Trick Yourself into Breaking a Bad Habit

Published December 31, 2018

Let’s face it—we all have a career-limiting habit.

Whether it’s weak interpersonal skills, a tendency to procrastinate or good-but-not-great technical prowess, one of the biggest impediments to our upward mobility is a habit we struggle to change.

A few years back, my colleagues and I studied 5,000 people who had attempted to change a stubborn career-limiting habit. Fewer than 10 percent succeeded at creating deep and lasting change.

As we reviewed what separated the successful few from the rest, we found a quirky distinction: The successful people talked about themselves the way an experimental psychologist might refer to a cherished lab rat.

For example, a shy manager with executive aspirations talked about how he took himself to the employee cafeteria three times a week to eat lunch with a complete stranger. Tickling with anxiety, he stripped himself of his smart phone before exiting his office—knowing that if it was with him, he would retreat to it. He knew that if he simply ensconced himself in these circumstances, he would connect with new people—a habit and skill he wanted to cultivate.

Recognizing this somewhat bizarre pattern, we began to see the virtue of it. These insightful self-changers came to realize that the best way to control their behavior was to take control of the things that control them.

The best way to control their behavior was to take control of the things that control them.

They overcame the naïve hubris of seeing themselves as solitary rational actors whose actions are the product of willful choice. Seventy years of social science evidence says the opposite—that we have far less control over our behavior than we think. We are profoundly shaped by outside forces that manipulate, distract, arouse, and impede us.

Those in our study who were best at changing their behavior were the ones who bowed to this fact and made it work in their favor. Their path to controlling their behavior was to take control of those relentless sources of influence, essentially manipulating themselves into seeing a situation differently.


Here are some common tactics for tricking yourself into changing:


1) Manipulate distance

We are especially naïve about the degree to which our physical surroundings shape our choices. For example, what you eat is shaped far more by what you see than by what you search for. A glittering bowl of Lindt chocolate truffles on a colleague’s desk initiates an inexorable cognitive process that ends only when you succumb to its seduction. Seeing is eating.

You can use this fact to trick yourself into changing by manipulating distance: put bad things far away and bring good things close, and your behavior will change. For example, if you are trying to overcome procrastination, don’t sit in places that offer attractive distractions. If you work in an open office environment, take your laptop to a huddle room when you need an hour of focused attention. If you want to read more technical journals, put them on your homepage in place of sale notifications or news feeds.


2) Change your friends

There’s a Mexican saying: “Show me who you’re with, and I’ll tell you who you are.” You don’t get to vote on whether the people you associate with shape you. They determine the way you think, feel and dress, and they influence what you purchase, eat, study, hate and even how you vote. So, spend less time with people who reinforce a bad behavior, and spend more time with people who support a good behavior. For example, if you want to cultivate a more positive attitude about big changes in your company, lunch more often with those who are leading the charge and less often with those who are forming the opposition.


3) Schedule yourself

Human beings have a default bias: if a box is checked on a web page, we are likely to leave it checked. If our driver’s license renewal requires us to opt out of organ donation rather than opt in, many more of us donate our organs. So, program defaults into your life. Don’t simply say, “I want to practice my presentation before the quarterly review.” Instead, schedule practice time on your calendar. You are far more likely to spend the hour rehearsing if you make it the default plan.


4) Train yourself

We tend to think our behavioral lapses are most often due to a lack of will rather than a lack of skill. This is not true. We are less motivated when we feel less competent. When attempting to change your behavior, don’t simply try to psyche yourself into changing; rather, coach yourself into it. Create structured practice opportunities to increase your competence and your motivation will follow suit.

For example, one executive who wanted to improve her interpersonal skills, purchased a book on making small talk. Each week, she identified one technique and situations where she could practice it. Practice episodes took just a few minutes. It was somewhat uncomfortable but felt less so since she viewed it as a kind of interpersonal calisthenics. Once she practiced the skill multiple times, it began to feel comfortable and reliable. Make yourself feel differently about gaining new behaviors by seeing it as a process of systematic skill acquisition.


You’re far better at resisting it if you say, “I don’t do that” than if you say “I can’t do that.”

5) Change your frame

It is surprisingly easy to manipulate yourself by simply framing choices differently. Others do it to you all the time, presenting soda pop as freedom or a new car as a path to passionate liaisons. It’s lame—but effective. And we can do it to ourselves as well. For example, simply tweaking the words you use to represent a decision profoundly changes how you feel. Research by Vanessa Patrick shows that when faced with temptation, you’re far better at resisting it if you say, “I don’t do that” than if you say, “I can’t do that.”

Successful changers in our study used phrases that bolstered their motivation by framing the decision in a way that connected to personal values or goals. For example, if you notice yourself resisting an uncomfortable but necessary conversation, it’s likely that you’re framing it in a way that reinforces your resistance—for example, “I’ve got to go deal with this mess.” Change the frame by asking “Why do I want to have this conversation?” As you ponder this question you might discover a motive, such as “To save my direct report’s career.” Walking to a meeting to try to save a friend’s career feels different from walking to the same meeting to “deal with a mess.”

Most of us are blind to the many forces that shape our choices. We overestimate the degree to which we are the product of conscious choice and grossly underestimate the power of situational and social forces.

It’s time we learned to take control of our lives by acknowledging this human fact and making it work for us rather than against us.


This article originally appeared on The Harvard Business Review.

About the Author
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny

Co-Founder, Speaker & Social Scientist; Best-selling Author


Joseph Grenny is a four-time best-selling author, keynote speaker, and social scientist for business performance. His passion and expertise are human behavior and its impact on business performance and relationships. His work has been translated into 28 languages and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500 companies. Joseph is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an organization committed to teaching others how change human behavior effectively.

Years at GLS 2013, 2014