Sue France explains how to create powerful new habits to add value and excellence to your role

We all have habits – the good, the bad and the in-between. A habit is an automatic thought or response that you have learned through past experiences that has become part of your subconscious mind. A thought becomes an action, the action becomes a behaviour, the behaviour gets repeated and that forms the habit, and then it is automatically incorporated into your daily life.

One of the keys to improving yourself and adding value at work is to stop bad habits and establish sensible, powerful, healthy, good habits. We rarely notice the habits that are running our lives, but when we do, stopping or changing some of those habits can be very hard.

We also all have neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change. By strengthening connections between neurons that are frequently used and by weakening those that are rarely used, we can rewire our brain. This is important to understand in habit-forming. When you want to motivate yourself to create or change a habit, think of neuroplasticity as “everything is possible.”

Here are some tips on how we can change our habits:

1. Be Self-Aware

Self-awareness is the foundation of success. You need to observe yourself consciously and rigorously, as a detached observer. Notice your behaviour, what you are thinking and feeling, and what that means to you in any given moment. You can only make new and constructive choices when you are conscious of the ones you are making now.

Without conscious observation, your subconscious mind will continue to run your life on automation 90-95% of the time. To conserve energy resources in the brain, most brain processes happen below conscious awareness, so we work on habits and routines. It is worth knowing and remembering that our subconscious mind does not know a truth from a lie, right from wrong, good habits from bad habits. Self-awareness is the key to consciously recognising a bad habit in the first place. It is far better to recognise it yourself before someone else tells you about it!

Sometimes our habits begin as something pleasurable and give us a “reward feeling” in the brain. For example, sending emails at the same time as talking to someone on the phone gives you the feeling of having saved time and gives you a “reward feeling.” However, you have not given your full attention to the person on the phone or to sending an accurate and well-thought-through email, and therefore neither task is well executed.

2. Write Them Down

Writing down a new habit as a goal will help you to achieve it. You can use the goal setting form which is a free download from my website, under “Free resources: The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook 3rd edition.”

3. Get Support

Tell relevant people around you about the new habit that you wish to form and ask for their support. It is helpful to include someone to help you change your routine. We are more likely to make a change when we have told others and they, as well as ourselves, hold us accountable.

4. Be Intentional

Create a new habit that is specific, positive, measurable and intentional. If we use words like “I would like to…”, “I want to…”, “I hope to…” or “I will try to…”, then we open ourselves up to doubt and set ourselves up to fail. However, if we use the phrase “I intend to…”, that is more positive and intentional and takes away the doubt. You can also use the phrase “I choose to…”, as the brain loves choice, and if you consciously choose to do something then you receive a “reward feeling” in your brain.

In our brains, we all have something called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), which looks for things that you deem to be important for you. It acts like the gatekeeper or gateway to your brain just as an Assistant does for their executive. It is therefore very important to make the habit as something that you will do and not something you won’t do.

The RAS looks for what you are thinking about (whether consciously or subconsciously) and brings it to the forefront of your mind. Have you ever bought a new car and then suddenly you start to see the same car everywhere? That’s the RAS in action. Where your senses enter your brain, the RAS filters the information and connects the subconscious part of your brain to the conscious part. The conscious part of your brain is where you rationalise, control your behaviour, make decisions, strategize, etc.

The word ‘intend’ makes your RAS work harder, looking for what you want. It filters what can help you with your intention and brings that from your conscious mind into your subconscious mind. You will start to see, hear and understand what will help you get to your intention. Remember to look for what you want and not what you don’t want because if you are saying to yourself “I don’t want to…”, then your RAS will be looking for what it is you don’t want, which is counterproductive. Be intentional about what you want, and your subconscious mind will be working for you as much as your conscious mind.

5. The Habit Loop

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says, “A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: when I see a cue (trigger), I will do a routine (habit) in order to get a reward.” It’s called ‘the habit loop.’

First, the cue or trigger tells your brain to go into automatic mode for which habit to use. The routine (habit) can be physical, mental or emotional. The reward feeling helps your brain to decide whether this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Reward releases serotonin and dopamine (feel-good hormones). Over time, the loop becomes automatic; the more it is repeated, the more it is embedded and the more automatic it becomes.

Habits are always waiting for cues and triggers. When we use a habit, the conscious ‘executive’ brain stops fully participating in decision-making. Unless you deliberately choose not to do the habit and are aware of it happening, nothing will change, and your automatic, unhelpful response will continue.

If we take control of the habit loop, old unhelpful behaviours can be forced into the background and a new helpful habit becomes the default. Charles Duhigg suggests that even if you have the same cue and reward but change the routine, you can still change your behaviour and create a new habit.

For example, you can find yourself craving a sugary snack at 3 p.m. because your energy level is low. You find yourself walking to the vending machine and perhaps chatting with someone on your way there or back, you eat the chocolate bar, and your energy is boosted. You realise the unhealthy snack only lifts your energy for a while, then drops you heavily so that you feel even worse. It may also cause you to put weight on. So, you decide you want to stop that habit.

To change your routine (habit), you need to find a new routine. In this example, when you know your energy levels are going to be low (cue) at around 3 p.m. (routine), you could plan to have in your drawer a banana or dates (reward), which also contain serotonin (the feel-good hormone found in chocolate). That will give you energy but without the big drop that a chocolate bar gives you. Part of your habit may be that you like a chat with someone, so take a quick break (which is always good to reboot your brain) and revive your conscious thinking brain to be able to continue being productive. You could go to the water cooler or get a coffee and have a chat with someone on the way.

Think of a habit you would like to change. Which part of the habit loop (cue, routine, reward) can you address to introduce a new habit?

6. Piggyback

You can piggyback a new habit on top of an existing habit. Choose an existing habit that you do often. This habit will act as a trigger (or cue) for your new habit. Your brain will link the old habit with the new one, enabling you to always remember to do it. For example, you may get yourself a coffee every morning to start the day. A possible new good habit that you could piggyback onto this is to update and prioritize your tasks on your ‘to-do’ list. Do this as you drink your coffee. Repeat this new association until the habit becomes automatic.

What habits can you piggyback to create new habits?

7. Exchange

Exchange a bad habit for a different and better one. As bad habits do provide some benefits, it can be difficult to eliminate them; instead, you need to replace a bad habit with a good habit that provides a similar benefit. It is easier to change a habit by using stepping-stones, and this technique could be used as a stepping-stone if required.

For example, you may have a bad habit of sticking post-it notes around your screen and desk, making it look untidy. This could lead to you losing valuable information and missing your reminders. You could instead use digital post-it notes and keep them ordered and filed so you can find them easily on your computer. You may prefer not to have any post-it notes (digital or paper) at all and find a better way to keep your important reminders and information. Use the digital post-it notes as a stepping-stone to getting the paper ones off your screen and desk initially.

What habits can you exchange and with what new habit?

8. ‘IF and THEN’ Plans Help New Habits Stick

‘IF and THEN’ plans are where people commit themselves to do a certain thing in a specific situation and then enact those pre-planned responses. Deciding your responses in advance reduces demands on your willpower. Setting a new habit this way requires you to not only state what you will do, but where and when you will do it.

If situation ‘X’ occurs, then I will do behaviour ‘Y.’

For example: IF I am working on something urgent and need to concentrate for 25 minutes without interruption, THEN I will hang the red card up on the wall behind me [a sign which colleagues already understand, which means not to interrupt until I put the green card back up] as I am working on something urgent.

However, IF they still do interrupt me, THEN I will politely and assertively let them know I will get back to them as soon as I have finished the urgent and important work.

‘IF and THEN’ planning is a successful way to help new habits stick because your RAS will be looking for the ‘IF’ part of the plan, and the ‘THEN’ part of the action automatically follows. The brain recognises the situation as an opportunity to advance your goal of creating a new habit. As the situation and the action become linked in your brain, you automatically activate the ‘THEN’ part of the plan.

What ‘IF and THEN’ plans could you put in place?

9. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

To create new habits, you must keep on repeating your thoughts and actions. It is also useful to teach someone else this new way of thinking and feeling. The more you repeat something, the stronger your new neural pathway (thought leading to action) will become. The less you do the old bad habit, the weaker the neural pathway of the old habit will become. There are no time limits on changing habits; your old habits may lurk in the background for a long time even when you have not used them for a while, so you need to have pertinacity (persistent tenacity) in repeating your new habits. Keep a motivating image/vision in your mind to help you persevere and even offer yourself a reward when the goal is conquered.

You will need constant self-vigilance, willpower and understanding of your purpose in order to motivate yourself to break the bad habits and create new habits. Give yourself the gift of changing your life for the better right now.

What changes would you like to make? What behaviours would you like to change? What old habits would you like to get rid of and which new habits would you like to create?

All you need is self-awareness, new positive ideas and intentions, tenacity and repetition. Know that each and every one of you is capable of improving and reaching a higher potential and having a successful career and life.

This article is based on information from Sue France’s book, The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook, 2nd edition.

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Sue France FCIPD/FInstAM/INLPTA is passionate about the development of all Assistants, having been one for over 30 years. She was The UK Times’ Crème/DHL PA of the Year. She was also the training manager at a global firm, responsible for the development ... (Read More)

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