5-A-Day: Learning by Force of Habit

Center for Evaluation Innovation
13 min readJun 20, 2018

Julia Coffman, Center for Evaluation Innovation, June 2018

Establishing a learning organization or culture is such a big goal that it can overwhelm our ability to act on it. Building learning habits into common routines makes it more manageable, creating small wins that can lead to big change.

Last year I confessed to having outdated work habits. In an article about learning and the way we work, I admitted:

“I carry two notebooks of different sizes with green narrow-ruled paper that I special order…one contains my weekly to-do list, and the other is for taking notes. I have a weekly at-a-glance paper calendar with a black vinyl cover. I have used the same calendar for over 20 years, and still have every one stored on a shelf at home, like a little library of my work history.”

These habits were strongly ingrained, practiced for decades. The problem was that they interfered with my team’s ability to communicate and learn together. They limited our ability to share schedules and priorities. They prevented collective note-taking and sensemaking. So I concluded: “I need to ditch the paper calendar and go fully electronic. I need to start taking meeting notes on our shared platform. I need to share my weekly to-do list so others can understand my priorities and how they relate to theirs.”

After publishing this, I committed to changing my Luddite ways, starting with my beloved calendar. While I didn’t quit cold turkey and duplicated efforts for a while, after about a month I retired the paper version and for the first time in 20 years did not buy a new one at year’s end. The paper trail of my work history went cold.

The Complete (and completely unnecessary) Library of My Work History: 1995–2017

This sounds like a small shift because, well, it is. But it had big implications. That small shift now saves us time on countless back-and-forths and gives us fresh insights about how we work. Perhaps more importantly, it made it easier for me to change in other ways.

My calendar shift led to other habits and group routines that help us to communicate and learn better together. We now have a collective to-do list online that we update daily so we can share priorities, track progress on interdependent tasks, and hold each other accountable. Our team meeting agendas are crowdsourced on our shared platform (Box). We use Slack to relay observations and get immediate feedback. We do all our calls on video (Zoom) to make our interactions higher quality.

I said then and repeat now: “It is not easy to break habits, particularly if we like them, and to embrace new ways of working. But if we are committed to learning and not just ‘independent study,’ then the way we do our day-to-day work has to support it.”

This article is about how to make learning a habit, for ourselves and with others.

We need to make learning easier.

According to Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, our brains have two processing systems, System 1 and System 2. System 1 makes rapid intuitive decisions based on associative memory, images, and emotional reactions. It is fast, automatic, and runs largely in unconscious mode. System 2 does our higher-order thinking and reasoning. It is slow, deliberate, and analytical.¹

Learning requires our second system; it takes effort and uses energy. The problem is that System 2 is lazy and tires easily. It makes us miss important moments when data, logic, or reasoning matter. System 2’s fallability makes us miss opportunities to learn.

This means that we need to make it easier for people to learn. We need to make it feel like a System 1 activity, even if it’s not. Thinking about learning as a set of habits can help us to do that.

Daily habits can improve our learning.

Habits are small behaviors that we repeat without thinking. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks the habit loop into three elements: cues that act as a trigger; the habit or routine that follows; and a reward that ensures the pattern repeats.²

For example, when our phones vibrate (cue), we immediately check the message (habit), and then get the pleasure of feeling connected (reward). We are so tied to this loop that if our phones vibrate and we can’t check them, we get physically uncomfortable. Habits can, of course, be bad or good, but they work the same way regardless.

We propose that our learning will improve if we build a set of habits into our day-to-day work that we can remember and repeat automatically.

These five habits include:³

  1. Making our thinking visible. We need to identify the hypotheses and assumptions that undergird our thinking and pinpoint about what we need to learn. This habit helps us to identify where we have the most uncertainty in our strategies or thinking, and therefore where we have the best opportunities for learning.
  2. Asking powerful questions. The kinds of questions we often pose — Did the intervention work? What are we learning about a particular issue? — may lead to information that is a useful input into learning, but they often don’t help us determine what to do next. This habit results in questions that, if answered, will make a difference in how we do our work.
  3. Combating our biases. Analysis made without attention to our biases and disconnected from quality data can lead us to learn the wrong thing and make uninformed or even bad decisions.⁴ This habit ensures the inputs we use for learning are rigorous and systematic and not just based on what we have gathered from our own limited vantage points.
  4. Attending to causal inferences. We need to explore the relationship between our actions and their outcomes — intended and unintended — in order to learn about the choices we have made or could make. This habit helps us pay attention to what did or did not happen as a result of what we did, and to explore alternative explanations for the changes we observe.
  5. Answering the “now what” question. After we have experienced an event or received new information, ensuring we learn from it requires asking ourselves what happened, why it was important, and what it implies about our future actions, or What? So What? Now What?⁵ This habit ensures we don’t skip the third question; it forces us to identify how insights generated will be applied (even if no action is warranted).

While many fantastic tools and tactics have been developed to support learning, the challenge always has been getting people to use them, on their own, at the right time, and with quality. I’d had an electronic calendar for years and used it on occasion when I had to. It took building it into my daily routine and making it a habit for it to be useful to my communication patterns and learning.

Focusing on habits ensures that learning is not a separate activity or just another step in a process. It makes learning an integral part of the way we work.

Now that we have an idea of the kinds of habits we want to build, the next challenge is how to build them.

We can build new habits into small everyday routines.

We suggest these steps for building new habits, although there is no strict formula. Because we primarily support learning in philanthropy, our examples are about foundations and the people who work in them. These concepts can apply, however, to any organization.

1. Identify a keystone habit to work on.

The first step is selecting where to start. “Keystone habits” offer an answer.

Keystone habits start a process that, over time, changes other things about the way we act. They help people to experience success that makes it easier to change in other ways.⁶ For example, a National Institutes of Health study found that asking overweight people to write down everything they ate at least one day a week was highly effective in weight loss because it helped them to recognize patterns in their eating. This daily habit created a system for thinking about food that then helped them to adopt other helpful weight-control habits, like meal planning.⁷

Moving to an electronic calendar was my keystone habit for how I communicate. It gave me a small win that helped me to make other shifts in how I connect with others.

Practiced in organizations, keystone habits create cultures where change is contagious. They act like mini experiments that help us test theories about barriers and opportunities, revealing lessons that we can build on to create further change.⁸

Organizations looking for a keystone learning habit might examine what their values say are a priority for how people behave. Those who value transparency might focus on the habit of making their thinking visible. Those who value continuous learning and improvement might focus on asking powerful questions. Those who value diversity, equity, and inclusion might focus on combating biases.

2. Select a routine in which the habit can be embedded.

Getting people to adopt a new habit is easier if it is cloaked in something familiar. Introducing a new habit into an old routine is easier than forming a new routine.⁹

Foundations have a lot of routines. Laura Leviton and William Bickel wrote a brilliant article about integrating evaluation and learning into foundation cycles and routines.¹⁰ Their idea was, “The utility of evaluation is greatly strengthened if evaluative processes are integrated into fundamental organizational routines” (p.119).

We want to apply that same concept here, except our aim is embedding learning habits into people’s smaller everyday routines. Habit formation requires that we repeat a behavior often enough for it to become a rote response. In foundations, those smaller routines and their relationship to learning habits might include the following. Most show up in everyone’s work, regardless of their position or role.

3. Map the current routine and how a new habit can shift it.

To adopt new behaviors, we need to be convinced that they will lead to better results. One way to approach this is by mapping the three-part habit loop in both old and new routines so the cue is clear, as well as how the new habit can lead to a better reward. Several examples follow.

4. Introduce and support the new habit.

Successfully modifying a habit requires that people commit to changing it. It can’t be forced on them. We can, however, make it easier for others once they commit. This is where training, tools, and events come in.

Try introducing the habit through training, both on how to perform the habit and how to recognize the cue for using it. While the five learning habits seem simple, doing them in a high-quality way that contributes to learning doesn’t come naturally. The habits do not require specialized or technical expertise, but most people will need some training on how to, for example, formulate hypotheses and articulate assumptions, ask powerful questions, recognize and combat biases, and explore causal inference.

Once people can perform the habit, offer a tool to support it. This may mean modifying an existing tool or offering a new one. Regardless, tools need to support the practice of robust learning habits. Theories of change need to ask for assumptions and hypotheses. Learning agendas need to trigger powerful and meaningful questions.¹¹

Use higher-profile events to demonstrate how the habit works and to emphasize its importance. Events can model learning habits and reinforce their significance. In foundations these events typically are features of bigger and less-frequent routines and might include, for example, all-staff learning meetings, board meetings, external evaluation planning, or portfolio reviews.

5. Reinforce the habit.

While building learning habits gives us a manageable focus in our efforts to improve learning, we also should look for opportunities to work on the larger factors that affect our ability to practice them.

We have identified six of these factors and how they can derail or support our learning. They include: (1) personal motivation, (2) role identity, (3) relationships and connections, (4) power and norms, (5) rewards and incentives, and (6) workspace. Influencing any one of them can affect how well we pick up and perform learning habits.

Try building learning habits into role identities. We have “scripts” in our heads about the kinds of behaviors our roles call for and we behave in ways that fit with our identity’s stereotypes. Some foundations are influencing these scripts by identifying particular staff as “learning champions.” These individuals agree to support learning habits by, for example, making sure others respond to learning cues when they arise.

Promote social norms around learning habits. Our behavior is influenced by our perceptions of how our peers think and act. Social norms offer guidelines for our expected behaviors; they define what is considered “appropriate.” This means that we can support learning habits by increasing our perception (and ideally the reality) that others also are performing those habits. Training people on habits in groups is one way to start influencing our ideas about what our peers are doing.¹²

Use behavioral nudges. Nudges are small interventions that attempt to shift people’s behavior in directions that will make their lives better.¹³ They are based on a great deal of behavioral science research that clearly shows people do not always act in their self-interest. Nudges don’t cost much, but they can change behavior in big ways. We might use nudges to support learning habits by manipulating, for example, how and when we remind people to do them, how we format our tools, or by asking people details on how they plan to use them.

Reward learning more formally. Rewards from learning habits are significant and important, but primarily intangible — getting usable information, making good use of time, getting a more diverse set of grantees. Rewards for performing learning might also be more explicit, such as awarding or recognizing the team that excels in making its thinking visible (e.g., had a high-quality theory of change, or highest ratings from grantees on communications clarity).

New habits give us small wins that can lead to bigger change.

Learning as a set of manageable habits builds on the idea of “small wins” that psychologist Karl Weick described 35 years ago in a paper by the same name.¹⁴ He said:

“A small win is a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.” (p.43).

We tend to define big challenges or goals — like establishing a learning organization or culture — in ways that overwhelm our ability to do anything about them. This framing is too daunting, too abstract, and too broad to usefully guide our day-to-day work.¹⁵

Framing our task instead as mastering daily learning habits gives us the attainable guidance we need. When we successfully practice these habits and get small wins, achieving more wins that ultimately add up to big change becomes possible.

Julia Coffman is founder and director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation and co-director of the Evaluation Roundtable. Twitter: @Eval_Innovation.

Read a response to this article from CEI’s Kat Athanasiades, who raises two key questions we need to address if we truly are to be successful in building better learning habits.


[1] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow.New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

[2] Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

[3] These ideas are drawn from a variety of sources, including our own observations, conversations with participants in the Evaluation Roundtable, and the collective insights of the Emergent Learning Community of Practice hosted by Fourth Quadrant Partners.

[4] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974) Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-­1131.

[5] Human Systems Dynamics Institute (2016). Adaptive action.

[6] Duhigg, p.100

[7] Hollis, J.F., Gullion, C.M., Stevens, V.J., Brantley, P.J., Appel, L.J., Ard, J.D., Champagne, C.M., Dalcin, A., Erlinger, T.P., Funk, K., Laferriere, D., Lin, P.H., Loria, C.M., Samuel-Hodge, C., Vollmer, W.M., Svetkey, L.P., Weight Loss Maintenance Trial Research Group(2008). Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. American Journalof PreventiveMedicine, 35, 118–126.

[8] Weick, K. (1984). Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist, 39 (1), 40–49.

[9] Duhigg, p. 62.

[10] Leviton, L.C., & Bickel, W.E. (2004). Integrating evaluation into foundation activity cycles. In Braverman, M.T., Constantine, N.A., & Slater, J.K. (Eds.) Foundations and Evaluation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[11] For other tools that support learning, see Preskill, H., Gutierrez, E., & Mack, K. (2107). Facilitating intentional group learning: A practical guide to 21 learning activities. FSG.

[12] For an example about setting social norms that reinforce new habits, we recommend the Invisibilia podcast “The New Norm” about how social norms on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico shifted to support new worker habits around showing vulnerability.

[13] Thaler, R.H., & Sunstein, C.R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[14] Weick, K.. Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems.

[15] Sutton, R.I. (2010). Hey boss — enough with the big, hairy goals. Harvard Business Review.