How do we develop personally and professionally?
We all want to get better at our jobs, have more time, build better relationships, and contribute more to society, which is why personal and professional development matters. To do so, we look to latest apps or technology to take us to the next level, while perhaps, the greatest opportunity lies fully within our control: changing our behaviors.
Changing our behaviors is 1 of just 3 ways Stanford professor and habit expert, BJ Fogg, offers for how we can improve our lives. (In this 4 min video, Fogg describes all 3)
And forming habits is the most efficient way to change our behaviors because it takes a conscious action and makes it automatic, enabling it to last.
Philosophers throughout the centuries have noted the power of habits:
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” — William James
And this popular quote, often attributed incorrectly to Aristotle:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”
In 2006, researchers from Duke University estimated that 40% of our daily actions are habits. Habits free up our conscious minds to attend to other things and are less susceptible to performance drains like procrastination because they happen without us making conscious decisions. As a result, forming new habits is one of the best ways to accelerate your personal and professional development.
What is a habit?
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, defines habits this way:
“A habit is a behavior that starts as a choice, and then becomes a nearly unconscious pattern.” — Charles Duhigg
Habit expert and author of Atomic Habits, James Clear focuses on the repetitive nature of habits:
“Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day.” — James Clear
Gretchen Rubin, author of bestseller The Happiness Project and its sequel, Better than Before emphasizes the subconscious nature of habits:
“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. If we change our habits, we change our lives.” — Gretchen Rubin
Defining habits is just a start. We need to understand how habits work and their components if we can hope to get better at developing them in our lives. Duhigg offers a simple, yet compelling perspective on how habits work, pulling from MIT research, which he calls the habit loop: a cue, routine, and reward.
Clear offers a similar framework, adding a fourth step that Duhigg talks about, but doesn’t include explicitly in the habit loop: craving.
To make these frameworks concrete, let’s apply them to the habit of brushing our teeth in the morning:
- Cue: We wake up with a bad taste in our mouth
- Craving: We want a good taste in our mouth
- Response: We brush our teeth
- Reward: We have a good taste in our mouth
This understanding of how habits work enables us to determine how to most effectively create new habits in our lives, which, remember, is the most effective to develop personally and professionally.
How do you form a new habit?
Forming a habit may feel like an involuntary or subconscious process that happens to us more than we make it happen. This makes sense because so much of our lives are governed by habits without us intentionally creating them, but it is not true.
Here’s how BJ Fogg describes habit formation:
“Habit formation is a skill. It’s something you can learn and get better at.” — BJ Fogg
(You can watch Fogg’s full explanation in this 3-minute video.) This is great news! If habit formation is a skill, then we can consciously choose to form habits and we can learn and apply research-based practices that enable us to form habits most efficiently and effectively.
Fogg, Clear, Duhigg, and Rubin each offer separate but complementary frameworks for how best to develop a habit.
Fogg recommends a 3-step process he calls the Tiny Habits Method:
- Pick a “tiny habit,” which is a behavior you can do daily in a short period of time with little effort
- Do it after an existing habit in your routine
- Celebrate your success
Clear offers 4 steps for each of his 4 stages that increase your odds of turning a behavior into a habit:
- Cue: Make it obvious
- Craving: Make it attractive
- Response: Make it easy
- Reward: Make it satisfying
Duhigg focuses more on re-shaping or changing habits than starting from scratch:
- Identify the routine you want to change
- Experiment with rewards to understand what is truly reinforcing the bad behavior
- Isolate the cue that is really triggering the bad behavior
- Have a plan that replaces the bad behavior with a good one that delivers the same reward and can be completed when the same cue happens
Rubin doesn’t lay out a series of steps, but instead advocates for 4 pillars of habits:
- Monitoring: Track how you’re doing
- Foundation: First work on habits that build your sense of self-control
- Scheduling: Set a specific and regular time to do the behavior
- Accountability: Find someone else to ensure you take action
Each offers a unique approach to forming habits, but the similarities are evident:
- You need some way to remind yourself to do the behavior: Fogg recommends doing it after an existing routine. Clear says to make the cue obvious, which could be done using Rubin’s scheduling technique. And Duhigg helps you figure out how to identify the real cue and re-purpose it.
- You need to select and design the behavior you want to turn into a habit intentionally: Fogg says to start as small as possible. Clear agrees, but makes a broader point about making it easy. Duhigg stresses the importance of picking a behavior that can deliver the same reward as the bad habit you want to replace. Rubin calls out foundational behaviors, which connects to a concept Duhigg discusses in his book, called “keystone habits.”
- Find some way to reinforce the behavior: Fogg recommends celebrating your own progress. Clear again broadens the point, suggesting that you find some way to make it satisfying. Duhigg goes deeper, emphasizing the importance of figuring out what is already reinforcing your bad habits. Rubin offers 2 ways to reinforce a behavior: track your progress and find someone to hold you to your intentions.
You and your friends or coworkers can take these wonderful insights and apply them to develop yourselves personally and professionally. And we believe you will be much more successful than you have been, if you’ve been operating without them.
But in case you want some help along your development journey, we’ve built these very insights into the design of our online platform to make it easy for you to develop personally and professionally. Here’s how we have done it.
Quick Personal & Professional Development FAQs:
What is professional development?
Professional development is the process of growth that makes you better at your current job and better equips you for your future jobs.
What is the purpose of professional development?
Professional development enables you to build a career rather than simply hold a job by enabling you to become a better professional over time. If you don’t develop, not only will you not advance, but you’ll likely lose your current job.
What are some professional development skills?
Professional development covers any skill that is useful to your work. It includes, but is not limited to: communication skills, critical thinking, prioritization, email management, focus, people management, and team management.
What is the difference between personal and professional development?
Personal development includes all skills, character traits, and qualities you want to cultivate in your life even if they’ll have no impact on your job, while professional development is focused exclusively on growing in areas that will impact your job now or build your future career. In practice, personal and professional development overlap significantly, if not completely for most people.
How does the Zarvana platform help you create habits?
We’re not interested in developing another online course that teaches you new information. Information without action is deception.
It’s deception because when we consume new information, we think our lives will change, but in reality, there is much more work to be done before our lives will change.
That’s why we didn’t create another online course. Instead, we’ve designed a platform that:
- Distills the best research on management and professional practices into bite-size behaviors,
- Helps you identify the best behavior to work on first,
- And then helps you turn that behavior into a habit.
It builds off the years of research and experience the habit experts mentioned above have done.
Here’s how it works:
1. Zarvana starts with behaviors
When most people want to change, they focus on their goals or aspirations: “I want to be a better people manager.” This is a great start, but it will be unsuccessful if the aspiration is not linked to specific behaviors proven to lead to the aspiration. To have a chance at success, you need to identify specific behaviors you will do.
Fogg explains the difference between behaviors and aspirations and why knowing the difference is so important in this 3.5-minute video.
The simple way to know if you’ve identified a behavior is to ask yourself: Would I be able to tell if I did it? If you can’t, then it’s not a behavior by our standard.
For example: Was I a better people manager today? You would find yourself hard-pressed to give an accurate answer without a complex feedback system. So, it’s not a behavior. What about: I want to give good feedback? While closer to a behavior, it would still be difficult to know if you gave good feedback because good is not defined specifically enough.
In contrast, consider this behavior: “I want to give a genuine, specific piece of positive feedback to my direct reports.”
To develop professionally, you need to know which behaviors to apply, not which management theories or frameworks to memorize. Concepts and theories can be helpful, but only if we can translate them into specific behaviors.
At Zarvana, we’ve done and we’re continuing to do the work of translation from theory and concept. Currently, we have over 130 research-backed behaviors on our platform and we’re adding more almost every month.
2. We break behaviors down into small steps
BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits Method is based on research that shows the best way to start a new habit is to make the behavior as small as possible. Why is this true? Because small behaviors require little motivation – and motivation can be hard to come by, especially when you’re doing something good for you, which often promises long-term benefits at an immediate cost.
Fogg famously advises anyone hoping to start flossing to begin by flossing just one tooth a day. Clear builds on the Tiny Habits Method, recommending that you “make it easy.”
We have followed Fogg’s and Clear’s advice by breaking down all our behaviors into series of steps (i.e., Habify Steps) that build progressively on each other so that you can start with the smallest possible behavior.
3. The first Habify Step is an action you can try immediately in a few minutes
In his model of how human behavior works, Fogg explains that we do a behavior when 3 conditions are met:
- We have sufficient motivation
- We are capable of performing the behavior
- We are prompted to do the behavior
On the Zarvana platform, we made the first step an action you can take immediately because the moment you commit to take action on a behavior is the moments those 3 conditions are most likely to be met:
- You’re clearly motivated to take action if you already read enough about the behavior to get to the first habify step
- You’ve just read how to do the behavior, so you’re more capable than you were and more capable than you will be in a day when you forget what you’ve read
- And you are focused on it right then so you don’t need a separate reminder
We’ve made step 1 something you can do in a few minutes (ideally two minutes) because we know most people are inclined to read and then, put off taking action. In Atomic Habits, Clear explains how to stop procrastinating by using the two-minute rule. The two-minute rule requires that you simplify any habit down to an action that takes two minutes or less. We’ve tried to apply the two-minute rule to step 1 for all behaviors (we haven’t been successful in all cases).
If step 1 is just a one-time trial of the behavior, you might be thinking: how does it help me turn the behavior into a habit?
It increases the likelihood that you’ll meet the 3 conditions above when you revisit the behavior:
- It builds your motivation to do the behavior because when you do step 1, you get to experience the benefit of doing the behavior.
- It builds your capability because you just practiced it.
- It strengthens your memory of the behavior by moving it from head knowledge to experiential knowledge, which is more salient and more likely to prompt you in the future.
4. We’ve constructed all following steps using an evidence-based approach, called implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are a way of designing a behavior that increases the likelihood that you will actually do it. Research shows that crafting implementation intentions makes you almost 3 times more likely to take action than a motivational presentation (91% vs. 35-38%).
Implementation intentions have 3 parts:
Combining them, you could say, “I will floss my teeth [behavior] in the bathroom [location] before I go to bed [timing].” Or you can switch the order to put timing first so that the timing acts as a prompt to do the behavior: “When I go to bed [timing], I will floss my teeth [behavior] in the bathroom [location].”
All our habify steps after step 1 are framed as implementation intentions, generally in 1 of 2 formats, “When [situation happens], I will [behavior]” or “Once/After [situation happens], I will [behavior].”
By conveying the steps in the form of implementation intentions, we’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll successfully take action by 2-3 times.
5. We build towards mastery of behaviors using habit stacking
Both Fogg and Clear recommend using “habit stacking” or “habit shaping” to build up from a tiny habit to the full behavior. The idea is that you build habits on top of habits in a format like: “After [habit 1], I will [habit 2].”
The reason this is so effective is that habit 2 (the new habit) is able to use an existing habit as a prompt or reminder so you don’t need to create a new reminder. In doing so, it reinforces the value of habit 1, making you more likely to continue it as well. (See the previous image as an example.)
6. We require that you complete each step 5 times in order to move on
People often ask: “How long does it take to form a habit?” In response, many people cite the oft-quoted 21 days, but the answer is not in “days,” but in repetitions. (Here’s where “21 days” came from.) The way to turn a behavior into a habit is to do it repeatedly. The more repetitions, the more automatic it becomes.
Is there a specific number of repetitions that makes a behavior automatic? No. In one study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people’s behaviors to become automatic. It will vary by behavior and person. Fogg compares mastering a habit to cooking a meal: “Some meals take 21 minutes to cook. Others don’t.”
We’ve designed our platform to give you enough repetitions to build a level of competence in each step before moving on. The average behavior on our platform contains almost 4 habify steps, which means that most behaviors require 16 repetitions to achieve mastery.
Is this too few repetitions? Possibly. Over time, we will be able to see how long it takes the average professional to master each behavior and then, customize the number of required repetitions to match the behavior.
7. When you fail twice in a row, we reset your progress on that step
Clear says that you should “never fail twice” when trying to form a habit. Not doing the behavior consistently once is a one-off incident, but not doing it twice in a row is the beginning of a habit – a bad habit you don’t want to form. Failing twice in a row can also lead you to associate your identity with the failure rather than success: “I am not the kind of manager who can give good feedback.”
As a result, we let you maintain your progress when you fail once, but two consecutive failures forces you to start over on the step. In doing so, we hope that the additional cost of failing twice will increase your motivation to do the behavior you have already indicated you wanted to master.
8. We reward your consistency by showing you your progress
Remember back to Duhigg’s habit loop: habits require rewards. Ultimately any behavior that becomes a habit will be intrinsically rewarding, meaning you will derive a reward directly from doing the behavior.
However, this isn’t always the case in the beginning. Sometimes, we need to “piggy-back” something we already find rewarding onto a behavior until it becomes intrinsically rewarding. Humans are generally motivated by seeing their progress. On the other hand, most people lose motivation when they can’t tell if they’re making progress.
To make progress tangible, we’ve taken the abstract concept of “mastery” and made it visible and concrete. To do this, we translated repetitions into discrete steps toward mastery. In the Zarvana platform, you can see how each repetition gets you that much closer to mastery both on the page of that behavior and on your dashboard.
Try it out
Good habits will change your life, save you time, and improve your performance at work. In fact, they’re 1 of only 3 tools most people have to make such improvements. You could use the research we compiled here to upgrade your own journey of personal and professional development, applying these best practices as much as possible.
Or you could allow our platform to do the hard work for you. After all, one of the main benefits of habits is that they enable you to do good things without thinking about them. At Zarvana, we’ve tried to do the same for personal and professional development: enable you to learn, grow, develop, and achieve without having to think about how.
You can sign up here for free to put this system to the test.
How would you improve our approach? What did we miss?
So, this is where we are currently in the incorporation into the design of our platform the best research on how to develop professionally and personally and how to form habits.
But we know there is much further to go. For example, we’ll be adding notifications over the next month or so to serve as a prompt. Would you comment on this post or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have thoughts on these 2 questions:
- What research on habits are we missing that you think we should know and incorporate?
- What are other ways could we be incorporating this research into the design and functionality of the platform?