How to Replace an Existing Habit

Speek_MonkeyHow to Replace an Existing Habit

This afternoon, I’ve been digging into the interesting new conference calling app, Speek (you can check them out here; they are currently in Beta). Justin told me about them, and I had the opportunity to talk with their CTO and co-founder, Danny, last week.

Here’s the problem:   They are trying to change how people make conference calls. They have an online app where people enter in their phone number and the system calls them & automatically adds them to the conference. No dial-in and pin code required. It looks like this:



Dirt simple. But, it’s also different. It’s not how we’re used to doing conference calls (you call a number, you enter in an annoyingly long pin code, do some awkward announcement message, etc.).

It got me thinking. What does it take to replace an existing, established behavior?

That’s an issue that Speek faces, that we face at HelloWallet with existing money management behavior, and that numerous other companies face as well.

Thankfully, there’s good research on habits.  They arise in one of two ways.[1] First, they can be built through simple repetition.  Whenever you see X (a cue), you do always do Y (a routine). Alternatively, they can also include a third element: a reward, something good that happens at the end of the routine. It’s this latter type of habit that is the nastiest to change:  over time, you learn to want (or “crave”) the reward.  Whenever you see the cue, you semi-consciously act out the routine because you expect the reward.[2]

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, talks about what it takes to replace a (reward-based) habit. He also has a cute video on his website about it. Here is what it takes, using Speek as an example:

  1. Identify the cue and reward. People have an existing routine to log into GoToMeeting (or wherever), set up the conference call, and tell the system to email everyone with the info.[3] The cue is a discussion that prompts them to setup a conference call.  The immediate reward for setting up the call is that they don’t need to remember to call people, or think about the task further until the call.[4]
  2. Consciously do a different routine when the cue occurs, that provides the same reward. For Speek to work, they need convince the conference-organizer to do something different (use Speek), at the moment they think “it’s time to setup a conference call”. Not an easy task. They need to be just as easy to find as the person’s existing conference provider, and preferably much more visible to the person at that moment (since they need to overcome an existing behavior). They also need to provide the same reward: no need to remember or worry about the call.
  3. Continue that conscious switching of routines until the new habit is instilled. Old habits never die. The brain wiring is always there. But, with repetition, you can build a different habit that is more prominent. For, for Speek, they not only need to convince a conference-organizer to use Speek once, they need to provide a simple, easy way for people to repeat their experience, and keep their conscious attention on it. Otherwise, users will naturally backslide to their previous habits. That’s the case even if the experience of using Speek were hands-down better than everything else. Because they are fighting an ingrained habit, and not a conscious choice to use the optimal conference call system.


Does this problem sound familiar to you?  I’m looking for more examples of companies trying to overturn ingrained habits.  Please add a comment to this post, or shoot me an email (steve at hellowallet).

By the way – for my Washington DC area compatriots, Danny will be joining us for an upcoming Action Design DC meetup soon!




[2] Though, interesting, you don’t actually need to receive the reward once the habit has been established; see my post on my potato chip habit on the difference between “wanting” and “liking”.

[3] There are also existing routines about joining a conference call (finding the email with the dial-in #, calling it, entering the pin, etc.).  I’ll focus on the initial routine of creating a conference call.

[4] There are, of course, numerous other rewards to having a conference call. But they don’t directly affect the person when they setup the call.


Examples, Theory