How to harness bad habits to help your career

Random House

(MoneyWatch) Good habits, like being on time and paying attention to details, are essential for a healthy career. Bad habits, like web surfing and letting an inbox reach max capacity on a weekly basis, can have the opposite affect. So how can you nurture good habits at work and bid adieu to bad ones?

In his new book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg has compiled a wealth of information on why we form habits and how they can be changed, using both scientific research and real life examples (including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps).  Here's what Duhigg has to say about workplace habits and harnessing them to be more productive:

How can you stop bad habits at work, like web surfing or chatting with coworkers?

You can't eradicate a habit. Once a habit is there you can't flip a switch and say "I don't want it there anymore." But you can change it. Every habit has three parts -- a cue or trigger, the routine or behavior, and the reward (how our neurology learns to remember that habit for the future). Diagnosis the cue and the reward. If you need a break and it entertains you to talk to a coworker or surf the web and you try to power through the work and ignore the reward craving, the pressure will just build up and you'll procrastinate longer. You have to acknowledge that craving and give it an outlet. So every hour, give yourself five minutes on the web. Or after every task, schedule a short break. Unless you address this cue/reward you can't fix these behaviors.

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How can you use a "playing your video" technique to prepare for an important meeting?

What you should do is imagine ahead of time how you're going to speak up in a meeting. Mentally visualize the perfect scenario, again and again. That day, when it starts living up to the video in your head, you will feel a sense of victory. Start with details like, "Excuse me, I have something to say." Everything will quiet down, just like in your head, and it will all unfold how you expected. When [it begins to] live up to your expectations, success becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

How can leaders use your research to motivate their team?

Think about the outcomes that you want as a group and what habits you want to cultivate to reach those. If your goal is to get someone [on your team] to habitually make one cold call every morning, you need to give a reward -- even if it's small -- for doing that cold call. It might be a pat on the back, or a five-minute break. Without that reward our neurology never makes this behavior into a habit.

What are "keystone habits" and how do they affect our behavior?

Some habits matter more than others, and they are keystone habits. When you start changing these habits it unlocks other habits in your life. An obvious personal keystone habit is exercise. When you start exercising, you start eating better. And interestingly enough, people who exercise also use their credit cards less often. How people communicate [at work] is also a keystone habit. Keystone habits establish [office] culture. [For instance, try] changing how you greet people by learning their names and greeting them properly. Or write your emails in a more friendly manner. When people begin communicating differently it sends a message about that organization -- we're an organization that cares about each other.

  • Amy Levin-Epstein On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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