Team Management

Want to Create a New Habit? The “Copy-Paste” Technique is Easy and Effective

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
A group of people sit at a table with laptops

When you start your work day, you probably have a routine. Maybe you check your email first, or cross off low hanging to-do list items first—instead of prioritizing more important tasks. 

You might think that people make conscious, benefit-driven decisions about how they do things, especially work routines—but research shows that this is probably not the case. A Duke University study determined that more than 40 percent of the daily decisions we make are not really decisions at all. They’re habits.

This can be a problem, since research also shows that most habits (and especially bad habits) are extremely hard to break. One study found that the average time it takes for a new habit to stick is a whopping 66 days. Adopting a positive new habit can be a long and difficult task, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.

The copy-paste technique

A study conducted by Wharton professor Katy Milkman and Grit author Angela Duckworth suggests that one of the most effective ways to develop a new habit is to observe and emulate a successful strategy (a behavior) that you observe in a peer—not an “influencer” or mentor. This is also referred to as the “copy-paste” technique. 

To test the premise, researchers placed participants into groups. One group was instructed to spend two days learning a new strategy that would motivate them to exercise. The second group (the “copy-paste” group) was told to spend the two days paying attention to people they know who motivate themselves to work out—and if they chose, to ask for motivational tips and strategies.

In the following week, the first group was no more likely to exercise than the control group. The copy-paste group, on the other hand, spent significantly more time exercising. This suggests that observing and emulating the behavior of a peer (someone accessible) makes people feel more confident that they, too, can succeed. “Interestingly, it was more helpful if people found strategies to copy and paste themselves,” Professor Milkman writes, “than if the strategies came from someone else.”

The social proximity effect

In the process of seeking out and emulating people you consider to be role models in some form or another, you’re naturally increasing your exposure to good habits.  If Jim Rohn is right and we are “the average of the five people we spend the most time with,” then actively seeking out positive habits to copy and paste will only improve our ability to achieve our goals.

Jim’s idea is aligned with what social psychologists call the social proximity effect. The idea is that the more time you spend with certain people, the more you’re exposed to the same stimuli and circumstances—and the more likely you are to pick up their habits. 

See how it works

Try it. Pick someone who can do something you want to be able to do. Maybe you’re chronically behind on invoicing, and you know a supplier who bills within the hour. Maybe you dread making cold calls, and you have a friend who is a cold-call machine. Maybe you tend to avoid dealing with interpersonal issues, and your sister is a master of conflict resolution.

The outcome they achieve is admirable, but what matters most is how they achieve it. Watch and listen. Maybe that will be enough. But don’t be afraid to say, “Can you help me?” That simple question speaks powerfully to our instinctive desire to be of service to other people. Then say, “You’re great at [this]. How do you do it?” That question shows your admiration and respect. You’re much more likely to get the advice you need with this approach and, in the process, you’ll help another person feel they made a difference in your life.

Then, all you have to do is a little copy and paste.

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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