A few weeks ago, an engaging new book made its debut, called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, takes an extensive look at the science of habit formation and change. It’s an intriguing subject, and something I’ve been addressing as an executive coach and management consultant for many years: Identifying and breaking bad habits that hold people back.
Ingrained habits by their very nature are disruptive to your daily life, to your relationships and to your self-esteem. And they are extremely hard to change, especially if they evolve into addictions, such as alcoholism or compulsive overeating. You can teach old dogs new tricks, but they won’t do them for long—unless you find a way to reward them for substituting the old tricks with some new ones.
Of course, there are also lots of good habits that are worth sustaining, like exercising regularly, having Sunday dinner with your family or greeting your employees with a smile every morning. More frequently, however, I’m asked to help people overcome a bad habit they know is dragging them down in their life or business—but they can’t figure out how to change it. There are a slew of books that claim to name the worst habits and while I agree with some of them, here’s what I would assemble as my Top 10 list, based on my own experiences and conversations with hundreds of business owners and executives:
1. Not feeling that you or your work is good enough –or that you know enough. I call this the “compare-and-despair syndrome.” Many business people, no matter how accomplished, have cultivated this habitual way of thinking. Some may attribute the mental habit to “low self-esteem,” but characterizing it that way still leaves you stuck with no choices. Self-doubt is a trap that only leads to more negative thinking like “there is definitely something wrong with me.” (I’m getting depressed just following this line of thinking.) These self-defeating thoughts keep people stuck in familiar ruts. Even when you receive compliments, you refuse to give up this built-in bias against yourself. The foremost principle of human behavior is familiarity. We cannot seem to tolerate what’s unfamiliar for long, even if the new way is preferable.
2. Doing too much. Most executives today are doing too much and pushing too hard, claiming to themselves and others that they’re just “driven,” because of their strong work ethic, to complete an endless list of client and/or family demands. But when we look closely, this often reflects an ingrained habitual pattern of obsessive behaviors and a lack of discipline in establishing clear boundaries. One example of this behavior is their seeming inability to just say “no.”
3. Avoiding conflict at any cost. This is a particularly insidious habit, since it’s rewarded by the appearance of collegiality and harmony. In constantly trying to preserve the peace, issues remain unresolved and fester.
4. Lying. People may consider themselves “basically honest,” but find themselves caught in habitual patterns of lying. Some have trouble accepting responsibility for their failures, however insignificant; others may lie because they fear the conflict or confrontations that may arise from honest disagreements. Some people just lie, when they could just as easily tell the truth.
5. Being late. With today’s hectic business pace, many people seem to have developed a bad habit of perpetual lateness. The rationale: “It won’t really matter” or “it’s ok, they’ll wait—they’ll understand.” This habit is compounded by other negative behaviors, such as not calling your client or colleague when you’re unavoidably late for a meeting, as well as co-habits (doing too much), which leave you with not enough time to get to your appointments.
6. Forgetting (and other acts of carelessness). When “accidental” forgetfulness becomes habitual, people often expose an underlying inability to meet commitments and be accountable for their behavior.
7. Under-earning. We hear people chronically complain about their jobs paying too little—and then doing nothing about it. They stay in these jobs, afraid to ask their bosses to pay what the job is worth; or they keep accepting assignments from clients at rates that undervalue their time or skills, caving in meekly during negotiations.
8. Procrastination. This is a common unworkable habit, putting off high-priority tasks that we don’t want to or know how to do. We attend to (or manufacture) innumerable “important” tasks that need to get done before addressing the more critical business at hand. Fear of failure and responsibility are common mind traps.
9. Trusting the wrong people. This is a kind of “fatal attraction,” habitually being drawn to people who excite you and appeal to your emotional needs. You’re lured to them, despite the fact that they’ve proven untrustworthy, time after time. You keep hoping, somehow, that the next time will be different—even though, deep down inside, you know it won’t be.
10. Communication problems. These cover an array of bad habits, including not listening, interrupting, being vague or abrupt and aggressive, to name just a few.
Most of us know that these habits make areas of our lives unmanageable, yet we remain stuck in them. Actually, the question to ask is not why, but how? What is the environmental trigger or cue that sets us off andwhat habitual routine do we follow as a result? Experts point out that some sort of inner reward reinforces that behavior—even if it’s ultimately destructive. Through
repetition, such behaviors become habits, which we do without thinking.
To change, we need to track the routine back to the cue, and once we find it, we need to break the connection to the ensuing behavior. There’s a hilarious skit on Mad TV of the old “Bob Newhart Show” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYLMTvxOaeE
in which the comedian, playing the part of no-nonsense therapist, tells his incredulous young patient that all she has to do to change her behavior is to, “Stop it!” Period. Just stop it. That’s not really the whole story, of course, but as a first step, there’s some truth to that simple directive. When you sense the cue triggering the bad habit, you need to recoil from the habit as if it were a hot stove. Stop it! It will feel uncomfortable (changing a habit always is), but focus on the consequences. You want to touch the stove, but every time you do, you get burned, so stop it.
Next, in order to maintain this change, you need to displace your old habit with a new routine that can be repeated over and over, leading to the reward. But sometimes such rewards are determined by how people see themselves—their individual identity. The more we cling to the story that “this is how I am” the more you will stay that way. And when you begin to dispute your lifetime story and displace it with a new narrative, you can replace you old routine with a new one that leads to a more appropriate reward.
The enemies of self-respect, growth and well-being are fear, negative self-talk and a familiar identity. Here is a brief overview of the steps to take from the top 10 bad habits to good ones:
Step 1. Identify your bad habit behavior
You can’t break a habit unless you know when and how you perform it. Track down your trigger, identify the routine that follows. Complete this sentence, I, (Fill in your bad habit), whenever I (fill in your habit trigger).
Step 2. Assess the risks and rewards of your bad habit
Your habit offers you short-term rewards, gives you pleasure or relieves your stress, which are sound reasons for why you have held on to it for so long. But this habit also holds you back or undermines your health. Recognize the tension you feel continuing this habit as opposed to the long-term benefits you would get if you were to change.
Complete this sentence: If I stop (Fill in your habit), I’ll (what would be possible long term?)
Step 3. Prepare for Change
Create an environment conducive to the changes you want to make in your life. Remove temptations or stressors, wherever possible. Complete this sentence: The biggest physical obstacles in my daily surroundings that hinder me from breaking my bad habits include:
This will help you add good habit reinforcers: The biggest physical assets in my daily surroundings to help me develop good habit behavior include________________________________________________________.
Step 4. Purge the Urge to Relapse
Complete these sentences: I can’t resist returning to this bad habit when_________________________________.
I’m best at avoiding this bad habit when__________________________________________.
My commitment to breaking this bad habit is____________________________________.
Write a slogan or affirmation you can remember and use against slipping back to old routines.
Step 5. Daily Conditioning
The more you feel good, the more you will get hooked on feeling good. You will also become intolerant of feeling bad.
At the end of every day, take a few minutes to express your gratitude for the positive changes that you are making in your life, one day at a time. The strength and confidence we get from breaking our bad habits help us to develop empathy and compassion for others who still struggle with these same problems. The best way for you to keep your new-found freedom is to give it away. That is, find someone who needs help in this area and spread the word. You’ll find the benefits of busting this habit will provide you with unimagined rewards.
Note: For Alcohol-related problems, eating disorders or other compulsive addictions, contact Alcoholics Anonymous World Services at www.alcoholicsanonymous.org. For Financial support contact www.DebtorsAnonymous,org.