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The Secret To Fixing The Bad Habits You May Not Know You Have

Most of us don't see the flaws in ourselves that other people do. Step one is finding out what you're overlooking.

The Secret To Fixing The Bad Habits You May Not Know You Have
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Most people are unaware of their bad habits. That's normal. Psychologically, we're inclined to think of ourselves in a more positive light than others tend to see us.

And it cuts both ways: Much the way that we're pretty quick to see other people's faults that they don't see themselves, our friends, family, and coworkers are probably better at picking out our own less-than-desirable traits than we may like to think.

What Others Think About You Matters

Yet at the same time, it's pretty normal for us to dismiss the downsides to our personalities that we're less liable to see—because in general, our self-views matter more to us than other people’s attitudes.

However, scientific research indicates that other people’s views of us still count for quite a bit—especially when it comes to how we act. Others' impressions of us have been shown to predict our future behaviors more accurately than our self-views do.

What's more—and whether or not we like to admit it—just about every major decision in our lives depends a great deal on what other people think of us, from whether to take that job to whom to date or marry. It therefore doesn’t matter so much whether you think you're great if other people don’t agree with you.

And on balance, that's a far worse scenario than when other people like you more than you like yourself—the approximate difference between a despotic leader, on the one hand, and merely a self-critical perfectionist on the other.

Nothing Beats Bad Feedback

With this in mind, it's easy to understand why the most important step for diagnosing your own bad habits and toxic behaviors starts with getting honest, critical feedback from others. In other words, what you really need is negative feedback—the kind that actually makes you feel bad about your performance or behavior, because it shows you that you aren't doing so well.

This is easier said than done, of course. We're predisposed to seeking positive rather than negative feedback—fishing for compliments from people who like us—and, even when we don’t, other people are usually uncomfortable providing constructive criticism. (It's one of the perils of living in a civilized world where polite etiquette rules.)

One way to overcome this problem is by making it easier for others to critique you. For example, instead of asking people "Was that okay?" ask, "How could I have done it better?" or, "What do you think was wrong with it?" Likewise, rather than soliciting feedback from those you already know to be kind to you, try asking the advice of folks who are hard to impress and even a little impersonal.

Another important factor is sample size, so to speak. Crowdsource your feedback from as many people you can. Ask 10 colleagues (including your peers, bosses, and, if you manage people, your direct reports) what the worst two things are about your work habits or management style. Then aggregate their answers in order to look for the faults that stick out the most.

If this sounds too harsh, then phrase it this way:

I'm trying to get better at my job and in order to achieve that, I’m asking several people what the two biggest areas for improvement might be. What do you think I could do better? What behaviors should I stop or start doing in order to be more effective?

This can make it less personal, too—which means less wounding for you and less awkward for others to point out; it isn't about you, it's about your actions, which can always be improved.

Getting Serious About Change

Of course, diagnosing the problem doesn't mean solving it. Many people are fully aware of their flaws but unable (or unwilling) to fix them. In most cases, what they lack is motivation—and this, too, is only human. Habits take a long time to form, which makes them hard to change. They're the results of inherent or natural tendencies that are generally effortless. You can think of them as the evolutionary products of psychological inertia.

But even if it takes more effort to break habits than to make them, it isn't impossible to do so. The secret is to really want to change. Without that sincere desire, there's no commitment to the work it'll take. All you'll experience is a sense of guilt, similar to the kind we experience when we're procrastinating on things we don’t really care about doing.

There’s an old joke psychologists tell that illustrates this perfectly:

Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One—so long as the lightbulb really wants to change.

Unfortunately, most people aren't as serious about change as they think. They may want the desired end-state or benefits without wanting to adopt the behaviors it'll take to attain them. As Paul Arden, former creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, has written, we generally don't take the meaning of "want" seriously enough: "I want means: if I want it enough I will get it. Getting what you want means making the decisions you need to make to get what you want."

If you're serious about your goals, in other words, then you'll do what it takes to achieve them. So as long as there's a genuine will, then the effort and persistence will follow quite painlessly, particularly if you don’t try to focus on too many habits at once and if the behaviors you target are specific and quantifiable.

For example, instead of attempting to "be nicer," try instead to pay at least three compliments to people every day or make sure you don’t say more than one negative thing to someone each day. This way you have a clear behavior and a numerical target to aim for. Likewise, instead of "being more organized," consider spending the first 30 minutes of the day prioritizing key goals and the last 30 reviewing your progress.

There's no universal formula for correcting your negative tendencies—especially the ones you don't know you have—but you can make progress if you're dedicated and meticulous about monitoring concrete goals and behaviors.

And in the end, the ultimate measure of your progress comes back to other people. If you get better feedback from the same people who provided the constructive criticism at the outset, you know you're making headway. Before long, your self-views and their views of you will begin inching ever closer together.

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