Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: How to Break Bad Work Habits


NuroplasticityLast year, I attended a professional workshop where the instructor asked us to write out our worst habit. Unfortunately, more than one answer flooded my brain, and I had to seriously consider which to choose. In the end, I decided that my most unabashed, shameless and ubiquitous bad habit is impatience.

My impatience invades every aspect of my personal and professional life. For instance, I constantly find myself wondering, “Why do these people take so long in line at the grocery store?” Counting out each precious penny, then pulling out a coupon, then deciding they don’t really want the milk after all. Instead of an express line for 12 items or less, I think grocery store lines should be divided up into only two lanes — a line for those of us who move fast, have somewhere important to go and something worthwhile to do and a line for those who don’t. See, I told you I was impatient.

In terms of how it’s affected my productivity at work, I’m embarrassed to say that my impatience has led to countless instances of emails sent in a hurry, which only needed to be retracted or clarified latter; decisions made on quick assumptions  — that turned out to be wrong — and occasional crankiness with those around me who are not moving fast enough.

Having pulled back the curtain on my own worst habit in the workshop, I decided to do something about it. I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last year working on my bad habit of impatience. And while I’ll never be “the soul of patience,” I have made progress. I’ve learned to quell my initial reaction to respond immediately, and, instead, take a deep breath and wait things out a bit. It’s helped my productivity by saving me time, money and stress.

“We all walk around on a daily basis with habits that are detrimental to our productivity,” says Larry Tobin, co-creator of Habitchanger.com.

Tobin, whose 42-day online habit-changing program deals with everything from quitting smoking to reducing stress, says that science has shown us that we can teach an old dog new tricks.

“A habit is an involuntary, unconscious action,” says Tobin. “Habits are learned, not instinctual. They are something we have taught ourselves to do, so it is possible to unlearn them,” he says.

In fact, a whole slew of recent scientific research in the field of neuroplasticity has proven that the brain has the ability to adapt to new information, if it’s consistently presented over a period of time. “It takes between 30 and 60 days of doing the same thing over and over again on a daily basis to create a new habit or break an old one,” says Tobin.

According to MedicineNet.com, Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

Why not put the power of your flexible brain to work? Here’s a simple, two-step process I teach my consulting clients to help them break down their bad habits and build up their productivity.

Step 1: Call out the bad habit and identify its negative consequences.

“To break a habit, the first thing you need to do is step aside and become aware of what you are doing,” says Tobin. In my 25-plus years as a consultant, I’ve noticed a consistent group of productivity-killing habits including procrastination, disorganization, being ill-prepared and operating in crisis management. What are your bad business habits and what negative impact has the bad habit had in your business (and perhaps personal) life? Here are a few examples:

  • You work full-time for a company and often find that you arrive at meetings unprepared. The negative impact might include: Feeling unable to make a decision in the meeting, or the progress of the group being hindered by your lack of preparation.
  • You’re a freelancer and procrastinate to the point of lost productivity. The negative impact might include: Missing a deadline for submitting a proposal for a new piece of work or delivering late on a project to an important client — hurting your credibility and chances for future work.
  • You telecommute and have a disorganized home office. The negative impact might include: Being late to meetings at the office due to looking for needed documents at home or becoming distracted by to-dos around the house, rather than confronting cleaning up a messy home office.

Step 2: Create alternative actions.

One way to change an old, bad habit is to replace it with a new, better one. By practicing the new action, a pathway is created in your brain that, over time, can become as strong as (if not stronger than) the previous behavior. The key is to start small, with little actions you can implement easily. So get creative and think of some alternate actions you could take to counter the bad habit you identified. For example:

  • I will schedule my computer alarm to notify me 30 minutes before the start of the meeting so that I have time to look over the meeting agenda and my notes before I arrive.
  • The next time I have a proposal to write for a potential client, I will set aside a specific block of time in my calendar, on a specific date, to get it written.
  • The first thing I will do every morning when I go into my home office is spend 15 minutes clearing off my desk or cleaning out a file.

Just remember, good habits don’t suddenly appear overnight; instead, they develop slowly over time, as certain behaviors — repeated over and over — begin to overlay the way you work. The good news is that, given a mind as malleable as yours, breaking bad habits is just a few new neural pathways away.

What’s your worst bad habit?


Collaboration Cathy

This reminds me of Kurt Lewin’s “change model” we learnt in management classes. It goes as follows:-

1) Unfreeze (break old habit)
2) Change (put new habit in place)
3) Refreeze (reinforce new habit)

Refreezing is supposed to make the new habit the equilibrium state. The model is very close to what you speak about here.


Worst habit – going through my email, and getting distracted by interesting articles such as this, and then forgetting what I was supposed to be doing! And, unfortunately, the ‘rewards’ for the distraction (interesting, engaging info) still exceed the negative consequences. By the way, there is a formula for that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formula_for_change

Maria Helm

Great post and insight. It takes awareness and a lot of discipline to change bad habits. I agree that you have to recognize the bad habit first before you can make a change it, but most importantly, be able to identify the steps on how to correct it. Thanks for sharing.

Brain Training Advocate

Interesting that it should take 30 to 60 days to break a habit or form a new one. That’s really not a very long time to shape a new response or way of doing things. It’s also good to have a time frame for results as we’re working on a new skill.

Many thanks for such a thought-provoking post!


Beautiful post what I love about the whole concept of habits, be it good or bad is that ability to learn . So we can learn new ones and unlearn bad ones in just 30 to 60 days

“It takes between 30 and 60 days of doing the same thing over and over again on a daily basis to create a new habit or break an old one,” says Tobin. FROM POST

I suppose bad habits like smoking may be painful, ie having to cope with the cravings and so … but in the long run will be rewarding .
Thanks for sharing

Matt Heinz

Equally important is identifying the new, positive habits you want to follow, and training yourself to stick to those for a period of time. Create an overage of reminders, establish rewards for behavior in the first few important days. Do whatever it takes to get yourself used to doing the right things until you can start to see the tangible results. Then it gets easier.

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