David Maxfield is coauthor of two bestselling books, Change Anything and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I read about your career-limiting habits survey and immediately realized a career-limiting habit has held me back from a promotion I’ve wanted for several years. You could say I have two of them. First, I have the one you describe as “short-term focus.” I focus on urgent tasks and let some of the long-term priorities slide. Second, I sometimes get caught in the “too little too late” trap—I’ve procrastinated on a long-term priority, and now I take shortcuts or miss deadlines.
I want this year to be the year I finally meet my goal. Do you have any advice for overcoming my career-limiting habits so I can finally get the promotion I’ve been working so hard to earn?
Congratulations on seeing yourself with such steely-eyed objectivity. Most of us have trouble recognizing our faults, but the career-limiting habits you’ve recognized put you in great company. They are among the most common career-limiting habits we see in workplaces. The good news is that you can overcome them.
I’ll suggest some ways to make progress on habits in general, and on yours in particular.
Escape the Willpower Trap. The most common mistake we make is to rely too much on willpower alone. Of course, willpower is important. If you aren’t determined and resolute in your desire to improve, then you won’t. However, while willpower may be the spark to get you started, it won’t be enough to carry you through the dog days of change.
The problem is that your status quo, your career-limiting habit, is held in place by several of the six sources of influence, and you may not even see them. Here are a few that might keep you working on short-term tasks instead of focusing on long-term priorities:
Source 1: Love What You Hate. It’s personally satisfying to take a job to its completion. This is more possible with short-term tasks than with long-term priorities.
Source 2: Do What You Can’t. It’s difficult to say “no” to some short-term tasks. You may need to master this new skill.
Sources 3 and 4: Turn Accomplices Into Friends. Your manager and others probably rely on you because you deliver on short-term tasks. They may push you to keep your short-term focus. Others may also be more willing to help on short-term tasks because the commitment is smaller.
Source 5: Invert the Economy. The rewards for completing short-term tasks are immediate; the punishments for missing long-term priorities are in the future.
Source 6: Control Your Space. Technology is constantly reminding you of your short-term tasks. For example, most instant messages, e-mails, and phone calls focus on short-term projects.
Instead of just trying harder, take control of these sources of influence. Get them pulling for you, instead of against you.
Be the scientist and the subject. Setbacks are as predictable as death and taxes. You will experience them. Your success will be determined by how you respond to them. People who are caught in the Willpower Trap respond by blaming themselves—their character, their steadfastness, and their ability to “stick to it.”
Successful changers respond as scientists would—with curiosity instead of blame. Instead of blaming themselves, they treat their setbacks as data—they use them to examine and improve their plan. We call it “turning bad days into good data.”
Here’s how you can use your setbacks as good data. When you realize you’ve slipped back into your habit, stop and ask yourself when, where, and how it happened. Find the crucial moment—the circumstances—that led to your slip up. One of my crucial moments is when I tell myself a clever story—a story that lets me off the hook for acting on my bad habit. Once you find these crucial moments, decide how to handle them. I often need to change my clever story to one that’s less clever, but more true.
Use all six sources of influence. We’ve collected data on the tactics people use to overcome career-limiting habits. The biggest mistake people make is to rely on willpower alone or in combination with just one or two other tactics. People who combined tactics from four or more of the six sources of influence were up to ten times more likely to get rid of bad habits and improve their chances of advancement.
Here are a few tactics the people we surveyed use to help them overcome career-limiting habits:
Source 1: Love What You Hate. Focus on the positive things that could happen if you change your bad habit, or focus on the bad things that could happen if you don’t change.
Source 2: Do What You Can’t. Skill up by reading books, articles, searching the internet, etc., then practice these better skills until they become your new habits.
Sources 3 and 4: Turn Accomplices into Friends. Get advice or coaching from someone you respect, or ask a coworker, manager, or family member to hold you accountable for changing.
Source 5: Invert the Economy. Reward yourself with a pat on the back or an actual incentive.
Source 6: Control Your Space. Rearrange your desk, computer, or workplace in a way that helps you stick to the change, or make changes to other aspects of your physical space—move chairs, put up reminders, remove distractions or temptations, etc.
The key is to try several tactics in combination and to track your success. Use setbacks as data, the way a scientist would. Seek out the crucial moments—the times, places, and circumstances when your plan needs to be reinforced—and focus your tactics on those moments.