Good Ways to Break Bad Habits

by Marshall Goldsmith and Kelly Goldsmith

Most people I’ve coached have an annoying habit that is holding them back. You may already know you have a bad habit because you’ve been told, many times, by your spouse that you’re hypercritical. Or maybe it’s your co-worker who has the bad habit, and despite you coaching him, nothing has changed.

It’s one thing to point out a bad behavior. But how do you actually inspire change? How do you break a bad habit–or help one of your employees to do so?

Working with clients over several decades, I’ve found that a few very simple techniques can be incredibly powerful. Here they are:

1. Think small. Pick just one behavior–just one area of improvement–to focus on. The only way you can get better at everything is to not try to change everything. Just work on changing one thing. That will yield dividends, because if you get rid of that annoying habit, just that one, how will you feel? Empowered to work on more! And you just made the world a better place not only for you, but for everyone around you.

2. Focus on the present, not the past. The problem with most feedback is that it tends to involve rehashing the past. We can’t change what already has occurred. What we can change is the future. If you want to help someone break a bad habit, give specific suggestions on how he can change, rather than harping on what he’s done wrong.

In my workshops, I conduct a simple exercise which I call “feedforward,” rather than “feedback.” Here’s how it works: Participants play two roles, first naming one behavior they want to change and then listening to the “feedforward” –the suggestions–that others give on how to do this. When you’re in the listener role, you can’t judge or critique suggestions. All you can do is listen, take notes, and thank the participants for their suggestions. Why does this work? Because positive suggestions are taken as objective advice, whereas personal critiques are seen as personal attacks.

3. Don’t try to change someone who doesn’t want to change. Have any of you ever attempted to change the behavior of someone who had no interest in changing? How much luck did you have in these religious-conversion activities? If your colleague doesn’t care about the fact that he is stubborn, and it is hurting his performance, don’t waste your time on him. As a coach, I’ve learned to only put my time and energy into the people who do care. If the person is going to improve, the motivation has to come from within. Your job is not to make him change what he doesn’t want to change–it’s to help him change what he does want to change.





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