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7 Bad Habits That Are Holding You Back At Work

Are you weighed down with bad habits and itching to put some good energy back in your work life?
by Caitlin Schiller | Mar 3 2016

Ask yourself these 7 questions to figure out the habits of mind that are holding you back and change them for good.

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Whether it’s an innocent Netflix binge or a late night out with friends, all of us occasionally fail to act in our own best interests when it comes to making sure we’re ready for a new work week. Then, there’re the bad work habits you commit when you’re at the office—too many coffee breaks, a quick article read that turns into 45 minutes of click-browse-share-repeat.

But the most insidious bad work habits have little to do with a surfeit of collegial Slack chats. Bad habits of mind—self-limiting thoughts, a fixed mindset, or avoiding mistakes at all costs—are probably what’s really holding you back.

These 7 questions can help you roust out the habits of mind that are keeping you from being your best and change them—before you’re up to your ears in a rut.

1. How often do you ask big, scary questions?

Years of doing the same thing can give you a serious expert advantage. But in today’s fast-paced environments, experienced workers can actually struggle more than rookies. Here’s a hard truth: studies have shown that experienced doctors score lower on tests of medical knowledge than their less experienced peers.

The researchers found that more experienced workers are often less willing to keep asking questions and learn when they’ve already accumulated a base of knowledge earlier in their careers. In fact, it’s harder for experienced employees to look for new solutions when they already have an old method that has worked in the past. If this sounds familiar to you, don’t sweat it—you just need a little mental readjustment.

Kick the habit: Try on a rookie mindset

Switch your brain into learning mode by trying something new, like volunteering or swapping jobs for a day. A new situation frees you from any shame you might feel around not knowing the ropes and lets you tap into rookie energy, asking lots of questions to tackle your new challenge.

More on this idea in Rookie Smarts by Liz Wiseman

2. Is the concept of inborn talent holding you back?

Actually—don’t worry about it. Whether or not you’ve got one doesn’t actually matter. What’s more, wondering about it will only hold you back. A study conducted in England in the 1990s gathered vast amounts of data on 257 “talented” young people, all of whom had studied music. Surprisingly, they found that those who performed best didn’t seem to have any more inborn talent than the others.

The top performers exhibited no signs of extraordinary achievement before they started their intensive music training, which would have otherwise indicated a natural talent. Nor did top performers benefit from greater gains with the same amount of practice, indicating that talent didn’t manifest itself in the form of rapid improvements, either. What’s so awful about wondering about your inborn talent? Chasing a happy fiction will only keep you from developing the kind of real skill that will move you forward.

Kick the habit: Choose what you want to achieve and practice, practice and practice

Design a system of deliberate practice – one that lets you focus on specific areas and gives immediate feedback. If you want to get better at public speaking, for instance, analyze your speeches to improve on specifics like clarity or rhetorical effect, then solicit feedback from a pro or an eloquent friend.

So forget about that slumbering inner virtuoso. Maybe she’s there, maybe she’s not. Whatever the case, you can start developing skills that matter to you right now.

Read the highlights of Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

3. Where do you believe inspiration comes from?

One day an apple dropped from a tree into Isaac Newton’s lap, leading to the discovery of gravity. That’s one peach of a eureka moment, but Newton’s story is a great example of a common misbelief that creativity comes from out-of-the-blue. Although most of us accept this myth, it’s plain wrong.

For example, Newton’s discovery of gravity isn’t exactly accurate. In fact, he observed the apple fall while he was with someone else, which sparked a scientific discussion between them. Their talk involved reviewing what they already understood in terms of the phenomenon of gravity. Therefore, rather than Newton being the sole receiver of a sudden revelation, the idea was the spoils of an elegant game of intellectual ping pong between two minds. It was only after years of intensive research that Newton finally put forward his formula.

So even though we love stories of lightning-bolt revelations, we can see that creativity often requires time and effort. Here’s the kind that will help you bust out of the waiting habit.

Kick the habit: Try out parallel processes

Sudden inspiration is just one of many phases through which successful creatives move in bringing an idea to life. To make the most of a process in which sometimes you’re busy creating and sometimes just marinating, try having a number of projects on the go simultaneously. This gives all of your ideas the time they need to develop as you actively work on others.

So, in order to get the best out of the process, try having a number of projects on the go simultaneously. This will allow all of your ideas to have the necessary amount of time to develop as you work on others.

Read more on this idea in The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus

4. Do you err on the side of caution?

Most of us don’t enjoy making mistakes and try to avoid them, but we should really be encouraging them! Why? Trial and error, and the failed attempts that inevitably result, often lead to swift improvements in your skills.

For example, one ceramics teacher conducted a study in which he divided his students into two groups. He asked one group to design the best pots it could in a set timeframe. The second group was bidden to craft as many pots as possible in the same time. In the end, the best pots actually came from the group focused on quantity, not quality, because, every time this group produced a pot, it identified the mistakes and corrected them. The quality group had no mistakes to learn from, so it simply never improved.

Cautious friends, hear this: some things you’ll try don’t work out, but not giving it a go at all, you’re denying yourself the gift of improvement.

Kick the habit: Welcome your mistakes

Comedians always perform for small crowds before launching a big tour as a way of auditioning and adjusting new material. Using a similar process at work is as simple as making mistakes and learning from them. In other words, go out of your way to avoid failure and you won’t get an encore. Instead, fail fast, fail often, and you’ll be sure to improve your routine.

Give it a try. Fail fast, fail often, and get better.

More advice like this is in Fail Fast, Fail Often by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz. Read it on Blinkist in 10 minutes here.

5. How do you feel about “gray areas?”

Do your work days range wildly between fantastic and atrocious? And if you fail at something, do you either turn it completely inwards and bury your head in the sand or push the blame on others? If so, it might just be that you’ve got a so-called “fixed mindset.” A fixed mindset obviates the opportunity to be a little in the gray, to be human, to just be in the middle, trying your best—and maybe even succeeding!

It’s fairly straightforward to see how this can clog up your performance at work. For instance, imagine that you are faced with a challenge, and all you can see are risks of failing. This way of thinking makes it impossible for you to better yourself without questioning your own competence. It’s easier to just avoid a pressure-filled situation like this one.

While people with fixed mindsets will definitely make fewer mistakes than the rest, it follows naturally that they also have a more difficult time developing their skills and improving their weaknesses. But the beauty of a growth mindset is that it presents a great opportunity to reach out to others for support, to talk about our faults and mistakes, and to make viable, concrete plans for achieving our goals. In addition to bringing you closer to your goals, it can bring you closer to others, too.

Kick the habit: Develop a growth mindset

Train your brain like any other muscle – one repetition at a time. Say you accidentally sent an email to the wrong Dan. You might initially think “I’m so stupid.” But stop! You can push yourself towards a growth mindset by being mindful and restructuring that thought to, “These things happen. I’ll write to explain what happened and be more cautious next time.

The beauty of a growth mindset is that it presents a great opportunity to reach out to others for support, to talk about our faults and mistakes, and to make viable, concrete plans for achieving our goals. In addition to bringing you closer to your goals, it can bring you closer to others, too.

Read the highlights of Mindset by Carol Dweck here.

6. How did you feel last time you needed to perform under pressure?

Imagine this: You’re at a meeting with all your superiors and brightest colleagues and it’s your turn to present your project. A future promotion could depend on these next five minutes, so you are extremely well prepared. However, before you can even say “FAILURE” your mind’s gone blank and your knowledge seems to have deteriorated to that of a highly intelligent sea snail.

The phenomenon of failure when the stakes are high is called choking, and it can happen even to the greatest of experts when they have to perform a complex task under great pressure. So, why does this happen? Well, the brain is made up of two systems:

The first is called the explicit brain system. It a bit sluggish, and it kicks over when we try to consciously control our thoughts and movements—think when you’re performing a dance routine for the first time and need to memorize the steps. The other system is called the implicit brain system, and it’s quick, it’s fluid, and it’s the active party when you perform tasks you’ve mastered automatically. It can even process multiple tasks simultaneously.

Choking happens because, under pressure, the brain transfers control of any task to the explicit brain system, which, in addition to being slow, isn’t a champ of a multi-tasker. That’s why it’s so hard to perform the complex task of presenting your project, so what can you do to fix it?

Kick the habit: Play mind games and convince yourself the event isn’t that important

Practice as though your task is important, but downplay it when the stakes are high. Try getting some perspective by focusing on things more critical than, say, a presentation you’ve got to make – things like your relationships, your health or your family. This can help you feel less pressured, which will allow you to use your implicit brain to nail your task.

The simple formula to excel is to practice as though your task is very important, but downplay its importance when the stakes are high.

More on this idea and others in Bounce by Matthew Syed

7. What’s your attitude toward perfection?

Perfectionism, despite sounding positive, isn’t really worth it—and especially not when it comes to your work.It’s different than striving to be your best, and is unrelated to self-improvement. Rather, it revolves around the fundamental fear of shame and uncertainty. Life as a perfectionist is unhealthy because it makes our happiness and self worth dependent on others’ approval. The perfectionist’s mindset, however, doesn’t recognize the trap. Instead, whenever she inevitably fails to achieve perfection, she’ll blame herself and tells herself to “do better,” regardless of whether that’s actually possible. This is definitely a bad habit of mind, and definitely a bad habit at work.

The more insidious aspect: perfectionism can also lead to life paralysis, or the inability to put oneself out into the world due to fear of imperfection. If you’re suffering from life paralysis, you might, for instance, be unable to tell your boss about that idea for a work project out of fear it won’t be well received, or you might leave your writing unpublished out of fear of criticism.

Kick the habit: be honest about your fears and let go

Next time you feel insecure about your work, put words to the fear and tell your closest work confidant about how you feel. It won’t be easy at first, but getting in the good habit of articulating your fears – and the practice of sharing them – will make it easier for you to see them as the mirages they actually are.

Read the highlights of The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

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