Passed over for a promotion yet again, Sandra came to me frustrated and angry. After we talked for a bit, I asked her how her morning at the office started each day. She explained that she came into the office each morning, head down and aiming straight for her office. She made little eye contact with others and usually had no specific interactions with people apart from the occasional “Excuse me” or “Third floor, please,” in the elevator.
Sandra spent the first 45 minutes of her day catching up on email. With colleagues in other time zones (and local colleagues who seemed to work around the clock), email felt like the bane of Sandra’s existence. If she could at least get her inbox to a manageable size before the day of meetings and project work began, she felt a sense of accomplishment. It was good to start the day ahead of the game, she thought.
Shortly after she started working for her current employer, Sandra felt continuously behind on her work, especially email. She resolved one day, years ago, to get caught up one morning. She came in with absolute focus, spoke to no one on the way to her desk, and churned through several hundred emails before coming up for air. When she was done, she felt a rush of accomplishment. And she began to repeat the pattern.
What Sandra didn’t realize was that this habit of “head’s down” approach first thing in the day was impeding her relationships with her co-workers, even the ones she worked the most closely with. In the absence of even a smile or a quick hello, people thought of Sandra as aloof and standoffish, hardly material for a promotion.
Sandra’s pattern follows the routine researchers at MIT have discovered when it comes to habit: it starts with a cue or a trigger. For Sandra, that was hundreds of unread and unanswered emails in her inbox. Prompted by the cue, she implemented a routine: a head’s down approach to clearing her inbox, complete with the absolute focus while walking to her desk. And finally, reward. For Sandra, the reward was the sense of accomplishment she felt heading off to her first meeting with her inbox at zero.
Cue –> Routine –> Reward.
Those are the makings of a habit.
Left unchecked, our repeated behaviors develop into habits with no conscious effort on our part.
Or habits can be deliberately designed to support who you are and what you want to create for yourself professionally.
What do your habits say about you?
Let me know in the comments below.