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It’s February. How are you doing on those New Year’s resolutions? If you’ve fallen off the wagon, don’t worry: Every day is a new opportunity for transformation, even if it’s not January 1st. But how can you actually change those bad business habits that are holding you back? You know what I’m talking about: getting distracted by Facebook, responding to the “ping” of your email like Pavlov’s dog, putting off the most important (but most onerous) to-do of the day.
When it comes to changing our bad habits, different tactics work for different people. Below are seven different approaches. If you try all of them, you’re sure to find at least one that works for you.
Habits become our default reaction to stimuli. For example, when we’re bored, stressed, or trying to avoid something unpleasant, it’s natural to turn to a quick, fun “boost.” You might compulsively check your email, for instance, to see if there’s anything more interesting than the proposal you need to write.
To rewire that behavior, you need to replace the negative habit with a positive one. For instance, instead of checking email every 90 seconds, stand up and do some stretches or quick yoga moves in your office.
Physical activity is a great substitute behavior, because it gets your blood flowing and energizes you to do what you’ve been avoiding. However, feel free to use any positive habit that works for you—sipping water or tea, doing a quick meditation, and putting on energizing music are just a few ideas.
Having a partner makes everything easier. That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous pairs people with sponsors and why runners meet up with friends to train. Team up with someone who’s trying to break their own bad habit, or someone who has already broken it and can give you tips. Reach out to each other when you’re feeling weak. (Just don’t let that turn into its own bad habit, like texting your buddy for 20 minutes instead of working on a proposal).
Set up a reward system for each period in which you successfully avoid the bad habit in question. For example, at the end of one week of successful improvement, you could reward yourself with dining out, going to the movies, getting a manicure, or whatever floats your boat.
Rewarding yourself fairly frequently helps: If you have to wait a whole month to be rewarded, you’ll probably be less motivated. Having a particularly hard day avoiding your habit? Think of a reward you can give yourself at the end of the day or even at the end of the hour, if necessary. (“If I focus on this proposal for one hour, I can spend 10 minutes on Facebook.”)
You can also try punishing yourself instead of rewarding yourself. Set up a pledge that if you fall back into your bad habit, you must make a financial contribution to a cause you absolutely despise, whether that’s the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood, or the Committee to Abolish Puppies and Kittens (I made that one up).
Announcing your intentions publicly will help keep you strong and prevent you from reneging on the deal. PromiseOrPay donates your money to charity when you fail; Timewaste Timer charges you for every hour you waste on Facebook; 21Habit either rewards you or fines you depending on whether you meet your goals; and GoF***ingDoIt lets you customize your own challenges and fines.
Stress, lack of sleep and poor nutrition—which are all common problems for entrepreneurs—make it harder to maintain our willpower, researchers at Stanford University have found. Plus, using willpower takes up valuable energy that business owners need for more important things (like finishing that proposal). Take the job of resisting temptation off your hands by turning it over to technology.
Like mittens on a nail-biting child’s hands, apps can be used to keep you off social media, time-wasting websites, your phone, and more. From gentle reminders to hardcore shutdowns, Inc. has gathered several apps that will help you stop wasting time on your smartphone. Freedom is a popular app that lets you set limits on your social media, app, and internet use. Take a Five lets you set a limited time to go online, then automatically shuts your browser down when that time is up. (Of course, you have to have enough willpower to turn these apps on in the first place, but even the weakest-willed among us can generally manage that.)
Studies show it takes an absolute minimum of 21 days for new habits to form. More often, it takes from two to eight months for a new behavior to become a habit.
While that may sound discouraging, acknowledging that ingrained habits are hard to change is the first step in changing them. It’s also important to cut yourself some slack. If you find yourself slipping back into old habits, don’t give up: Persistence is the most important factor in determining whether you actually change your ways.
If avoiding your bad habit for two to eight months sounds incredibly daunting (I know it does to me), stop thinking long-term. Instead, take a cue from the precepts of Alcoholics Anonymous and focus on “one day at a time.” For AA members, the goal every morning is to avoid drinking that day. For you, the goal is to avoid time-wasters “just for today.”
At the end of the day, you’ll be able to congratulate yourself if you’ve succeeded. Plus, success will get easier to achieve every day that goes by.