Project Practitioners > Being our Best - New Insights on Changing Sub-Optimal Habits at Work and Beyond Habits.

Being our Best - New Insights on Changing Sub-Optimal Habits at Work and Beyond Habits.

By Cinda Voegtli

HABITS. Good ones and bad ones - I imagine we all have some of both. Some manifest at work; some at home; some in both settings. Our personal habits determine whether we are effective at what we do and achieve the results we want – or not. I want to recommend a great book that has given me some new tools for being my most effective self in both venues -- and also prompted some unexpected insights about dealing with certain habits (ours, and those of team members) that can cause aggravation and other issues on our projects.

The book is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. The book covers a lot of ground to “explain why habits exist and how they can be changed.” It provides numerous examples - from personal stories and from company situations - to show how the key to changing habits is to understand how habits work. We need a construct that we can consciously adjust to change behavior.

What kinds of habits do I mean? Here are 4 personal examples. (Baring some flaws here to make some hopefully helpful points; don’t judge me!) All these are things I am aware of, have taken stabs at changing, and may have made some progress with, but have not yet conquered for good.

1) I am a Champion Procrastinator. Truly world-class. (Affects projects at work and at home)

2) I respond to stress by wanting comfort food. (Exhibits at home but gets triggered mostly by work!)

3)  I have become so used to diving for my computer first thing every morning to check email, I have a really hard time making time to exercise regularly each morning instead. Once email has me, I’m toast… (Manifests at home but is triggered by work to-dos. Clearly this is not the best situation for my personal fitness, AND I’m sure it affects how much energy I end up having for the workday. Really self-defeating!)

4) I tend to cue off people’s tone of voice, or my perception thereof, and when I feel chastised somehow, I often react back with a tone of my own that can escalate (or cause!) angst on both sides. (Affects work and home. More likely to do it at home :-).) 

A quick aside: I’d like to point out that though this is part of a “work-related blog”, I believe strongly that our personal effectiveness and well-being are very integrated with our work well-being, each affecting the other. So I unabashedly write sometimes about both, using examples and making points in both spheres. And since we are approaching the traditional making of New Year’s Resolutions, I thought this was an especially good time for this dually-applicable subject!

Back to the book. Here’s what it says about our habits. Chapters 1, 2 and 3 are the mandatory read. They cover The Habit Loop, The Craving Brain, and The Golden Rule of Habit Change, laying out a simple model for any habit and how to deconstruct and rebuilt a habit we want to change.

A habit consists of:

• a Cue (or trigger);

• a Routine (what we automatically do when we encounter the cue);

• a Reward (what we’re actually after – what we crave, and expect to receive once we execute the Routine actions.)


The key to changing a habit is to:

1) Recognize and keep the cue;

2) Provide the same reward (with an understanding of the reward you are actually really wanting, the craving you are actually trying to satisfy!);  

3) Insert a new routine – a better habit – that gets you that desired reward.

To take my third example, my obsessive first-thing email processing each day that pushes aside exercise:

• The Cue is, simply, waking up and immediately thinking about the day ahead.

• The Routine is, grab some coffee and sit down in front of my computer to see what’s up.

• The Reward is… Well, now, that’s an interesting question! The book includes a great discussion about identifying the REAL reward you are after – what is your brain actually craving? In my case, it’s certainly not the fulfillment of any particular email message :-). I think what I’m craving is an immediate feeling that the day is under control. The certainty that no missive has come in overnight, or from an east coast or overseas colleague who’s already been at it for hours, that will disrupt my day or add some new requirement or panic deadline.

So if I want to change my morning email habit that takes me straight into work without exercising, what can I do to change my reaction and routine, in order to get the same reward but with a better outcome for my fitness? What I’m currently experimenting with is this.

• The Cue is the same, waking up and thinking about my day.

• The Reward I want is to feel like I’m set, I know what the day holds.

• The new Routine I’ve settled on is this:

First, I’m taking a one-time action to remind the folks I work with in different time-zones that I am in CA, and that with morning meetings and such, I may not be able to respond on emails some days until after 10 a.m. If they have something urgent for me for action on short notice that day, they should call my cell phone and leave a voice mail. That way, I have a high degree of certainty that there is nothing lurking in my email inbox that really needs immediate attention. If it’s urgent, they’ll call me!

As to the Routine each day, the action I’m taking when the urge to check email first thing happens? In this instance it’s about awareness. I’ve gone through the trouble to become aware of what I've been doing and why. So now when the urge hits, I remind myself, “nope, no need, remember they’ll call you if need be, so I can go work out.” (And for good measure I've stuck a post-it on my computer monitor saying the same thing.) Then, VERY IMPORTANT -- I stop for a minute and let myself experience “the reward” of feeling good about the day ahead. So far, this is working pretty well!

So – back to our work lives --- how does this apply to habits that manifest at work? Here are two types of habits I've witnessed on teams this year. NOTE: I actually didn’t think of them as habits at all until reading this book, and witnessing repeated examples of a particular behavior and wondering where it might be coming from.

1) Work-style habits: This category includes, for example, procrastination, how or whether we use our tools, and how we prioritize our work. Clearly procrastination by one team member can impact the work of others.

Here’s an example on the tools front. We’re all probably used to working certain ways with our emails, our files, how we make lists, schedule our work, etc. On a new team recently, a few of us were called to task because we were still emailing documents around, instead of using the Sharepoint repository to store team documents. This is a work-pattern habit that is REALLY hard for me to break. The fact that several of us were dragging our feet was causing document confusion - not everyone was getting included on the email chains, we had to stop during meetings and resend docs out, etc.

When I got called on the carpet for this (by the person who had set up Sharepoint :-)), I wondered “what’s wrong with me that it’s such an issue for me to switch?” (And CLEARLY he shared that thought as well!) Then I thought of the above components of a habit and the need to methodically address the components to create a new pattern of behavior. I have a habit that is impacting other team members; I need to change it; I can use the Cue – Routine – Reward construct to help do so (this week!)

2) Interpersonal communication habits: This category includes the way people tend to talk to other, including how they react to perceived criticism, threats, or bad news.

Example: On one project I participated in, I spent multiple uncomfortable conference calls on which a remote team member was both reactive and disruptive throughout the discussion. She was clearly skeptical that the project goals were even feasible, had a beef about the contribution of a non-present team member, and was concerned about her group’s ability to staff the project and meet the schedule commitment. As a result, as we discussed various related points, she interrupted other speakers and spoke with a frustrated, angry, snippy, defensive and/or impatient tone of voice.

Whether she was right or wrong on her concerns is beside my point. Her way of reacting and responding to the concerns – her communication habits – severely disrupted the team meetings and put a big damper on the team’s energy and morale.

I could speculate on her Cue- Routine- Reward like this: the Cue is something she hears that she disagrees with or she feels threatens her success. The Routine is to voice it in a particular way. The Reward she’s after could be to be really sure that everyone understands the magnitude of her concerns and is not holding her accountable for something she is not committed to.

So how could she change her routine and still get the same reward? By using direct language vs. letting her tone do the talking, for one thing. For another, by being aware of the impact her Routine is having, in this case on other team members. (I didn’t try to change my Sharepoint avoidance behavior until someone called me on the impact I was having on others. I didn’t adjust my morning email behavior without having some specific fitness goals for myself.)

Which brings me to the final point I’d like to make, aimed at those of us managing a project. Beyond any personal habits we want to work on, we can use this Cue – Routine – Reward construct to help our team members be more effective as well. Do you see team member communication or work-style habits affecting the team? Are they aware of those habits? Habits are habits because they are so ingrained – they are what we’ve gotten used to automatically doing – to the point that we may not recognize them as something that really should be changed.

As project managers, leading the team includes helping resolve conflict and helping the team and individuals work effectively. As PM, I could observe and note what subjects (or people!) set off that frustrated team member. I could talk to her individually, ask about the source of her frustration and what she needs the team to understand, and acknowledge her need to have them addressed before making a commitment.  But then, I could also point out a less disruptive, more constructive Routine she can use – a better way for her to express her concerns, in order to get the “reward” of understanding and action that she is after.

A final note on the book. It closes with an Appendix called A Reader’s Guide to Using these Ideas. It does a great job of acknowledging the real world. I.e. yes, it’s nice to have this Cue- Routine- Reward construct, but it’s not a secret formula. Some experimentation will be required, depending on the individual and the particular habits involved. The appendix walks through a personal process for habit change, with these steps:

Identify the routine (the thing you or a team member is doing that is somehow sub-optimal or undesirable)

Experiment with rewards: To understand what you’ve truly been seeking via the behavior, experiment with different rewards and identify the craving you’re really trying to satisfy.

Isolate the cue: Know what launches the Routine, starts the undesirable behavior. Is it a certain time of day, a certain place, a certain person?

Have a plan: Plan ahead for the Cue so that when it comes, you have a new Routine to substitute, and reminders to do so (such as the post-it I put on my monitor).

So if you decide to make New Years’ Resolutions to change certain habits and accomplish new goals, go in armed with this simple tool for habit analysis and reconstruction. And look for opportunities to constructively help team members and their Cue-Routine-Reward “habit loops” as well!

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