Humans are creatures of habit – just think about the structure of your average week, or even your average day. But we don’t only apply habits to our private lives or free time; it happens at the office too. We get comfortable doing things the same way every day, creating bad work habits that are hard to break – like procrastinating, handing in sloppy work or continually being late for meetings.

So how do you make a fresh start? How do you change a ‘bad’ behaviour in a way that will stick? Take these baby steps and before you know it, you’ll have made a big change.

1. Start small

Choose only one thing at a time to focus on, like spending less time around the water cooler or managing your email more efficiently. Once you’ve addressed this behaviour, you can move on to the next. Don’t overwhelm yourself before you’re even out of the starting blocks.

2. Define at least one reason for the change

Ask yourself: Why am I making this change? If the answer isn’t obvious, it’s going to be a difficult goal to achieve, and even harder to sustain. Think of the benefits of making the change (a promotion? Getting out of the office earlier?) or the consequences of not making it (facing disciplinary action? Sabotaging your own business?). To alter an ingrained work habit, there needs to be a strong motivating factor for the modification.

3. Start now

Don’t fall into the ‘diet starts on Monday’ trap. Once you’ve defined your goal, start today – not tomorrow, not next month, and not on Monday. Then consciously make an effort to achieve your new work habit every day. Write sticky notes or put reminders in your phone or calendar if you have to. There are loads of apps that can help you measure, monitor and change your habits.

4. Anticipate obstacles

Know your bad-habit triggers and be prepared for them. For example, if you’re trying to curb your coffee addiction, make sure you have other beverage options available to you at the office (or bring your own), and change your route to the office so you don’t walk past that trendy café every morning.

5. Give yourself time

Ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit? Forget it, says – or at least, go a bit easier on yourself. According to them, newer research puts that figure at around 66 days, though it can vary from 18 to 254. The point is that you need to give yourself at least two months to get the new behaviour to stick. So don’t despair if you’re still finding it a struggle at the three-week mark.

6. Visualise the end goal

What will happen when you achieve your new behaviour? Will you get a salary hike? Be more productive? Maybe your boss and colleagues will view you more favourably. Envisioning the benefit(s) of breaking the bad habit will help you stick to your goal. Write these benefits down somewhere you’ll see them often, to help keep you on course.

7. Tell people about it

This has two advantages: firstly, when people know the goal you’re trying to achieve, they can help support you. Secondly, you won’t want to fail when you know others are rooting for you to succeed (or not). Let’s face it: no one wants to be one of those people who makes promises they can’t keep.

8. Mark your milestones and reward yourself

Create mini-milestones for yourself until you reach your goal. One week without Facebooking at work? Treat yourself to that cool new gadget you’ve been eyeing. 10 days caffeine free? You deserve that new jacket. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-bribery to get you to your objective, as long as it doesn’t compromise your end goal.

9. Stick with it

Remember you made the habit change for a reason, and the longer you stick with it the more likely it is to become an automatic part of your day. Soon, checking your email only once a day will seem like second nature, or being on time for meetings – rather than constantly running behind – will be your new normal.

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