Building Powerful New Habits At Work


Procrastination. Distraction. Poor time management.

Check, check, check.

There is a seemingly endless list of concerns about the barriers (aka bad habits) we face at work that derail us from reaching our full potential, feeling successful and being productive. Even those who have “made it” and have impressive roles and responsibilities, often struggle with the pull of fighting against negative habits.

Habits are powerful. They free up our conscious brain power by putting us on autopilot to perform all kinds of tasks throughout our day — from making coffee to brushing our teeth–without even thinking about it. (Although this could be because does anyone’s brain really work before that first cup of coffee?)

The good news is that we can unleash that power by creating habits that work for us, and not against us.

There is a plethora of ways to build and maintain new habits, the key is to find the ways that work for you. To begin with, it is necessary to determine where we will put our intention for creating a new habit at work.

That new habit will become the focal point for trying the various habit formation techniques that follow. For illustrative purposes, let’s use a negative habit that runs rampant in workplaces — procrastination.

A study conducted by Dr. Joseph Ferrari showed that 20 per cent of adults chronically procrastinate. Therefore, let’s use procrastination as an example to review 7 habit formation techniques and build a new habit of being proactive.

1. Habit Stacking

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear, outlines the power of habit stacking which is simply adding one new habit to an existing habit. Say you have noticed that you are procrastinating on giving regular feedback to your team members, you could add this habit onto one that you do routinely every day — for example, eating lunch.

When you come back from lunch, the first thing you can do is have a brief check in and feedback moment with a member from your team.

2. Cue, New Habit, Reward

Adapted from the work of Charles Duhigg, in the book, The Power of Habit, we learn that to create a new habit, we must follow three steps: cue, new habit, reward.

When the cue comes (think incoming project), we need to replace our current habit of putting off the work with a new habit of being proactive by developing a project plan with action steps and timelines attached.

Once we have completed our new project plan, we can enjoy a reward of our choosing. If it happens to be chocolate, Netflix and wine — no judgment, you have earned it.

3. Make It Visual

If there is something you are trying to accomplish at work, but keep putting off, try putting up a visual representation of the task.

For example, if you find that you keep procrastinating on making and returning calls, then have a list tacked to your computer of the names of the people you need to contact each day.

Or print off a colourful picture of phone to grab your attention and remind yourself that all communication cannot be by email, group chat or text.

Make your habit visual and you will be more likely to give attention to it.

4. Match the Habit with Your Energy Levels

Are you a night owl or an early bird?

It is important to understand our own natural rhythms, as we can use those to our advantage in being proactive and tackling tasks with gusto.

If you are someone who gets a boost first thing in the morning, then that is an ideal time to work on the most challenging tasks of your day rather than saving them for later in your workday.

Your brain is a muscle and like any muscle, we want to use it when we feel strongest and most energized. Just like it may be challenging for some to work out at night, the same is true for working your brain.

5. Track It

We all know the phrase, what gets measured gets done. This is particularly true when you are building a new habit.

Let’s imagine you have been delaying creating a new health and wellness program for your organization.

One of the best ways to manage that barrier of procrastination is to keep a project plan or a log where you input what you have accomplished at the end of each day.

This does not need to be cumbersome; it can be a matter of one sentence that indicates what you did that day to move the program forward, such as research health and wellness apps, or marking a task as complete on a project plan.

Being able to see what you have done towards a particular project each day provides momentum to keep going.

6. Start Small

Often one of the biggest barriers to starting a new habit is that we tell ourselves that we don’t have enough time. Therefore, starting very small — such as five to ten minutes a day, can be a good way to ease into a new habit.

Building a habit is about consistency to rewire our brains and make our habits automatic, as a result, repetition and not duration, is key.

If you want to set up a new electronic file system or better organize your emails, you would be better off doing a few minutes at a time each day, rather than setting aside a three-hour time chunk every month.

It will eventually become habitual to organize your files and emails as you work on them.

7. Accountability Partner

Many of us who have embarked on a new exercise regime may have seen the benefit of doing it with a friend.

If we don’t feel like going to the gym or doing that hike, meeting up with someone to do it together can give us the boost of accountability to keep us on track.

The same is true with creating new habits at work.

Find a colleague or mentor that you can share your progress with regularly or get involved in doing a particular initiative together to keep accountability high.

For example, if you know you want to take a new course but have been putting it off, sign up with a colleague or set up a weekly coffee meeting with a friend to discuss your key learnings form the course.

When we are accountable to others, it can be a tremendous source of motivation.

While many of us may have seen the (ahem) “troubles” of peer pressure while growing up, we can finally see the upside in this kind of social pressure.

Closing Thoughts

We are the sum total of our habits.

We can make them positive, and they can powerfully set us up for success in all that we do, or we can gravitate to derailers that will leave us feeling like we are continually struggling.

It takes time, effort and intention to create a new habit.

Often people don’t see progress as quickly as they expect, and they stop doing the work on the new habit. According to researcher Phillippa Lally, habits take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form, with the average being 66 days.

Stick with it, and eventually your new habit will become deeply engrained.

The big question to answer now is what new productive habit do you most want to implement at work? Once you have your answer, the best way to get it done is to simply begin.



Robin Turnill, FCPHR, has 20 years of leadership and consulting experience in the public and private sector. She is the founder of Pivot HR Services, a firm that provides strategic HR services to many local clients.

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