Old Habits Die Hard

Did you set any New Year’s resolutions?

And if you did, now we’re at the end of January, how have you fared?

If you’ve ever tried to give up an existing habit, such as smoking (or any other bad old habits) you’ll know just how difficult that can be.

You may have found yourself absentmindedly reverting to the old habit, and having to say STOP!

But breaking old habits isn’t just confined to ‘bad’ habits. I remember a couple of years ago going back to driving a manual car having become used to driving an automatic. For the first week or so I kept stalling it, simply because I’d got out of the habit of having to use the clutch! Old habits die hard.

And in the same way as changing my driving technique, if some of your processes or procedures have changed, it can take a while for everyone to get used to the new way.

There may be some old habits people have got into as a result of time pressures, poor equipment or simply cutting corners. These too can end up being the new norm, the embedded habits that need to be broken before going back to a previous ‘right’ way.

But even after you’ve shown someone the ‘new’ way of doing something, once they get back to the workplace – the slightest obstacle will send people back to their old comfortable way of doing it.

It’s all too easy for people to revert, particularly if that feels more comfortable, is easier or is quicker.

Human nature says we’ll always take the path of least resistance!

Sometimes you need to break the old habit first.

Here are 6 things you can do to help break the old habits

1. Why

Most of us like familiarity, so without having a compelling enough reason, people are unlikely to put much effort into changing their habits. Most people really do need a very compelling reason to do so, that’s in their best interest, not just yours. Will it make their job easier or quicker? Will it make the task more enjoyable? Will it please customers and lead to more tips or fewer complaints? Will it help their teammates?

If people understand the end result they’re aiming for, this can help clarify why something is right versus why something is wrong. They can often see or feel for themselves that the wrong way doesn’t achieve the result they want and vice versa.

If you’re asking someone to do something in a way that’s doing away with something they took pride in in the past, this can make them feel their contribution wasn’t valued. So be sensitive to this and that your reasoning focuses on being even better, rather than discrediting the old way.

2. What good feels like

What can help is to get them to imagine achieving the new habit and how it feels.

For example, a recent client had got into the habit of putting off taking and making calls to customers who she knew were demanding. So rather than her focusing on the potential negative outcome of the call (which was increasingly likely to be the case, the longer she put off dealing with the customer) I got her to focus on the ideal outcome.

If people can envisage the perfect outcome it helps clarify what’s needed and gives people more motivation to change.

3. What to do differently?

Sometimes there are only subtle differences between the new way and the old habit. Once people know what’s ‘wrong’ and why, it’s considerably easier for them to grasp the new way; or even to identify the right way for themselves.

Be specific on the tangible and measurable indicators, the differences between the new way and the old way. This will make it easier for the other person to realise and measure their own performance and more likely to spot when they’ve slipped back.

Quantitative standards or pointers are easier to interpret than qualitative ones. For example, if you want the phone answered quickly, specify in how many rings. When it comes to qualitative standards, it can be far more open to personal interpretation, so giving examples and/or demonstrations (and of course leading by example) can be helpful, but still be prepared to make the comparison between the new way and the old way.

4. I can’t

Look out for and listen for hesitation. If they believe they can’t do it, find out why. Is it due to time, resources, authority? Is it due to confidence? Maybe they simply need a little more feedback, support and coaching.

You may believe that they have everything they need, and they are capable, but if they don’t believe so, it’s important you understand why they think this before you can overcome this barrier. Their perception is their reality, so you’ll need to change this perception before moving forward.

The longer it takes to remove that barrier (be it real or imagined) the less likely the new habit will even get started, let alone last.

5. Quick wins

When the old way feels more comfortable, is easier or is quicker, it’s too easy for people to revert; human nature says we’ll always take the path of least resistance!

If someone tries to change their habit, and don’t get results straight away, there’s a good chance they decide it isn’t worth the effort. In their mind it’s not working, so it’s too easy for them to give up too soon.

Reduce the risk of this happening by recognising early wins, feeding back on their progress and just how far they’ve come, to encourage them to keep going.

6. Patience

It takes time to establish new habits; to create a new norm, some say as many as 66 times. So, if it’s a task people only do once a day, this might take 2 months or more.

Forming new habits doesn’t necessarily mean you need to retrain people, but they might need a little bit of a helping hand, some feedback and maybe some coaching to keep them on track.

So be patient. Continue to monitor, coach and correct as needed until the new habit is simply second nature.

Take Action to break old habits

If you only do one thing: be prepared to give further coaching, support and feedback until they have formed new habits.