Habits get a ‘bad’ name when those dispositions to act in a certain way have negative effects on you and others. Consistently being late for meetings, for example, becomes a bad habit when your reputation is damaged and those with whom you are scheduled to meet are adversely affected. Getting rid of bad habits is rarely a straightforward process. If bad habits – smoking, procrastination, perfectionism, gambling, time-wasting, and the like – are getting in the way of the achievement of your life and career goals, here are some key considerations…
1. Decide which habits you seriously want to change.
Acknowledging that you have bad habits because others say so won’t change you for the better in the long term. Through embarrassment, you may clean up your messy desk because your colleague comments on it, but it will soon get messy again unless you change your behaviour. Ultimately, you will be the one who has to decide whether or not you want to change, and you’ll need dedication to the task. If commitment is lacking, the bad habit will persist.
2. Work on changing only one habit at a time.
From personal knowledge, together with feedback from colleagues, critics, and friends, you will doubtless know your bad habits – taking too long on the telephone, doing too many things at once, nail-biting, being reluctant to praise, speaking too quickly… Don’t try to change too many bad habits at once. Adopt the one-thing-at-a-time approach and remember that ‘the way to change begins with the first step’.
3. Analyse your bad habit and find your reasons for having it
Removing some bad habits will involve considerable effort and is likely to require you to explore the issues related to the entrenched behaviour. Suppose, as an example, you have a reputation for ‘never being on time for meetings’. To tackle this bad habit, you may need to:
- Identify any patterns associated with your continued lateness: Are you late for all meetings? Are you late only for those meetings you really don’t want to attend? Are you late only for afternoon meetings?
- Consider if you are personally responsible: Do you give in to the temptation to take, or make, that extra phonecall before leaving for meetings? Do you back your meetings against each other with no adequate break between them? Do you always arrive late because you have long business lunches? Do you simply give yourself insufficient time to get to meetings?
- Determine whether other people are always to blame: Heavy traffic? transport problems? waiting for others? faulty alarm clock?
Such analyses will provide useful clues in tackling your problem.
4. Confront the enemy.
Gestalt psychologists talk about the paradoxical nature of change – that we cannot alter a condition, no matter how distressing, until we first totally accept it. What we run from clings to us like a second skin. But when we stop running and face up to our adversary, it transforms itself into an ally that empowers us. By confronting the enemy, we emerge with renewed commitment and strength.
Associated with this strategy is the danger of associating the elimination of bad habits with ‘giving up’. Resolving to ‘give up’ smoking, getting angry, or using bad language succeeds only in empowering what we want to ‘give up’, thus making the task even more difficult. The language you use in confronting any change is, therefore, most important.
5. Try converting ‘bad’ habits into ‘good’ habits.
Having confronted your bad habit and being careful not to empower it, you should use it as a catalyst for developing a good habit. With effort over time, for example:
- ‘being continually late for meetings’ can be overcome by ‘being punctual’.
- ‘interrupting others while they are speaking’ can be replaced by ‘becoming an active listener’.
- ‘poor use of the telephone’ can be overcome by ‘setting aside a specific time for placing and receiving calls’.
New skills emerge from the removal of habitual blockages. Once you are aware of a particular bad habit, your efforts in eliminating or changing that habit can be rewarded by the acquisition of a new, good habit.
6. Give yourself time.
Most research recommends 21-day programs for making long-lasting and meaningful behavioural changes. The incremental nature of the process demands that you take regular, planned, specific actions to achieve your goal. The age-old wisdom that miracles do not happen overnight certainly applies to changing behaviour. If you’re patient, continue to devote time to planning, and remain focused on your desired outcome, success will follow.
7. Obtain professional help.
You are unique; your bad habit is unlikely to be. There are internet sites, books, and trainers to make things easier for you. For more serious habits, professional help can open doors that might lead to learning more about behaviour modification techniques or self-help groups. Proactively pursue your own self-development path, and success will provide the motivation for you to eliminate the next bad habit on your list.
A bad habit never disappears miraculously; it’s an undo-it-yourself project. Persist, and remember that perseverance is not a long race—it is many short races, one after another, until the contest is won.