Breaking the Habits That Hold Us Back

Humans, the old saying goes, are creatures of habit. Some of our habits our productive, while others are less than ideal. Many times, we are prone to attributing our habitual behaviors to external forces, when they are really the product of our internal selves and instinctive response. Believe me, I’ve experienced this for myself. Personally, I have a habit of expressing too much emotion at times I don’t want to, later regretting the way I’ve handled a situation. I know this about myself, but it still takes work for me to change these habits before they have a negative effect in my workplace or on my relationships outside of work.

What makes this behavior all the more ironic is that I coach others on bad habit correction all the time. When I view behaviors as an impartial third party, I have a “sixth sense” for discovering what makes people tick and pointing out ways they can improve their practices and responses for more effective professional performance. This analysis usually involves identifying and fixing habits that are holding a person back. In the words of Benjamin Hardy, “If you cannot admit you have a problem, you’re not ready to make the change. If you still don’t believe you have a problem, then the negative consequences of your behavior haven’t become real enough for you.”

You don’t want to have to experience these negative consequences over and over again before doing something about the habits keeping you from being your best self. It’s hard work to look at yourself, assess fault, and earnestly attempt to do better. But then again, if you’re reading this blog, I already know you are not afraid of doing the self work.


What is a habit?

Merriam-Webster defines “habit” as follows:

  • A settled tendency or usual manner of behavior

  • An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary

  • An addiction

  • A behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance

What all of these definitions have in common is that they describe the somewhat involuntary nature of our habitual behaviors. That’s why they can be so hard to change. We can pinpoint the behavior we want to correct and still struggle to do so. Without understanding the why underlying a behavior, it becomes very difficult to stop it.


How to replace a bad habit

In his best-selling book The Power of Habit (which I encourage everyone to read), Charles Duhigg describes a “habit loop” consisting of three parts: cue, routine, and reward. “First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use,” Duhigg writes. “Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”

If we only single out the routine, we are still powerless to react when the cue prompts us into behavior, and still lacking the reward the original behavior gave us. To really change ourselves, we need to recognize the emotional cues and situations that make us act habitually in the first place, as well as the emotional rewards that come from these behaviors. When you do that, you’ll be able to replace routines or habits that correspond to specific cues with better ones. Habits are perfectly natural and our psyche’s way of responding to specific situation. The key is to make sure those habits aren’t keeping you from achieving everything you are capable of. When you regret the behavior more often than not, you know that you’re dealing with a bad habit.


A future of better habits

There is no chance in pretending we can eliminate habitual behavior entirely. These automatic responses make up much of our daily lives in and outside of work. If you had to consciously think out every single decision, life would become insufferable in a hurry. Don’t waste your time trying to pretend you can avoid habits altogether, because it will only be counterproductive and insanely frustrating.

What we can do, though, is craft better habits that will allow us to perform and interact in a way that leaves us feeling satisfied and fulfilled, rather than rueing our rash impulses. Seeking out a mentor can be hugely helpful in this regard. They can often see what we are unwilling to look at and guide us down a path toward self-improvement.

So yes, we are in fact creatures of habit. The question I have for you is: What impact will your habits have on yourself and those around you?

Amy VetterComment