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How to Break and Conquer Your Worst Work Habits

Dec 14, 2016 Kate Lopaze

How to Break and Conquer Your Worst Work Habits

Bad habits. Everyone has at least one. Staying up too late, eating packaged ramen too often, or canceling plans at the last minute—everyone is guilty of a self or social faux pas, probably regularly. It stands to reason that if no one is perfect in his or her personal life, that same person has some flaws in their professional life as well. However, while personal idiosyncrasies might just cause eye rolls from significant others or minor disagreements with friends, bad habits at work can lead to dings in your professional reputation, or even damage to your career progress. Let’s look at some of the most problematic habits that people tend to develop at work, potentially endangering everything from productivity to the job itself, and strategies for overcoming them.

Chronic Lateness

It was the subway. Traffic. A freak earthquake. Whatever the reason was today, it doesn’t change the fact that you were late. Everyone has commute issues sometimes, but regular lateness is a problem. It suggests you don’t have the discipline to show up on time, or that you don’t care enough to be on time (even if that’s not the case). The solution: Adjust your routine. If you hit your snooze button three times, set your original alarm earlier. If your daily Starbucks stop makes you late, either bring your coffee or adjust your schedule. Look at your daily routines, and identify what you can change, and what you can move around to make sure getting to work on time is your priority.


You may be able to get everything done at the last minute (flashbacks to writing those final papers at 4 a.m. the night before they were due), but if you do that at work regularly, you could be impacting your coworkers. If someone’s waiting on you to do something, and you wait until the last second to do it/send it, you’re putting that person at a disadvantage. Again, stuff happens, but if this becomes a pattern, it undermines your colleagues’ trust in you and your ability to work toward shared goals. The solution: Set timelines, with check-in points and smaller goals throughout, so that you’re not doing everything at once at the end, in a panic.


“I never got that email!” “Oh, I thought Smith was supposed to be handling that?” Or there are more serious ones, like throwing someone else under the bus when a problem or mistake was your fault. Whatever the lies are (little white lies or more serious ones), they can have major consequences for your job and your career. At the very least, you don’t want a reputation as a liar. At worst, you could be severely disciplined or fired for lying. The solution: Be honest. If you didn’t get something done on time, own up to that, as well as why, and what you’re doing to make sure it gets done. If you made a mistake, admit it and come up with a plan on how to avoid that next time.

Being Openly Negative

There’s honesty, and then there’s being Debbie Downer. If you’re always griping and sniping, you risk getting a reputation as someone who’s difficult to work with. The solution: Find the positive. Sometimes things will just suck. In times like those, don’t start venting to the nearest coworker, or sit at your desk muttering curses under your breath. You can vent outside work to loved ones, your dog, your therapist—anyone who’s not on the job with you.

Talking Smack

This one is related to being negative. If your coworkers think you’re just going to say nasty things about them behind their backs because you never have anything nice to say, why would they trust you? The solution: Resist your inner Mean Girl (and that goes for non-girls as well), and don’t say anything about anyone that you wouldn’t want repeated to their face. In email or office instant messaging, don’t write anything you wouldn’t want broadcasted to the entire company.

Chronic Multitasking

On its face, this one seems like it would be a good thing—you’re such an efficient employee that you’re doing four things at once! However, it means you’re doing four things at once, and are giving each one a quarter (or less) of your attention. This is especially problematic if you’re multitasking while talking or meeting with others. They can tell you’re not really paying attention, and if you miss a necessary detail because you’re too busy replying to an email while talking to your coworker, that can have consequences. The solution: Set aside specific times for specific tasks, especially ones that require in-person conversations or face time.

Losing Your Temper

Being professional means handling disappointments or problems with a degree of calm. If you yell, scream, or otherwise show rage at work, that can very quickly earn you a reputation as a hothead that no one wants to deal with, for fear of risking the Red Rage. Temper tantrums are never acceptable for adults in a work environment, no matter how calm and productive you feel after you’ve unburdened yourself and the rage has subsided. The solution: Find ways to channel that anger into temporary zen, so you can move on with your day and deal with the anger later, in a more appropriate way out of work. Try learning some meditation techniques that you can reach for when you feel the anger bubbling up in your brain.

Lousy Communication

If you have poor grammar or bad email etiquette, it undermines how people see you. People may think you’re uneducated, less intelligent than you are, or uncaring about how you come off to others. The solution: If written communication is a weak point, brush up on some of the most common grammar issues you’re likely to encounter in a professional environment. If appropriateness is your issue, make sure not to use swears or slang at work.


If you’re shifting (or shirking) responsibilities because you don’t want the aggravation or want something easier while someone else does the heavy lifting, people notice. They’ll either think you’re incapable of accomplishing tasks, or that you just don’t care. The solution: Make the effort to go above and beyond. Offer to help people with tasks (assuming you’re not ignoring your own in the meantime). Take initiative to develop new responsibilities, and/or talk to your boss to see what else you can be doing to expand your role.

Being Inconsiderate of Others

This one is especially problematic in crowded or open plan workplaces. My office has an open plan sea of cubicles, and that makes it a minefield for poor or obnoxious office behavior. Things like being loud, eating strong-smelling food, or leaving messes everywhere you go fall into this category. Will you get fired for this kind of transgression? Not likely. Will it make your colleagues like you less and damage your rep? Quite possibly. The solution: Whenever you find yourself having a phone conversation in a public place, ask yourself, “would this annoy me?” In fact, “would this annoy me?” is a good rule of thumb in general. It’s important to keep in mind that work behavior is public behavior.

Not Being a Good Team Member

Chances are you don’t work in a vacuum, and work as part of a team in some capacity. If you shun others as much as possible, and try to handle everything without input from others, that makes it easy to dismiss your contributions. It also amplifies any problems or mistakes—if you plow ahead on your own without input from other stakeholders, that puts the onus on you to succeed, or else. The solution: Go out of your way to initiate conversations with coworkers, whether it’s social (work appropriate) small talk or related to specific work responsibilities. If a task or project has a number of people involved, go out of your way to ask for their input, or at least make sure they know what you’re working on.


Like the hypermultitasking, this one likely comes from a desire to be a good, productive employee. But if you say you are going to get something done at a certain time, you need to make good on your promises. If you don’t, then it undermines your reliability and trustworthiness—two of the most important workplace currencies. The solution: Set realistic priorities. If you originally said something could be done by Tuesday but now it’s looking like there’s no way it’ll be done by Thursday, be up front about that. If you’re struggling with something and it’s slowing you down, talk with your boss to prioritize tasks so you can manage expectations. If you need help, ask for it. Better organization and planning up front can also help you set more realistic timelines and help ensure that you get done what you say you’re going to do. If any of these sound uncomfortably familiar to you (I’m definitely guilty of at least one of these), all is not lost—you’re not automatically going to end up fired and shunned for your sins. Like Ebenezer Scrooge after his revelation, it’s not too late. You can still change that future!
  1. Be conscious of what you’re doing wrong. A little extra mindfulness goes a long way.
  2. Be adaptable/open to change. According to career coach and consultant Lisa Lahey, “immunity to change” is a sure way to ensure that your bad habits don’t improve (best case scenario) or end up derailing your goals and career (worst case scenario).
  3. Understand how your bad work habits are sabotaging you. If your bad habit is your temper, which of your goals could you achieve faster/better if you didn’t fly off the handle? If you’re always late, what are the consequences? If you don’t have a handle on how your bad habits are actually affecting your job, it will be very difficult to clean them up and start turning them around.
Identifying these bad work habits is a great first step; making sure that you’re actively working on them (or at least minimizing them) is harder, but is the more rewarding task. None of us will ever be perfect, at home or at work, but the more work you put into overcoming these bad habits now, the better your professional rep and job satisfaction will be in the long run.

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