How to Stop Bad Habits and Start Good Ones

The power of mastering competencies consistently

By Joe Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP Sep 7, 2017
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​Throughout my career, I've struggled with two behaviors: demonstrating the confidence necessary to influence others, and organizing my work. My inability to consistently master these two aspects of Leadership & Navigation may have, at times, limited my potential. One reason for my struggle could be that I'm the youngest of nine boys. But the more likely reason is habit.

I came to this conclusion recently, after working with a coach to improve my leadership skills. We developed a daily routine to focus my energies so that I would become more mindful and aware of how and when to be assertive and organized. I immediately felt a positive difference.

That was three weeks ago. Toward the end of this week, I realized I had not been following my daily routine. Worse, I hadn't even noticed that days ago, I had stopped. I didn't make it a habit. 

Habits are interesting aspects of our lives. 

Habits are tools that help us reserve our energies for making complex decisions. Without habits, we would be inundated with information—too much to process to make any decisions. 

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, discusses habits in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). Habits, he says, belong to a system of thinking that "operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control." (The other system he identifies is slower and more deliberative and logical.) 

Habits often form naturally. We all have routine, automatic behaviors. According to experts in psychology and behavioral science, for every habit you break or don't form in the first place, others take their place. In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2014), Charles Duhigg puts it this way: "Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts." 

The question is not just "How do I make something more of a habit?" The question is also "How do I make another habit less of one?" 

I now recognize that my inability to be consistently assertive and organized, by itself, isn't what holds me back; it's that other habits get in the way. Before I can master my proficiency in Leadership & Navigation, I need to master my ability to form new habits—namely, those that facilitate long-term learning—and to break other habits that restrict learning. 

We already know that developing proficiency in any of the SHRM-defined competencies is important for success as an HR professional. We also know (having read Alex Alonso's excellent article from last year) that consistency is key to good performance. Various books, articles, newsletters and SHRM research describe a range of activities that can help us become more proficient, and we may have engaged in some of those development activities. What else can we do to become consistent performers?

 Create a plan for change. What is the current state of your habits? What is your ideal state? 

Here is a suggested approach to reshaping habits, based on my reading and recent experiences: 

  1. Study the "enemy." What bad habits are getting in the way, keeping you from forming new, better habits?
  2. Write down your bad habits and the conditions that trigger them. How automatically do they form?
  3. Create a plan for change. What is the current state of your habits? What is your ideal state? That is, which habits do you want to make routine? How do you plan to get to that state? What are the barriers to and catalysts for getting there?
  4. Adjust your plan to be manageable and scalable.
  5. Understand the rewards and risks of your habits, and document them. Post the list somewhere visible as a reminder of the pros and cons.
  6. Make public your intentions to eliminate bad habits and create good habits. Enlist a friend to hold you accountable for following your plan.
  7. Establish a check-in schedule to see if a desired new habit has stuck. How often will you monitor your progress—every week, every month, after one year?
  8. Reward yourself for good behavior. But don't expect your behavior to change just by rewarding yourself.

It has become clear to me that changing habits is difficult. But the right habits build an important foundation for developing proficiencies in critical competencies. The better we get at eliminating undesirable habits and forming good habits, the more easily we can master our competencies.

Joe Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is director of HR Competencies and Resources Research.

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