Build Professional Habits Now

February 25, 2015


A week or so ago, I spoke with the head of professional development at a top-ranked U.S. law school about an upcoming networking program that I’ve been retained to facilitate. “We want our students to walk away from the program understanding that this is just the beginning,” my contact said. “That networking is not necessarily instinctive, but if they start the habit now, it will pay off throughout their professional lives.”

Graduate school and the concomitant transition into the workplace present an ideal opportunity for students and new professionals to develop a series of new habits. Any time we encounter a period of upheaval—psychologists call these periods “quantum change moments”—habits become more malleable. We suddenly become open to new rewards. It’s the presence of those rewards that can help convert a new behavior into a routine. Once that occurs, a new habit is formed.

Here are three things you need to know about developing professional habits:


How do we form habits?

Over the past several years, a body of science has clarified how individuals develop habits. It turns out the process is amazingly simple, and it’s driven by neurology. According to New York Times reporter and book author Charles Duhigg, every habit has three component parts: a cue (something that automatically triggers a behavior); a routine (the behavior itself); and a reward (something that helps you remember and want to repeat the behavior in the future).

When we want to initiate a new habit or change an established one, most people focus on the actual behavior. But, Duhigg says, that approach almost always fails. Instead if we focus on cues and rewards, then the likelihood of ingraining the habit significantly increases.

Duhigg describes one study that tested how best to make early morning exercise habitual. Researchers found that participants were most likely to succeed when they put their exercise shoes out before going to bed (the cue) and when they also received a small bite of chocolate (the reward) after their exercise session. Within a matter of months, 58 percent of participants reported that they continued to exercise without the chocolate reward.

So, think about some new, professional habits that you would like to develop. What cues and rewards will motivate you? Want them to become a successful networker? Then how can you cue up before the event and what can you do to reward yourself afterward?


How do you change a habit?

Perhaps you've developed a work habit that you would desperately like to change. How do you change a pattern of behavior that's already ingrained?

When we develop a habit—a good, bad, or neutral one—our brains effectively go on autopilot. And thank goodness they do. Habits save us huge amounts of time. For example, if pressed, I can pack a suitcase in three minutes flat . . . simply because I’ve acquired a packing habit. I don't need to think through the process.

If you wish to change a professional habit, you need to identify the existing cues and rewards that support a specific routine.  With that knowledge, you can then identify a new, more professional response to a specific trigger as well as a reward that will help you transform the response into an ongoing habit.

Here’s one example: I’ve participated in loads of law firm orientations and have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a partner instruct a group of new lawyers to record their time daily. The instructions are generally accompanied by an admonition that capturing all of the time invested on a particular project is critical to the firm’s bottom line. If establishing good time-recording habits is important to your employer, create a cue (before I turn off my computer at the end of the day, I must enter my time) and a reward that resonates with you (once I enter my time and turn off my computer, I can meet my friends for happy hour).


What types of rewards work best?

So you know, I am not a believer in the “everyone- gets-a-prize” school of motivating behavior. I am completely and thoroughly opposed to the idea of giving some a reward just for doing the equivalent of “showing up.” But anyone who has taken a Psych 101 course understands the power of positive reinforcement.

According to Duhrigg, “If you can create a sense of craving,” specifically craving for some reward, “you can establish almost any habit.” The reward need not be huge. In the exercise study cited earlier, the piece of chocolate each runner received was relatively small. But according to Duhrigg, it was large enough to satisfy either an individual runner’s sensation-seeking impulse or the novelty impulse.

In my timesheet example, a law firm could help encourage daily timesheet entry through a variety of different rewards. Each time a new associate updates his or her timesheet, a computer-generated message could be delivered to his or her mailbox thanking the new associate for their contribution to the firm’s bottom line. Alternatively, associates who update their timesheets daily could receive “points” that could be used to purchase a morning java at the local coffeehouse. And remember, whatever reward you choose, you likely won't need it forever, but rather just long enough to transform the behavior into a habit.

For more on the formation of new, good habits or the replacement of old, bad ones click here to listen to Charles Duhigg’s 2013 TEDTalk.


What You Need To Know

When you start to transition from school to work, concsiously think about developing some professional habits. To the extent you focus on cues and rewards, you have a greater chance of adopting new, positive behaviors.




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