How to use circuit breakers to re-set habits

There are some sounds you just don’t want to hear in the bathroom. One of them is the ‘plop’ of your iPhone falling into the toilet bowl.

Suddenly I was without a smartphone for 24 hours as I waited to see whether the Google-search-phone-in-rice trick would be my salvation (it wasn’t).

If there was an upside to this experience, it was that it served, quite literally, as a circuit breaker for my smartphone habit.

Circuit breakers in personal and business contexts

Whether they result from something we do or that happens to us, circuit breakers force us to reassess the status quo.

You can use these disruptions across both personal and business contexts to advantage.

Personal circuit breakers may include;

  • A change in season – exercising in the mornings may become more difficult/easy and you need to adjust your routine as a result
  • Moving house – empty cupboards make you feel anything is possible. Use the opportunity to set up an environment to support healthy habits
  • Job change – you reaquaint yourself with your personal workplace habits when you have to commute to a new place, navigate a new building, meet new people and learn your new job.
  • Holiday – A change of scenery can take you away from normal habit triggers (i.e. people, places, smells, sounds) which can be a good thing (e.g. quitting smoking) or a bad thing (e.g. stopping exercise)
  • Family change – marriage, divorce, death, birth – moments of particular significance can make us reappraise how we’ve been living

In business, circuit breakers may include;

  • Bills – when your customer receives a bill they are reminded of their side of the commercial arrangement, and may scrutinise the value you provide
  • Staffing changes – when staff come and go there is often a reappraisal of the job’s function and value
  • Office move – Relocations can change the way the business is perceived (are they upgrading or downsizing?) and also cause team dynamics to be either disrupted or strengthened
  • Organisational restructure – the perennial favourite of a new boss; kicking off a restructure to ‘shake things up’
  • Losing a significant customer – time for some introspection and a reassessment of why and what you took for granted
  • Competitor activities – a new competitor or innovative move can radically alter the landscape

Once you’ve experienced a circuit breaker it is up to you whether you use it to your advantage or slide back to status quo.

Re-setting personal habits

For habits, use the opportunity to analyse the components of your behaviour – the trigger, routine and reward, and develop strategies to deal with each.


For instance, thanks to my smartphone circuit breaker I was able to analyse the habit that had formed;

Trigger – when I’d reached an impasse in something I was trying to nut out

Routine – I’d reach for my phone and scroll through emails, then LinkedIn, then Twitter

Reward – I’d be distracted from my brainwork while feeling productive

And then move to correcting the habit.

Trigger – I can’t prevent the mental state, so the trigger will always exist

Routine – I can make it harder for me to check my phone by keeping it out of arm’s reach, like on a docking system. (I could also remove the social media functions from my phone if I needed to up the ante)

Reward – I can stare out the window or squeeze a stress ball to let my brain get the breather it needs

Re-setting business behaviour

If you’ve experienced a circuit breaker in your business, you have a precious opportunity to re-set things for the better. These five questions will help you structure your approach.

  1. What is the prevailing behaviour, of customers and staff? Is this optimal?
  2. What is the desired new behaviour? What would you like to see?
  3. How can you make undesirable behaviour more difficult?
  4. How can you make desirable new behaviour easy?
  5. How will you ensure that reward is greater than effort?

Circuit breakers are all around us. While in the past you may have called them problems, I hope you’ll now consider them opportunities to reflect and reset.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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