How to break a bad habit

14 April 2016 -


Procrastination, poor manners and tardiness are just three common examples of bad habits that stop managers from succeeding in the workplace. Pulitzer Prize–winning business reporter Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit reveals the key steps for managers looking to break a bad habit

Jermaine Haughton

Often defined as a set of behaviours we produce routinely, habits play a vital role in defining who we are, how we judge others and how they assess us.

One study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45% of the choices we make every day. From dieting to school exams to shopping, recent studies have shown habits to be key.

The last Obama Presidential campaign, famously, hired a habit specialist as its “chief scientist” to figure out how to trigger new voting patterns among different constituencies. The workplace is no different, with habits having a profound impact on the careers of managers, affecting how they are perceived by their team, how they function and how productive they are.

Bosses and co-workers praise managers who express habits that reflect a desire to help the organisation Unfortunately, research shows that many managers are stuck in a rut of bad managerial habits, subsequently damaging their teams and organisations.

In 2012, Soon Yu, then vice president of innovation at apparel company VF Corp., was forced by his seniors to fully evaluate his management skills after complaints from co-workers that he was overly critical and unilateral in his decision-making.

“It was a really painful process,” said Yu. “But all of these reviews gave me a better understanding of what was driving my bad behaviours.”

Yu stated that the habits evaluation allowed him to merge his bold entrepreneurial mindset with the more collaborative work environment of his company, making him a better manager and performer.

And such changes of habits can provide employers with valuable impetus to retain top talent, maximise performance, and often spark innovation that leads to favourable outcomes.

However, changing habits might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.

Much like personal New Year resolutions, performance reviews and appraisals provide an ideal opportunity for managers to work on improving their more limited assets.

But like many New Year resolutions, they can often be left unfulfilled. So what can you do to increase the chances you’ll stick to those plans?

Following the study of wired rats in a T-shaped maze, with chocolate laid at one end, M.I.T. neuroscientist Ann Graybiel and her colleagues concluded that our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop - through cues, routines and rewards. Here are three steps managers can take to help break away from bad habits and become better at their job:


Managers must be able to distinguish the behaviour they wish to change. As the old adage proclaims, “admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery”.

For example, if your bad habit is failing to write clear handover notes to colleagues, then you must picture the routine you would usually go through and the scenarios you tend to face during the task. Do you tend to write the handover at the last minute or while multitasking? Are you sat down at your desk? Do you have a cup of coffee or glass of water?

These are all examples of questions that help managers initially define the routine of their bad habits.


According to The Power of Habit, rewards are powerful because they satisfying cravings, and most of the time we are unaware of the precise cravings that drive our behaviors.

Therefore, the research suggests those looking to change bad habits should spend a period of time testing out different reward systems. If your bad habit is your negativity or harsh criticism of colleagues, then one day you can try testing yourself by giving two positive statements before a negative comment, for example.

As a manager, the point is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine. In the case given above, managers who are criticised for being overly negative could find that their habit may stem from their own insecurity, nervousness, ego or any number of other cravings.


The third important element of changing bad habits is to focus in the main triggers that cause the negative behaviour.

As a manager, you are likely to constantly be under pressure to deliver results against tight deadline and have your attention split multiple duties, thus the bombardment of information can make identifying cues difficult.

If your bad habit is routinely being late to work, think about how your lifestyle may be contributing to this. Do you work late at night or drink too much alcohol, making it harder to wake up? Do you eat breakfast? Based on such thinking, managers could then construct a plan enabling them to avoid their bad habit.

For example, some tardy bosses may plan to not eat or drink after 8pm, pre-prepare their clothing and work lunch, and go to bed by 10pm the night before work.

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