Old Habits Die Hard

I recently had the kitchen counters replaced in my kitchen. I was without a kitchen sink for only about 24 hours. During that time, do you know how many times I tried to rinse some out in a sink that no longer had a faucet let alone a working drain?  I was lucky enough not to end up with water or food scraps in the cabinet below, but it gave me reason to pause and wonder – why am I doing that when I obviously know better?

Habits are helpful. Well, most of them are. They prevent us from literally having us think – or think about the stuff we regularly do like tying our shoes or making coffee. I think a lot of us refer to these things as brainless activities. Brain research has this idea neatly explained.  The human brain processes four hundred billion bits of information every second but you are consciously aware of about two thousand. The unconscious brain stores the rest away. This is what makes habits automatic. In this way, our conscious mind only needs to deal with a few things at a time.

Bad habits are no different than good habits, in terms of how the brain works. Therefore, while we want to keep the good ones, it’s really hard to break the bad ones.

So, how can we apply brain research to design?


The focus of the article above was how to apply brain research to managing employees. I think we can use the same ideas when designing for others.

  • “Habitual thinking and behavior are a result of powerful neural pathways in our brains.” This tells me that unless there is a really good case for it, breaking well known design conventions would frustrate users.
  • Emotions are the key driver to decision-making, not logical, analytical thought. These gives credence to the idea of designing to delight; especially for a retail site.
  • “Your brain will put up defensive mechanisms that will try to protect you from change.” It’s not that you can’t introduce new interactions, but you have to realize the potential dip in CSAT until a new habit is formed.
  • “Managers should focus on desired new patterns of thinking and behavior to help employees change, not analyzing and trying to fix the old patterns because the latter will only reinforce the problems.” Sometimes, it is just better to start fresh and a slight change or minimalistic design change will not improve perception.



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