Quash Your Bad Habits by Knowing What Triggers Them

A client of ours, Jeff*, was the CEO of a high tech, fast growth company and he had a reputation for losing his temper. He once threw a telephone across the room. And a chair. But, mostly, he raised his voice and criticized. Not always — but often.

We were at a two-day offsite meeting with his leadership team, where we were discussing the company’s strategy and addressing several issues that seemed to be limiting its execution. Nick, the COO, was at the front of the room, facilitating the conversation when, suddenly, Jeff erupted. Red in the face, he threw his hands in the air and decried Nick’s lack of accountability.

“One minute I was fine,” Jeff later told me at dinner, “And the next I was yelling.” He paused, thoughtfully, shaking his head, “I did not see that coming.”

“That’s interesting,” I told him, “I watched your anger build for 10 minutes before you blew up.”

Jeff was astonished. “What did you see?” he asked.

In my recent book, Four Seconds, I talk about a number of counterproductive habits — things like blaming others, self-criticism, arguing, or even things like setting goals (which sounds productive but often backfires disastrously) — and I suggest alternatives.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t take long to change a habit. But it’s hard. Really hard.

It’s wildly challenging to shift direction when you’re in the heat of the moment, when your heart is beating, your adrenaline is flowing, and you’re on the spot. Subverting a knee-jerk reaction that is following a well-worn and familiar track isn’t something that comes easily.

So how do we stop?

After struggling with my own counterproductive habits, I have discovered a three step process that helps:

1. A moment of awareness
2. The ability to resist urges
3. A replacement behavior

I want to focus on the first step because we have no hope of changing anything that we’re not aware we’re doing. A moment of awareness allows us to pause (that’s the four second part of Four Seconds). If we can pause, for even a few moments, and take a breath, we can subvert the immediate reaction that follows on the heels of our adrenaline rush. That reaction comes from the part of our brain — the amygdala — that once helped our ancestors evade saber-toothed tigers. It’s stimulates the fight-flight-freeze reaction that, in our relatively safe environments, is grossly over-used.

The hard part is that, once ignited, a knee-jerk reaction has the momentum of a runaway train.

So here’s the key: subvert the reaction before it ignites. The moment of awareness needs to precede your reaction — not happen during or after it.

Which means you have to be prepared. What are the kinds of things that set you off? Who are the people who trigger responses in you that you later regret?

Once you’ve identified those, keep moving in reverse. Consider the warning signals that precede those events. What are the earliest signs that you’re about to be in one of those situations? That one of those people is about to set you off?

That’s when your moment of awareness can be most productive.

“What did you see?” Jeff asked me.

I knew he would ask that, which is why, during the meeting, I had documented his minute-by-minute build up. I pulled out my notes:

Minute 1: Nick steps to the front of the room (I knew Jeff had an issue with Nick’s lack of accountability so, as soon Nick stood to facilitate, I knew Jeff was at risk of losing his temper).
Minute 3: Jeff starts tapping his foot.
Minute 4: Jeff starts tapping his pen on his pad.
Minute 6: Jeff’s breathing changes. He is taking deeper, exasperated, audible breaths. Like sighing.
Minute 8: Jeff is shifting in his chair. He can’t sit still. He is physically uncomfortable with what’s going on.
Minute 9: Jeff stops breathing. He is literally holding his breath.
Minute 10: BOOM!

What are some things you do that lead to outcomes you don’t like? Think of your reactions like a train, which makes a number of stops before it arrives at its final destination (e.g., yelling, self criticism, judging others, etc.). Usually, you sleep through all the stops and wake up just in time to dash off the train, forgetting your bag.

Instead, identify five or six stops before you get to that destination. Like Jeff’s foot tapping, his breath changing, his shifting in his seat. Identify your stops, learn what they look like and feel like. Recognize them as you approach their stations. This increases your awareness.

Your best shot at subverting your counterproductive habits is to get off the train at the earliest stop possible. It’s a practice and you’ll miss the early stops the first few times. But don’t despair: each time you notice — even if it’s after the fact — you are building your awareness muscle.

The next day, at his request, I sat next to Jeff in the meeting room. Nick presented again but, this time, we were prepared.

When Nick rose, I leaned over to Jeff and whispered: “He’s getting up. Breathe.”

“I got this,” Jeff responded.

Five minutes into Nick’s presentation, I leaned over again, “Jeff, you’re tapping your foot.”

Jeff surprised everyone during Nick’s presentation by making clear points without raising his voice once. Here’s what was most amazing: when Jeff reacted more calmly, Nick took accountability like none of us had seen before.

Which is the point. Our unproductive behaviors are, well, unproductive. If we change them, we can change the negative outcomes they are producing. The trick is to catch them early.

* Names changed to protect privacy.
Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. JH Verbanck says:

    Very powerful and highly convincing, Mister Bregman. “If a strategy is right, start implementing it immediately,” a sage manager once said to me. That is exactly what I intend to do, keeping in mind the adage by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (jhv)

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