7 Breakthrough Steps to Shed Negative Habits

Master the art of tough conversations… with yourself.
May 19, 2017

You want to stop procrastinating, running solely on adrenaline and getting defensive about criticism. You know these things hold you back. You don’t want to keep doing them.

But how do you stop?

A Harvard Business Review study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman can help. In this study, 92 percent of people revealed that, when delivered appropriately, a simple feedback conversation was enough to help them shed negative habits and get out of the way of their own success.

Related: 4 Science-Backed Habits to Make You More Successful

A simple feedback conversation, guided appropriately. What if you had such a conversation with yourself?

Feedback conversations can be tough, whether you’re guiding other people or yourself. There is an art to them. To help you master that art, you can use a feedback script.

The script below is designed to draw your attention to your bad habits, facilitate deeper thinking about why those habits have taken root and inspire your commitment to new behavior.

For ease of use, the script is built on a simple acronym for INSPIRE:

I: Initiate

Initiate the conversation with yourself in a respectful manner. Yes, respectful. After all, when you need to bring up a tough issue with a colleague, do you just walk up them and spit out your complaint? Of course not. Feedback is best received when you’ve been welcomed to provide it. This is just as true with feedback you give yourself.

Don’t dump criticism on yourself when you aren’t in the headspace to use that feedback productively. Otherwise, you’re simply beating yourself up. And that doesn’t serve you.

Before you step into an honest conversation with yourself about behaviors you need to change, consider the time of day, location and emotional state that would facilitate the best outcome. Give yourself that grace.

That said, be sure to not wait too long to talk to yourself about behaviors that hold you back from achieving what you want to achieve. Take the initiative to make room (intellectual, emotional and physical) for the feedback conversation as soon as possible after the undesirable behavior occurs.

N: Notice

Share your concern or observation with yourself. State in clear terms what you observed yourself doing that is counterproductive to your life goals. Keep your observation to one observable behavior. Remember, this isn’t the time for a full-scale download of your every fault. Conversations like this work best when you address one behavior at a time.

For example, you could notice:

S: Specific Support

Provide specific, supporting evidence you can actually see.

  • I’ve had to renegotiate deadlines for my last three deliverables.
  • I drink coffee all day, to get me through.
  • People in my team aren’t offering feedback to me as often.

P: Probe

After you present the situation, give yourself a chance to respond. This might feel strange, at first. But once you get the hang of it, opening up a dialogue with yourself will unleash insight into your habitual behavior you wouldn’t otherwise gain.

Related: How to Break Your Harmful Habits

Suspend judgment of yourself. Calmly ask a question in a neutral, curious tone to allow information about your behavior to “bubble up.” Generally, asking yourself What happens? is adequate and allows you to gain insight into what’s causing the behavior. For example:

  • What happens to cause me to procrastinate?
  • What happens to prevent me from getting enough sleep?
  • What happens to make me feel defensive?

Quietly wait for your own response. Sometimes your subconscious (which is where habitual behavior is triggered) needs time to form its thoughts and offer them up in a way you’ll understand and be able to act upon. If you give it time to work, your own mind can surprise you.

I: Invite 

Invite yourself to solve the problem. You already know how to stop doing things that block your own success and happiness. You just have to listen to yourself, trust yourself and have the courage to act on what you discover in this conversation.

For example, you might learn:

  • I procrastinate because I wait for inspiration to strike. Instead of waiting to start an important project until I receive some “hallelujah” epiphany, I can trust myself to do good work by moving through projects one step at a time.
  • I don’t get enough sleep because I’ve trapped myself in a vicious cycle. Each morning I wake up tired, so I drink coffee all day, which prevents me from sleeping at night. I can break the cycle through limiting coffee, letting my body rest and unleashing my natural energy levels.
  • I get defensive when my ideas or work are criticized because I care deeply about my work. I want to be delivering top-shelf service to my company and team. Well, so does my team. We can all do that more effectively when I embrace others’ creative feedback, instead of hardening against it.

R: Review

Next, ask yourself two open-ended questions to crystalize how your life and work will change when you shift your behavior.

  • How would my results be better if I did this every time?
  • What concerns do I have about this approach?

Then, ask one closed-ended question to secure your own commitment to changing.

  • Is this my commitment going forward?

Review your specific commitment: This is my recap of what I will do next time I face this choice…

E: Enforce

Enforce the behavior and its importance to you. Reinforce your confidence that you can make this change happen in your life.

  • It’s important to deliver projects when they’re due. Procrastination erodes the trust my clients have in me, and the trust I have in myself. I can begin starting projects well ahead of time. Doing so will make my work more enjoyable, decreasing stress and liberating the very inspiration I’ve been waiting on.
  • Getting enough sleep is critical to my mind, body and soul. Coffee (or any other stimulant) is not a substitute for sleep. I can give myself permission to be tired for a few days while my body adjusts and regulates its natural energy levels.
  • Asking for and learning from criticism is essential to my development, both professionally and personally. I can begin seeking out constructive feedback at different stages of my work. Doing so will build up my relationships, as well as build buy-in for my projects.

Conclude with: I have every confidence that I can make this change in my life and remove this barrier to my success.

Closing your conversation this way removes doubt about whether you’re up to the challenge of shedding your irritating habit.

Of course you’re ready. Look at everything you’ve already accomplished.

Related: 10 ‘Harmless’ Habits to Drop If You Want to Be Successful 

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