good business habits save time and increase productivity by helping us and those around us. We can use them to improve performance in many ways, but perhaps habits are most powerful when they’re “automating” the critical tradeskills of (a) persistence, (b) facing business facts, (c) reducing business risk, (d) learning by doing, and (e) learning to count.

Thanks to recent neuroscience discoveries, we can use a “method” to develop good business habits; it takes some time, but the results are long-lasting.

 Recently, there’s been a lot written about habits. Some articles talk about the neuroscience of habits; Scientific American’s June 2014 issue featured a long article titled “The Neuroscience of Habits: How they form and why they are so hard to change”.  An online pieces from James Clear and Charles Duhigg’s recent book round out some background material you might enjoy as a follow-up to this discussion.

Want to Read More About Habits Right Now?

 We’ve focused on forming good business habits. But what if you’d dearly like to rid yourself of some bad habits that are hurting you and your business? That’s a discussion for another post.. and we cover that too.




  1. Carol Orris says:

    I think my biggest mistake in running a business is not to handle things in a precise organized way. When a business starts to take off, the temptation is to go hard in so many directions. Organized, methodical progress is far more valuable than mass chaos.

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      Carol, you’re so right! In my experience there’s another reason to organize while growing. It’s very hard to delegate the disorganized and the chaotic. It’s hard to figure out what to do, and it’s very hard to manage. My two cents…

  2. I appreciate your very thorough process of developing habits. It really provides structure around ideas and plans. What would you say are the top 3 habits that you can suggest for any business?

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      Jeff, that’s not a tough one. I think that persistence is numbers one, two and three. So much in business is the result of simply keeping at it. I’ve been listening to some interviews with successful bloggers, and the two things I hear, interview after interview, are (a) success usually comes after a good deal of trial and error, and (b) getting to the thing that makes YOU successful absolutely depends on just keeping at it. If we change ourselves in no other way, we’d be amazed at how much more we could accomplish over time. And yes, I believe that persistence is a habit that can be developed.

  3. Syed Muhammad Abdur Rehman says:

    To be honest it is the first time in my life i have ever read the proper definition of habit.
    ““A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously….”
    Nice post and I am of to finding the next post if you posted it.

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      Syed, I’m glad you’re getting value from your visits to GoodBusiness. We also wrote a post on working through bad habits, and if you need that post (like me), you may find it similarly useful.

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