6 Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

If you've got a few bad habits you'd like to break--and want to inspire your employees to do the same--follow these 6 steps for personal success.
Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications
September 02, 2014

Bad habits can hold you back, prevent you from reaching your goals and may even affect your health. These consequences are bad enough, but when you’re in a leadership position, the harmful habits you have may be filtering down through your company’s structure and affecting the rest of your team.

In today’s lightning-fast business environment where entire industries can be reshaped in a few short months, change is imperative. As a leader, you need to be able to change quickly if that means improving the probability of success for your team.

We understand that breaking habits, especially long-standing ones, can be tough. Your body and mind may completely fight against any changes you try to make, and you’ll quickly want to revert back to your old ways.

Below are six steps to follow when you're ready to break those bad habits and help the good ones stick.

Step 1: Understand How Habits Form

Before you can change your ways, you need to know how you got stuck with those bad habits in the first place. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, your brain latches on to behaviors when there's a reward that comes after the action. For example, the adrenaline you feel after exercising can be rewarding enough for your brain, which will then create a neural pathway that will eventually make the repeated activity a habit. This activity will continue to be an unconscious habit unless your brain destroys the connecting cells that formed that pathway.

To destroy the original pathway, you need to receive an even greater reward than the one you get by following your old habit. For instance, if your schedule changes and working out in the morning now makes you late for work, then the reward of being on time (which comes from not exercising) may be greater than the adrenaline reward you get from exercising. In addition, to establish a long-lasting behavior, Duhigg says the reward you receive needs to be intrinsic, meaning it comes from within, instead of extrinsic, where the reward is something tangible.

Step 2: Know Exactly Why the New Way Is Superior to the Old

If you’re trying to purge a bad habit privately, it might be helpful to write a letter to yourself explaining why you’re initiating the change and how the results will improve your life. Thinking about the changes you're making and taking the time to commit those thoughts to paper can inspire you to successfully drop the bad habit.

On the other hand, if you're leading by example and want your team to make a change with you, then you need to effectively communicate exactly why you want them to change, says Steve Silver, a research director at research and advisory firm SiriusDecisions. Silver explains on the company’s blog that when it comes to employee changes, leaders should make the whys and hows explicitly clear. Keep your team informed, and communicate how their changed behaviors will positively affect the company's big picture.

Step 3: Expect That Your Body Will Not Want to Change

When you initiate changes to help you break a bad habit and adopt a new one, your mind and body will start sending you stress signals because your cells aren’t used to the new hormones. In an interview with personal development trainer Marie Forleo, The Peak Group founder Todd Herman says, “Any time we try to break an old habit, embark on learning a new skill or try to improve ourselves, generally, there's a biological process that's going on inside of us.”

When you’re breaking old habits, your cells get bombarded with new information they’re not used to, and your body begins to resist the changes. Suddenly, you don’t feel so well and your new lifestyle no longer feels right. If you’re trying to stick to a new habit, this is when you’ll start making up excuses and revert back to your old habits.

However, if you stick with the changes, the new cells being created will eventually replicate, and your body will start wanting more of the new hormones, says Herman, whose training company works with athletes to help them control stress and improve their focus. “The greatest breakthroughs always happens when you're ready to quit,” he says. “Just knowing that this is how we work, people can relax into it.”

Step 4: Set Trigger Goals

Before you can get to the finish line, you need to implement small goals that will increase the likelihood you’ll stick to the new behavior, Herman says. For example, if you put on your workout clothes at a specific time every day, there’s a higher chance you'll follow through and go to the gym.

Whatever you decide your trigger goals are, you need to make them specific and directly related to what you’re trying to accomplish.

Step 5: Set Improvement Goals

Your improvement goals need to be clear, with numbers and a date attached to them, Herman says. For example, an effective improvement goal might be to increase the number of successful sales calls you make every day from three to six by a specific date.

Only when you have the numbers and dates written down, Herman says, can you give yourself feedback down the road to help motivate you to continue.

Step 6: Script Your Setbacks

At certain points during the change process, you shouldn't be surprised if your body and mind want to give up. But you need to plan for this ahead of time because you’ll be too weak to think properly in the moment.

Herman suggests writing out a script for yourself so you’ll know exactly what to say, either to other people or to yourself, to stay on track. For example, if you’re trying to change your eating habits, you need to know exactly what to say when people offer you unhealthy foods because, as Herman explains, “It’s in the moment of weakness when you really lose sight of those goals.”

All the steps that come with breaking bad habits may be challenging, but as a business owner, it's up to you to take the lead. If you’re always working long hours to increase revenue and profits, you may be communicating to your employees that you don’t believe in work-life balance or their long-term happiness. If you don’t take the time to exercise, you're communicating to your team that your health isn't a priority.

You need to constantly be checking your behaviors to make sure they’re the ones you want your team to replicate. After all, you're the example your team looks up to when they're trying to implement change.

Read more articles on leadership.

Photo: Getty Images

Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications