How To Break A Bad Habit In 20 Seconds Or Less

How To Break A Bad Habit In 20 Seconds Or Less

Recently I was driving my son to basketball practice (usually a wonderful father-son activity) and I suddenly realized I was actually en-route to my daughter’s preschool, having completely missed the freeway exit I needed to get to basketball!driving on autopilot

It struck me that this instance of driving on “auto-pilot” is the perfect metaphor for how many of us live our lives. We keep doing what we’ve always done because it’s what we know, what we feel comfortable doing, and to be honest, what we can do in our sleep — it takes a lot less energy to keep doing the familiar.

Does this make sense? Well in some ways — yes. We know the fastest way to the grocery store & to work. If we always pay our bills at our desk on the same day, we know we’ll have envelopes and checks handy and our bills will get paid on time. Many people find that having a fixed rotation of meals eliminates the “What’s for dinner?” headache that overtakes many each night. In many ways establishing a few good habits can remove a lot of stress from our lives.

Unless it doesn’t.

The key is to recognize the routines and patterns that are working really well for you (carpools, date night, laundry day) and come clean about the habits that are holding you back from achieving more happiness. For instance, would you rather be reading at night but find it’s easier to turn on the TV? Would your life be a whole lot more manageable if you left work by 5:30 but find that you don’t start tackling your most important priorities before 5 pm every night — making it impossible to leave before 6:30 at the earliest. Worse yet, (c’mon ‘fess up!) do you mean you check your email briefly around 9 pm before enjoying your evening and find yourself bleary-eyed at computer screen still working as 11 pm rolls around?

We’ve all been there! The question is: how do you turn these “bad” habits around?

In his brilliant book, Sean Achor recommends applying the 20 second rule to any new habits you want to cultivate.

This means that you want to make the preferable choice more readily available (able to access it in 20 seconds or less). So if you want to read instead of watching TV, put your book or kindle by your TV watching spot. Then it will take only moments to pick it up instead of the remote control. If you have a “must-do” work task, put it right on your computer keyboard before lunch. That way when you return from lunch — it will be more attractive to just plunge in and finish it before the day drags on any further and new fire-drills occur.

New Habits

And for those of you glued to your computer screens all night? I recommend a few different solutions. For starters: you can set a timer on or near your computer that rings after 5-10 minutes, hopefully disturbing your zombie computer stare and forcing you to reconsider your options for the night. Scheduling a 9:15 phone call with a friend or conversation with your spouse allows you to check quickly and then move on to keep your commitments to others. And for those of you diehards, I know Macs have a program (and I’m guessing there is one to download for PCs), called parental controls. This actually shuts the computer down at a certain time of night — hopefully forcing you to do more enjoyable night-time activities. Can you override it? Of course — but if you’re even considering it — that is your inner wisdom telling you enough is enough and you need more downtime!

What one habit is not serving you well? Did any of these ideas strike your fancy? I challenge you to identify one no-longer-necessary groove you are in and brainstorm your own solutions to change it up. Remember to keep the new habit accessible in 20 seconds or less!

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

Leave a Comment