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How to form (and break) habits in the workplace


We all have habits – some good, some not so great.

At work, certain habits can impact the quality and efficiency of our work, and how well we interact with people around us. They can also affect others’ perceptions of us. People who are mindful about cultivating and practicing good habits reap the rewards.

Meanwhile, bad habits become a problem when they hold us back and prevent achievements, and strain relationships with others.

This applies to all organizational levels, from management down to frontline employees.

Here, we’ll discuss how to form habits and how to break the less desirable ones, with the goal of being more successful in the workplace.

How habits form

Habits are automatic behaviors that have been wired into our brains through repetition. As days pass, we perform these behaviors increasingly less consciously.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that’s responsible for decision making. Meanwhile, the basal ganglia plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. As a behavior becomes more automatic and unconscious, the decision-making part of our brain goes into sleep mode and the pattern-recognition part dominates.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the Habit Loop:


The trigger (physical, mental or emotional) that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use


The action you take once you receive the cue


The feedback that helps your brain decipher whether this specific loop is worth remembering and repeating in the future

Our brain stores the outcome of each habit. If the feedback is positive, the brain acts automatically when the cue happens again. Thus the Habit Loop is formed and the neural pathway for the habit is wired into our brain.

How long does it take for behavior to become ingrained? The whole habit-forming process takes only about two to three weeks (14 to 21 days). And once a neural pathway for a habit is established in our brain, it never goes away.

Studies have shown that people will perform automated, unconscious behaviors the same way, every single time – if they’re in the same environment. That’s why shake-ups in our routine or taking a vacation can be helpful in breaking habits, because all the familiar cues and rewards are now absent.

Types of habits

1. Conscious habits

Conscious habits are easy to recognize. Usually, they require purposeful action for you to keep them up. If you remove that intent or attention, the habit will most likely go away. It’s easy to identify these types of habits and assess them independently.


  • Waking up to an alarm at a certain time every morning
  • Going for an evening run
  • Smoking after a meal

2. Unconscious habits

These habits are fully on auto-pilot mode within our brains. If a habit is unwanted, it can be much trickier to identify and break it, because we are generally unaware of these types of habits until some external factor or source reveals it, such as someone pointing out your behavior to you.

Why good habits are great for business

It’s easy to think of examples of bad habits in the workplace that we’ve likely encountered before:

  • Communicating poorly or being unresponsive
  • Arriving to work or meetings late
  • Leaving early
  • Having a negative attitude (gossiping and complaining)
  • Consistently missing deadlines
  • Taking frequent breaks
  • Constantly checking a phone or social media
  • Acting discourteously toward colleagues, even if it’s unintentional

Any of these habits present within employees and business leaders can be problematic. Depending on the person’s role and the extent of their interactions with other internal and external parties, their bad habits could impact the workplace culture and image, as well as operations.

But on the flip side, cultivating positive habits within your team, such as timeliness, responsiveness, follow-through or a commitment to continued learning, can reap important benefits:

How to form good habits while banishing bad habits

1. Identify habits you’d like to acquire.

Think about what would help you:

  • Do your job better
  • Be a stronger leader
  • Advance your career faster
  • Improve your relationships with colleagues

A good place to start is to examine the common habits of effective leaders.

Then incorporate these practices into your daily routine. Repetition is key.

2. Identify unwanted habits.

Become aware of a bad habit’s existence and then hone in on the concrete behavior that needs to change.

Some people have a difficult time doing this, especially if the habit is unconscious. A few tips:

  • Ask others for feedback on your behaviors in certain scenarios, or if they’ve noticed that you have any habits you may be unaware of.
  • Pay attention to the routines you tend to follow in the workplace and look for patterns in behavior.
  • Examine your thought processes and your immediate gut reaction to specific situations.
  • Assess how you complete tasks, manage others and work within teams.

Going through this exercise enables you push back and avoid having that auto-pilot part of your brain kick in.

As a business leader, you may receive complaints from your subordinates about their colleague’s habits. Before addressing the issue with the employee, make sure that the behavior that’s driving folks in the office crazy is in fact a habit and not simply a personality trait. If it’s a trait, you’ll want to take different steps to resolve interpersonal conflicts between employees.

Habits can be broken, but you can’t change who people are at their core.

3. Make the connection between cues (the triggers) and habits.

Building on identifying the habit, this step is about getting to the root of the problem. You want to understand what initiates your (or an employee) acting out an unwanted habit so you can disrupt that relationship and, ultimately, break the habit.

Work backward to uncover what serves as a trigger. When you catch yourself engaging in a negative behavior, slow down and use your awareness as a signal to ask yourself: What is going on with me emotionally, mentally, physically or socially at this moment?

When possible, remove physical triggers proactively. For instance, don’t leave a distracting cell phone out on your desk. Put it away so you’re not tempted to text or peruse social media every time you feel overwhelmed with work and need a break.

4. Develop a substitute plan.

Now that you’re aware of your habits and what triggers them, you can confront those cues directly and deal with them.

Breaking habits isn’t always necessarily about stopping an action, but substituting it for something healthier or more desirable. When faced with a cue, decide what else you (or an employee) can do to achieve a more positive outcome. For instance, instead of automatically complaining to a colleague when you’re stressed or angry, engage in a few minutes of deep breathing to relax.

5. Rely on prompts to encourage good habits.

Think of prompts as positive cues. These are reminders to keep you on track with desirable behaviors and help you break any existing bad habits. For example, if you have trouble remembering to respond to emails each day, set up an alert on your computer to complete this task 30 minutes before the end of each work day.

6. Affirm, provide constructive feedback and reward.

At some point in your journey to break a habit or instill a good habit, you will likely reach a point where you think: Why am I bothering to struggle with this? Slip-ups can leave you feeling discouraged, and as though you’re making your life seemingly harder with little pay-off.

This is normal. Changing deeply ingrained behavior can be difficult and often requires a lot of effort.

To keep yourself going, make sure you’re building in pay-off for yourself.

  • Deliberately pat yourself on the back.
  • Treat yourself to a reward – but not one that will lead you to relapse into a bad habit.
  • Seek support from others who will hold you accountable.

Everyone needs positive reinforcement – including you.

As a business leader guiding an employee who’s struggling with this challenge, you’re in the role of providing support, constructive feedback and positive encouragement, and helping them to stay on the right path. When you meet with employees to talk about their undesirable habits:

  1. Begin by taking the time to praise your employee. Emphasize their importance to the company and reference the things they do well.
  2. Then address the bad habits, while acknowledging that it may be a difficult, uncomfortable discussion. Let them know that their bad habits must be overcome because their contributions are so important. You wouldn’t be putting in the effort to develop them if they weren’t valued.
  3. Share some ideas with them for how bad habits could be replaced with a more positive action. Think about their role and what you’d like for them to do instead of the current habit.

Remember the third step of the Habit Loop – you want to create a positive association with a good habit. As bad habits dissipate and behavior changes to align with your expectations, reward it. This could be as simple as recognizing a specific good habit, and what great progress they’re making in general.

Any time you like what an employee is doing, tell them. That’s how good habits stick around.

7. Be persistent and patient.

Remember the timeline of two to three weeks to form a habit? Well, it takes at least the same amount of time to break a habit, too.

New brain connections have to kick in, old brain-firings must calm down and new patterns need time to replace the old. Don’t beat yourself (or others) up for slip-ups, or use them as rationales for quitting and reverting back to bad habits. Give yourself a break!

Take it one day at a time and keep your eye on the prize.

Summing it all up

For business leaders and employees alike, how to form (and break) habits is an interesting exercise in self-analysis focusing on what you tend to do in certain scenarios, what triggers that behavior and what you’d like to do instead. The important thing is to not let habits hinder your career development. Remember:

  • Good habits can be cultivated and reinforced.
  • Bad habits can be overcome, though it may be more challenging and time consuming.
  • Both processes require mindfulness, effort and discipline from the person looking to change or form a habit, and often call for support and accountability from others.

It does take some time to change behavior – so be prepared and don’t fret slip-ups. But once you’ve fostered good habits within yourself and your team, and keep any troublesome habits in check, your workplace stands to benefit in significant ways.

To learn more about how to instill positive workplace behaviors in your team, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to learning and development.