Don’t just kick the bad habit – replace it

Bad habits can affect your personal and professional life but they can be easily changed, says Kristen Hansen.

Even the best and most professional EAs have habits they wish they didn’t – habits of thought, habits of emotion and habits of behaviour. They may have formed to protect us, save time, support a goal or make us feel better in a time of perceived threat. From procrastination and being late to endless social media monitoring to body language and speech habits, the list can be endless.

Most of us think we’re stuck with our habits, and don’t know how to change them – but there’s a definite misconception that we should be getting rid of them. However, if we understand how the brain works, it turns out it’s much more about replacing them. We can actually rewire our brains with new habits. Here’s how…

Identify the habit(s)
Habits form as strong neural pathways or connections between the neurons in your brain and become your default or automatic response to a stimulus. We’re often responding non-consciously – our conscious brain (the pre-frontal cortex) is not actively choosing a response. But, by recognising these and the fact they maybe limiting your ability to be the best you can, you can make the first step towards improving – so, start by identifying and labelling the habits.
And remember habits can be positive too – things like exercising daily, brushing your teeth or saying “there’s always a way around a challenge.” Negative habits, on the other hand, are the likes of comfort eating, smoking, losing your temper or saying limiting statements, such as “I can’t do this task.”

Understand how to change the brain
We can change habits by understanding more about how the brain works – we best create new neural pathways by being more mindful. And, if we bring a conscious awareness to our response, we can shift how we respond.
First, we’ll become aware of our triggers. Next, we’ll look to build in a replacement response; an alternative to the default. Using neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself and create new habits) is a key strategy here – you’ll be most successful if you understand what you’re doing.

Be mindful of the goal
Ask yourself not just what you want to achieve and by when but also what it’d look like and how it’d feel when you get there. Bring the goal to life in your brain through creative visualisation and by engaging your emotions. For example: “I’ll complete the tricky training course I’ve been putting off by June and I’ll see excellent feedback from my boss, a more productive working life and opportunities to do further training. I’ll feel positive, empowered and intelligent.”

Pay attention to the new habit you want to form
Here, we need quality and quantity of attention for the new neural pathway to form. So, put reminders in your phone, stick a post-it on your desk and engage a mentor. Whatever you do, create frequent reminders of what you’re trying to achieve.

Give positive feedback to yourself
Celebrate the small wins – your brain will experience a ‘feel-good’ neurochemical boost from the dopamine release and be keen to do it again. Catch yourself making small progress and be positive about these achievements along the way.
So, you can certainly kick your bad habits – but you can also create new healthier, more helpful, success habits.


The Expert
Kristen is a neuroleadership specialist, a keynote presenter, the author of TRACTION: The Neuroscience of Leadership and Performance and the founder of EnHansen Performance, a training coaching organisation that uses neuroscience research to develop executives from companies such as Google and Allianz.