Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks (or how to change an ingrained habit)


Habits most often come about accidentally.  We try something and it works: we get a reward. The next time that same cue triggers us, we implement the same routine and get the same reward. Rinse and repeat numerous times (some say 21 is the magic number) and a habit is born.

But what if you recognize a habit that you have and you don’t like it. Can you change it?  Or swap it out with a different habit?

Researchers agree that yes, we can change a habit, and they have some specific insights on how to do so.

If you’ve read my recent blog posts, you’ll recall that a habit is includes a trigger or a cue that prompts a specific set of behaviors (a routine) and it ends in a reward. The stronger the craving for the reward, the easier the habit develops.  And the harder it is to break.

Researchers now know that the cue triggers our brain to have a craving for the reward, and it’s not likely that the cues are going to go away. And our brain certainly doesn’t want to let go of the reward. What’s left to change? The routine, or the specific behaviors that we take when the cue shows up.

Here’s a before and after comparison of the habit change. Let’s say the habit I’m trying to change is to stop gossiping with my coworkers.


Cue: A natural lull in my work (a slight moment of boredom).

Routine: Get up from desk, walk over to Roxanne’s office, get the latest gossip, go back to my desk.

Reward: Distraction and a change of scenery to cure the boredom and reset my attention span.


Cue: A natural lull in my work (a slight moment of boredom).

Routine: Get up from desk, take the stairs to the main level, go out the back door, take a short walk, go back to my desk.  (Or, if it truly is social interaction I crave, go to Alex’s desk for a short visit . . . she rarely gossips and always has interesting anecdotes.)

Reward: Distraction and a change of scenery to cure the boredom and reset my attention span.


So while we cannot easily change the whole habit, we can systematically run different routines until we find one that gives us the same reward.

What workplace habits would you like to change?

Let me know in the comments below.

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    Doug and Jenny were at it again.

    Another staff meeting where Jenny and Doug were on the opposite sides of the same coin: Jenny, advocating for an engineering schedule that was realistic and didn’t compromise the health or safety of her crew and Doug, fiercely arguing for a faster delivery to their clients.

    It went like this every week in the project management meeting.

    Morgan, the project manager, had spoken to each of them privately just before the meeting.  They each shared a genuine desire to be more amicable and see the situation from the other person’s point of view before reacting.

    Publicly in the meeting, their behavior was nowhere near amicable. It was the same pattern repeating itself. Again. Their pattern was not one of sharing respectful differences.  Rather, their behavior was unprofessional and ego bruising, their words like daggers.

    Frustrated, Morgan spoke to each of them privately after the meeting. She had to get to the bottom of this disagreement before it put the project in jeopardy.  How could they have earnestly promised to comport themselves more professionally and then act like small children throwing sand in the sandbox?

    Doug and Jenny were caught in an unwanted repetitive pattern or (URP), a sequential and recurring episode of conflict that is considered unwanted by those in the conflict (not to mention those around them!).

    URPs develop because two people have fallen into a pattern or script that demands each of them to behave in a conflicting manner. Often, the pattern one person is following serves to fuel the negativity of the other and the other person follows a pattern of responding in a negative manner.

    Doug and Jenny, separately, both told Morgan “I couldn’t help it, I had no choice but to stick up for [the customer/the engineering team].”

    Doug and Jenny will continue to enact their URP until the script gets interrupted. Either one of them could deliberately choose to behave differently or Morgan could choose to structure the meeting and the conversation such that the URP doesn’t get a chance to take hold.

    URPs are difficult to stop and change. The first step is to identify that they are occurring in the first place. Where do you experience an unwanted repetitive pattern and how might you interrupt the script?

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    Systems Thinking

    Author’s note: This is the eighth in a series of articles about the leadership lessons learned while hiking Usery Mountain with my 17-year-old son.  Read them all here.


    Along the course of my hike, I came upon the rock formation in this picture. The way the pieces all fit together was striking.  It is so clear that the individual pieces are all part of the same whole.

    I paused to examine this rock formation and wondered what wild and wicked weather had done this to the rock, presumably once a single, intact piece.

    But more interesting than the force of nature that had caused the fractures was the pattern the individual pieces created and the clarity that they belonged together.

    Individually these rocks would not nearly be as striking, as meaningful, as wonderful as they are together.

    They belonged together.

    While it is clear from this rock formation that all the pieces fit together – no, all the pieces belong together intrinsically, it not always so clear to see how all the pieces of our workplace puzzles fit together.

    When you as a leader can – and do — spot the naturally occurring patterns in your teams and in your projects, you can capitalize on the effortlessness of nature.

    :  The team that runs itself like a well-oiled machine.

    :  The project partners that fit together like a hand and glove.

    :  The products and market segments that belong together.

    On the other hand, when we force things together that do not belong together organically, the road can be rough, vexed by friction and ill-fitting people, places and things.

    You’ve probably experienced this.

    It’s miserable.

    And it is entirely preventable.

    To prevent it requires paying attention, paying very careful attention.

    It requires appreciating the simplicity and elegance of things that work well together.

    It requires pattern recognition, environmental awareness and systems thinking.

    When you can identify how sometimes seemingly disparate pieces can come together to create a complimentary whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, you can see new opportunities. You can practically predict the future. And when you can see new opportunities and predict the future you are well equipped to execute more strategically.

    Slow down.

    Notice the details.

    Look for things that organically and naturally fit together.

    Follow nature.

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