Breaking free of bad habits

Even the most challenging patterns can be changed with focused practice.
Breaking free of bad habits

In his 2018 book Atomic Habits, author James Clear wrote this: “Few things can have a more powerful impact on your life than improving your daily habits. And it is likely that this time next year you’ll be doing the same thing rather than something better.”

That prophecy might seem pessimistic, but Clear’s words ring true: People often carry habits that they may or may not be consciously aware of and that they do little to change. Some habits, such as daily exercise or eating healthy foods, are good practices. Others, like procrastination, gossiping, or failing to effectively manage one’s time, can have negative consequences and harmfully impact workplace productivity, as well as colleague and client relations.

“Having bad habits in the short term may not be obvious, but if they continue, they can pretty much lead to burnout,” said Abigail Ireland, a productivity coach based in London.

Why do people develop bad habits? It often starts with parents, who hand down imperfect tendencies to their kids. As Clear wrote, “We don’t choose our earliest habits, we imitate them.” Later in life, professionals pick up bad behaviours from co-workers, friends, and even supervisors.

“If you are struggling financially, I can almost guarantee people in your inner circle are also struggling,” quipped Aberdeen, N.J.-based Tom Corley, CPA, speaker and co-author of Rich Habits Poor Habits, a book that examines the positive customs of the wealthy. It’s important, he added, to “constantly engage in self-improvement as it relates to your job”, and to overcome bad habits.

Changing bad behaviours is difficult, as people fall back into old routines every day, but not impossible. Professionals can change detrimental workplace habits and improve their lives in the process, with dedicated work and careful attention. Here are some tips:

Become self-aware. Track habits from the moment you awake until bedtime, and during the stressful working week — and do this for three days so you can recognise your patterns. “It’s impossible to change a bad habit if you are unaware of it,” Corley said. In addition, Ireland advised, be reflective, and write down what you’ve achieved and what you could have done better. “Block out a chunk of time each week for thinking and strategising,” she added.

Take baby steps and repeat. To change negative behaviours, start small, adding slight habit changes to your daily to-do list. “Small habit change gives you momentum and increased confidence,” Corley said. “This allows you to take on bigger, more complex habit changes in the future.” Repeat these small changes until they become new, constructive habits of their own.

Don’t multitask. Multitasking — such as checking emails and answering text messages while trying to work — is a bad habit that “bleeds your brain of energy”, Corley said. “The best in the business don’t allow themselves to become distracted by their email and phone.” So carve out time to focus only on work, without interruptions, and check emails, texts, or calls at certain intervals, not constantly. “Turn off notifications and chat channels so you can concentrate on one thing at a time,” Ireland added.

Merge current and new habits. An existing habit can help spark a new, positive routine. For instance, if you’re a regular coffee drinker but want to drink more water, place your coffee cup on a water-cooler or in your sink, next to the water bottle, Corley noted. “That coffee cup will then become a trigger, reminding you to drink a cup of water,” he said. Then give this new joint habit a few days to stick.

Re-evaluate your connections. Successful people often align themselves “with other upbeat, success-minded people”, Corley said. If your circle is toxic and encouraging your bad habits, create a new network that supports your aspirations — “and good habits will automatically follow”, he added. To help cultivate and maintain these new relationships, Corley advised calling others sporadically, including to say “Happy birthday”; volunteering; and participating in groups that share your interests.

Embrace change. A new job, city, or neighbourhood offer great opportunities to alter habits that previously brought you down. Take advantage of the fresh environment to make positive modifications to your daily routines. “When your environment changes, you are forced to think your way through each day,” Corley said.

Develop keystone habits. Certain new daily habits can kindle other good habits and make a difference in your life and productivity. If you walk at lunchtime versus eating a heavy meal, you’ll have more energy to focus on work for three hours, another good habit. Then, if you complete your work, you may have time for the gym or your family. Keystone habits have “a domino effect on your other habits”, Corley said. “It’s like a drug.” In other words, one good habit prompts another and then another. As Clear wrote: “The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1% improvement but a thousand of them. It’s a bunch of atomic habits stacking up, each one a fundamental unit of the overall system.”

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at