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Block That Habit!

I know! I know! You think you’re reading this column because you made a conscious decision to treat yourself to some superb workplace advice from a shockingly handsome individual. But it’s not necessarily so. You could be reading now because of a deeply ingrained synaptic response that you are unable to resist. No, I’m not talking about the computer chip the HR department inserted in your brain when you were at the company retreat. I’m talking about the power of habit.

Habits are things we do when we’re on automatic, which, in your case, is most of the time. In an Inc.com article, titled “Change Any Habit Painlessly: 6 Tips,” author Jeff Haden explains that “much of the time we don’t really make decisions. We do what we’ve done before, and that makes us less productive, less effective, less healthy and fit — less everything — than we could be.”

It’s difficult to see how you could be less productive, less effective, or less healthy and fit, but if a skein of workplace habits is dragging you down, it might make sense to make a change.

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To implement your transformation from the habitual to the effectual, Haden recommends a system developed by Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit.” Duhigg’s strategy is based on the idea that you can’t eliminate a bad habit, but you can change it. It takes six giant steps to make this change happen, which is a lot of work for someone for whom doing as little as possible, as often as possible, is not only a habit, but also a basic life philosophy. Still, why not give it a try? The worst that can happen is that you’ll find it much easier to do all the dumb things you already do.

“Redefine ‘must'” is the first step in changing habits. Ask yourself — is it really true that you “must” have that coffee the minute you get to work or is it just something you do because you like hanging out in the coffee room with the other slackers and layabouts? And do you drown in a torrent of emails because you “must” check your account the moment you get to your desk or the global economy will totally melt down or are you really hoping to see if you got a response from your posting on BeNaughty.com?

Once you have examined how much “must” is really “might,” you’ll want to locate the cues that trigger the habit. Say the habit you’re trying to change is the way you spend your days trying to avoid any contact with your supervisor. The cue for this habit might be when you arrive for work in the morning and see the boss’s Bentley in the parking lot. Or it could be even earlier, like when you open your eyes in the morning and realize that you’re not a character in “Game of Thrones,” and you haven’t been transported to the Seven Kingdoms to fight for the Lord of the North.

Identifying the cue will help you determine the “routine,” or the manifestation of the habit. In your case, it’s your habit of crawling under your desk the moment you arrive at work and staying there until the boss goes out to lunch. The reward in this case is obvious — you avoid confrontations with your manager and you get to nibble on the Fig Newton crumbs left in the carpet by the previous inhabitant of your cube.

With all these admirable insights under your belt, under your desk, you should now be able to “insert a new routine — one that is triggered by your cue and that also satisfies your current reward.” In the case of the Bentley in the parking lot cue, the simplest substitute would be to drive to work with a paper bag over your head, though you would earn a certain degree of respect among your co-workers by having your eyes plucked out by falcons. That is the way middle managers do it in the Seven Kingdoms!

The best way to insure that the changes get made is to write them down. But if you don’t want to do the work and you feel you’re too set in your ways to change, there is still one alternative open to you — join the Men of the North in protecting House Lancaster against the direwolves. Or you can just stay under your desk. It’s comfy and cozy and there are no direwolves.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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