View Point - Habit Forming
Category: World Aircraft Sales Magazine Columnists
Author: Gil Wolin
It was a bright summer day in 1979 ten years into a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, acquired during my college years. A small town near Columbus, Ohio was celebrating the anniversary of its founding with a street fair, complete with food vendors, games and a two-mile road race! That would be a piece of cake for this former high school cross-country runner. I’d just lace up the Pumas and swing by the finish line to collect my medal in, oh, about 15 minutes... Suffice it to say that within 300 yards of the start six-year-olds were passing me.
Message received, loud and clear – as I wheezed through the last half mile, I knew it was time to change this bad habit. But going from two packs a day to zero would require an incentive greater than avoiding future roadside embarrassment. As Mark Twain said, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times.” I wanted to do it only once. Holding to a commitment like that meant setting a lofty goal, something requiring real dedication and focus.
Fortunately Columbus provided that opportunity: the first annual Columbus Marathon, to be run about 15 months later. And “26.2 miles in three hours” became my daily mantra. With dedication and daily training (replacing one habit with another) I crossed the finish line the following November in 3:03.
By changing one habit, I had beaten a physical and mental addiction. But it wasn’t until reading Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012), that I understood exactly how that change occurred – or how much our lives, our decisions, are governed by habits, literally thousands of them. According to a 2006 Duke University study cited in the book, more than 40 percent of our daily actions are not free-will decisions, but responses to habits.
Habits, it seems, are the result of a three-step process: a cue, which triggers the performance of a routine, which then generates a reward for that performance. It is the desire for the reward – whether a caffeine or nicotine “rush,” praise from a parent or boss, or medal for completing a race – that drives the routine. And after the repeated delivery of that reward in response to the repeated performance of that routine your brain begins to expect the reward.
That anticipation becomes a craving, and the cue-routine-reward cycle becomes a habit. And a habit once learned is never forgotten. It can, however, be changed from something detrimental to something constructive by changing the routine performed in response to the cue, which then delivers the same reward.
This got me thinking about how much aviation safety depends on habits – on responding to cues without hesitation, without a conscious thought as to how we act, not only in routine flights, but in case of emergency - and how small changes in focus (in habits) can generate huge positive changes in an entire organization. Or an entire industry.
By relentlessly focusing on safety, by making unswerving safety consciousness the keystone of the company culture, Paul O’Neill was able to turn Alcoa from a troubled underperformer, rife with union conflict, on-the-job accidents and offering poor-quality products, to one of the safest companies in the world – and one of the most profitable.
Some habits, like safety-consciousness, are termed “keystone habits,” influencing every aspect of our lives at work and at home; how we eat, play, and relate to each other. As Duhigg explains, “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”
O’Neill chose one habit on which to focus – safety/accident prevention. In doing so, he improved every aspect of Alcoa’s operations existence: ROI, manufacturing efficiency, worker satisfaction, and shareholder return (to learn how, you’ll have to read the book). Habits govern how we operate aircraft – how we dispatch, fly and maintain them, and how we provide cabin service and ground handling.
Successful habits developed over the last 109 years ensure the safety of both passengers and pilots, and are practiced and drilled into every professional pilot, during every initial and every recurrent training session. And it has been through the continual study of accidents and their causes, that IBAC developed IS-BAO - the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations - to institutionalize better habits. The requirement for a Safety Management System helps create new routines to deliver the expanded reward of fewer accidents in the air, on the ground and in the shop.
As Terry von Thaden, Assistant Professor of Human Factors at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Aviation observes, “When things go right most of the time you can get into the habit of things going right. Pilots who study emergencies are really ready for them. They’re less complacent.”
By studying how we deliver safe air transportation, we create better habits – ensuring that the “cues” automatically provoke the best and safest routine responses, and deliver the ultimate reward – the safe completion of another flight.
Gil Wolin draws on almost forty years of aviation marketing and management experience as a consultant to the corporate aviation industry. His aviation career incorporates aircraft management, charter and FBO management experience (with TAG Aviation among others), and he is a frequent speaker at aviation, travel and service seminars. Gil is a past director of the RMBTA and NATA, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for Corporate Angel Network and GE Capital Solutions-Corporate Aviation. Gil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org