And now for something completely normal

Coming down, after being away

People, the velodrome is quiet, the Olympics are now over, and it’s time to get back to work…

After the excitement of the Olympics, normality is about to hit us, like returning to work after a break.  Holidays are lauded as the ultimate expression of the human need to escape.  The journey is the destination… life is a journey and so on.  And when we think back to our young lives it’s the holidays that we remember.  Suddenly, I’m 10 years old, I’m in a caravan, my mother is attempting to cook something on a tiny stove while my father bangs in tent-pegs swearing as he does so.


Where was I?

But holidays can also be disorienting.  At the BBC we often conducted surveys into the lives of travellers.  Here’s one that we conducted with Mesh Planning.  We found travel a disorienting, emotionally draining experience.  Most people like to escape within strictly limited periods, before returning to their normal state.  Even while away, frequent business travellers would seek out the familiar, nesting in their hotel rooms and seeking connections with home.

One aspect of holidays which is most disconcerting is the lack of routine.  While we can cope with changes in our normal arrangements, it’s more comfortable to have anchors protecting us from drifting off too far.  When we have asked TV viewers to design their perfect TV schedule, no matter how much encouragement we gave them, no matter how free-form the workshop, they would still describe something close to what they have at the moment.  This could be a collective failure of imagination, and I can see that routine and habit are unsexy concepts, but the idea of order, habit and a sense of normality are powerful determinants of how we like to live.  It’s not AS true of young people, but even here, routine helps.  It’s been reported by Charles Duhigg (in here, p109), that something as simple as making your bed each morning can improve happiness, budget-keeping and productivity.  It’s not that a tidy bed does this, but creating simple habits has a knock-on effect into areas where routines can help.

Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit. We like routine, and that DOESN’T make us boring. No way.

The habit loop explains how we watch television – we respond to a trigger clue – such as the bongs at the start of the news at 10, or the Match of the Day theme tune – we then respond by switching automatically into a particular habit of behaviour, before getting our reward – which might be a TV programme we enjoy.   This loop is so fundamental that it means that we don’t need to think when we are within it.  It drives a large part of our behaviour

The Habit Loop. Developed at M.I.T, publicised by Charles Duhigg. It helps explain why we crave order

And this has not been affected by advances in digital technology any more than it is affected by the excitement of a quadrennial sports event.   So, for all the excitement of the Olympics and the thrill of shifting our TV viewing into special sports mode for two weeks, many of us really want to get back to what we know – a comfortable routine that pays out regular rewards.  Some behavioural economists might call this a status quo bias, but it’s more likely to be based on the happy experience of knowing what we like, and when we like it…

But how do we shift behaviour?

Shifting habits, or creating new ones

Like every other broadcaster wanting to attract TV viewers to a website (or to a radio station), and vice versa, we conducted research to help.  How do we get viewers of our TV station to visit our website?  Surely if they love our TV station, they’d come to our website too?  Well, you’d think so, but hardly any did.


And it wasn’t as if we didn’t tell them about the BBC website.  We did.  Constantly.  Our problem was that the habit of watching the TV channel was entirely separate from the habit of going online for news, or listening to the radio.

Nirvana for a broadcaster: TV viewers who also come to your website and your radio station (if you’ve got one). Not as easy as you might think


A typical media journey for a typical person. It’s built on routine. But it can be worked with.

And so it didn’t help simply to tell them that our website existed.  It also didn’t help much to show the URL on-screen (especially if it had punctuation in it).  What worked?  Anchoring our messages about our website in ways that fitted into the viewers’ habits.

So, don’t say to TV viewers ‘Come to our website, it’s brilliant’, or ‘Find out more at’.    These lines fail because they don’t reference the life or habits of the viewer.  Instead say, ‘WHEN you log on at work and want a summary of the news, come to us’, or ‘WHEN you want something to talk about with colleagues and friends at lunchtime, our website is full of great gossip’ or ‘If you check the news online just before turning in, our  site will help you sleep more easily’.  Because most people do go online at certain junctions of the day as creatures of habit, the invitation is more effective if it acknowledges these behaviours and fits into them.

Behaviours will change, of course, but these will be turned into new habits.


So, hello again, TV drama and news about something other than sport.  Pointless is back at 5.15 (oh joy).  We went deep (so very deep) into sport, country, pride and all that.  It was a magnificent holiday, a journey into something special, but we’ve missed you guys.  And we’re ready to come back.





  1. what about the paraolympics!!
    I am hoping to use this habit wisdom on my eating behaviour!!
    I remember the caravan, food usually suspect….

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