Breaking Bad Habits

Overcoming Negative Behaviors

Bad habits, like checking email in meetings, can damage your career.

© iStockphoto/jasantiso

Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones. – Benjamin Franklin, American inventor and politician

Do you have any habits that could harm your work or career? Maybe you check your email when you're in meetings, turn up late to client visits, or take personal phone calls when you're supposed to be focusing on your work. You might even let habits like watching too much television or excessive Internet surfing stop you working on learning goals in the evenings and at weekends.

Bad habits like these can damage reputations and limit what's possible in our lives and careers, so it's important that we learn how to deal with them.

In this article, we'll look at bad habits in more detail: we'll explore why certain behaviors become habits in the first place, and we'll show you how you can overcome them.

Habits Defined

A habit is an acquired behavior or thought pattern that you have repeated so many times that it has become almost unconscious. As you likely already know, habits can be both helpful and harmful.

Habits are beneficial because they're automatic. We engage in habits without thinking, which frees our brains up to focus on other things. When we have good habits, like arriving at work on time or being optimistic, we create a positive, ingrained forward motion that we don't have to think about. We can then use our energy to focus on things that need our special attention.

However, the same is true of bad habits. We engage in these behaviors without much thought, and they can damage our personal lives and careers without us being aware of them.

There are many bad habits that can negatively affect us in our careers. Here are some examples:

Note:

Remember that whether or not a habit is a "bad" habit depends on the context. For example, perfectionism can be a good habit in jobs where safety is important.

Why Bad Habits are Hard to Break

The main reason that bad habits are hard to break is down to what researchers call our "cognitive script" – these are the unconscious, automatic thoughts that we have when we encounter a situation.

These unconscious thoughts are based on previous experiences. So, if the situation is one that we've encountered many times before, we engage in ingrained behaviors without thinking about what we're doing. Our actions have become habitual.

Much of the time, bad habits are also hard to break simply because they begin as enjoyable activities, which we want to repeat. (For example, we might enjoy surfing the net instead of working, or sending emails from our smartphones during meetings.)

This is because, when we do pleasurable things, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that activates the brain's reward center. This encourages us to do those things again, and the activity becomes a habit.

Strategies for Overcoming Bad Habits

You can break bad habits and, in some cases, replace them with positive behaviors. Unfortunately this takes time; research shows that, on average, you'll need to engage in an alternative behavior or thought pattern consistently for an average of 66 days for it to become a habit. (This can vary from 18 to 254 days, depending on the behavior and the person.)

This can seem overwhelming. But stop and think about the last time you kicked a bad habit for good. It felt great, didn't it? Remember, your bad habit could be damaging your reputation and career, and it's well worth putting in time and effort in to overcome it.

Keep in mind that there isn't a "one size fits all" approach to bad habits. You'll likely need a combination of strategies to be successful!

Use the strategies below to overcome your habits.

Create a Plan

Studies show that having a conscious plan helps you get started with overcoming bad habits. You can't just say "I'm going to stop wasting time surfing the Internet" and expect to succeed. You have to come up with a concrete plan to make this happen.

A good way to do this is to incorporate habit-breaking into your personal goals  . This helps you ensure that you review your progress on a regular basis, and work on your most damaging habits first.

Once you've come up with a plan, add prompts and milestones into your To-Do List   or Action Program   as a reminder of what you want to achieve.

Develop Self-Discipline and Self-Awareness

Studies have also found that constant self-vigilance is necessary to break a bad habit. This means watching yourself for slip-ups, and reminding yourself why you want to break the habit in the first place.

To do this, work on your self-discipline   and willpower, so that you can develop the persistence and motivation   you need in order to stop the behavior.

Also build self-awareness   to stay aware of how you are thinking and feeling. (Self-awareness is also key to recognizing your bad habits in the first place.)

Tip 1:

You can find out more about using willpower in our article on Self-Mastery  .

Tip 2:

For many of us, self-discipline and willpower come in short bursts, and may be stronger when we first decide to make a change. Therefore, don't rely on these approaches alone to break your bad habits.

Choose the Right Approach

Some people find it effective to quit a behavior all at once, while others have more success limiting the behavior slowly over time. As such, it's important to find an approach that works well for you. (This will probably depend on the type of habit you're trying to break.)

To use the Internet example, instead of going "cold turkey," you could limit yourself to five minutes of surfing every hour. Then at weekly intervals, you could cut this down to five minutes every two hours, five minutes every three hours, and so on.

Put Obstacles in Place

In his 2010 book, "The Happiness Advantage," positive psychologist Shawn Achor says that you can break bad habits by putting obstacles in place that stop you from carrying out the behavior.

For example, if one of your bad habits is to check Twitter when you should be working, you could disconnect from the Internet by using software applications such as Freedom and Anti-Social to block access to it; or move desks, so that people who are passing can see your computer screen.

You also need to avoid the people, places, or situations that trigger the bad habit, if this is appropriate.

For instance, imagine that you're trying to stop gossiping at work. You know that you engage in the behavior during lunch with a specific group of colleagues, so you resolve to avoid the break room, and, instead, eat lunch outside or at your desk.

Engage in Positive Behaviors

Often, you can break bad habits by replacing them with positive behaviors.

For example, let's say that you want to stop criticizing team members. One way to avoid this would be to make a conscious effort to praise people instead.

Or, imagine that your goal is to stop checking your email in sales meetings. You could replace this by taking detailed notes on what's being discussed, or by offering to chair the meeting.

Reward Yourself

To break a bad habit, it's helpful to reward yourself for engaging in the positive behavior.

The reason rewards are important is because when you stop the old behavior you won't get that all-important dopamine surge; however, the reward will give it instead. Over time, your brain will start to associate this new, positive behavior with the dopamine surge coming from the reward.

How you reward yourself is up to you, but make sure that it's something that you truly want and will enjoy. For example, if you're trying to stop being late, your reward for arriving at work on time could be a gourmet coffee. Then, after a week of arriving on time, you could treat yourself to brunch at your favorite café.

Rewards will do the most good if you give them instantly or on the same day that you demonstrate the "good" behavior. You'll likely only need the rewards you set for yourself for a few weeks; once you've established the positive behavior, you won't need to reward yourself as often.

Involve Others

Finally, consider asking people such as your colleagues, family members, and friends to help you break your bad habits.

Share your goals with them, and ask them to tell you if you slip back into your old ways. This will provide further accountability, and boost your motivation.

Key Points

A habit is any behavior or thought pattern that you have repeated so often that it becomes automatic.

Some habits are positive and can help you achieve success in your life and career. However, bad habits can severely limit what you accomplish.

To break a bad habit, first commit to stopping the behavior by creating a plan, and develop self-discipline and self-awareness so that you can stay on track.

Also, choose the right approach for dealing with it, reward yourself when you do well, and involve others in your efforts.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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Comment (1)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    We form habits and then our habits form us if we're not careful. Sometimes bad habits really creep up on us and we only notice them when they start damaging relationships, careers, finances etc. This is a great article with many tips on how to overcome bad habits. Seeing that we are all setting goals and thinking about what we would like to see happening in 2013, now may be the perfect time to think about breaking those bad habits too!

    Best wishes
    Yolandé

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