Stuck in an Unproductive Leadership Habit? Here’s How to Change It

by: Rick Simmons

“We are what we repeatedly do.”

In 1926, Will Durant, an American writer, historian, and philosopher, summed up many of Aristotle’s thoughts on morality in this one clear, concise, and elegant sentence—one that is often attributed to Aristotle himself.

With that in mind, when we want to make a particular behavior stick, we must ask ourselves if we have operationalized what we’ve decided to do. Have we baked our decisions into our operating models? Do our outcomes reflect that? Have our desired behaviors become habit? In essence, have we created a behavior pattern such that breaking it would be more difficult than continuing to do it?

We have to take a similar approach to undo unproductive habits. Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, writes about how to investigate and break the unproductive habits we have.

In his book, he shares a personal habit that he just couldn’t kick: Each afternoon at work, he would head to the cafeteria for a chocolate chip cookie. As a result, he had gained eight pounds—an outcome he wasn’t very happy with.

He explains that the first step in breaking his habit was to understand how habits work. Each habit functions in the same three-part process. There is a cue, a routine, and a reward. First, a cue, or trigger, is established, launching the routine automatically, and that routine produces a reward—something that feels good, thus reinforcing the habit.

Duhigg began tracking his habit to determine the cue. He noticed that his cookie craving hit every day at around three o’clock in the afternoon. When that craving struck, he got up, headed to the cafeteria, bought his cookie, and ate it while talking to his co-workers before returning to his desk.

Duhigg knew that it is the reward—the last piece of the sequence that reinforces any habit. So, he had to find out what it was in his case. One day, he went outside and took a walk instead of getting a cookie. The next day, he got a candy bar rather than a cookie, and ate it at his desk. The day after that, he went to the cafeteria and didn’t buy anything at all. Rather, he spent some time just talking with his colleagues before he went back downstairs. That experimentation gave him insight into the reward he was actually after. He found that it wasn’t the sweet snack; it was the social interaction.

Now, at three in the afternoon, instead of going to the cafeteria, he finds a friend to chat with for a bit. That chat has become his habit, taking the place of his cookie trek, and as a result, he has shed the weight. By diagnosing his habit, he could shift it. You can do the same for yourself and your team.

CLEAR goals can help. Developed by entrepreneur Adam Kreek, CLEAR goals are:
Collaborative, encouraging employees to work together;
Limited in both scope and duration;
Emotional, enabling employees to connect to them and tap into their own energy and passion;
Appreciable—broken down into smaller, more accomplishable goals that allow for long-term success; and
Refinable—they are clearly stated, but with room for modification as the situation or information develops

These elements allow for the establishment of goals “that can be built out, embraced, and acted upon by every member of the team.”

Start with a thorough diagnosis of the habit you want to break, set a CLEAR goal, and the take steps to address it.

Our book, Unleashed: Harnessing the Power of Liminal Space, from ForbesBooks, lays out what we’ve learned about providing individuals, teams, and organizations with the insights, tools, and opportunities to reach new heights. Read more about it here.

Charles Duhigg, “How to Break Habits,” YouTube video, 3:38. September 25, 2015,