Habits & Protective Patterns

Too often our actions are based on dysfunctional habits and protective patterns rather than choice.  In 2006,  a Duke University researcher determined that more than 40% of daily actions were based on habit.  For your brain, this is efficient since habits require less energy.  However, when habits and patterns are dysfunctional they undermine both our ability to cooperate and our performance.


In Man’s Search for Meaning Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl observed:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

When we act or react from a dysfunctional habit we give up our power to choose. In, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains why we have habits and how we can change the harmful ones.  Each habit has a trigger and a reward and the key to changing a habit is to identify the trigger and replace the habit with a new one that can also provide the reward.  Many of our habits are behavior patterns that we learned as children.  These subconscious patterns help us feel safe or “in control” and are a leading cause of dysfunction in the workplace.  Meditation can help you create space between stimulus and response.  It can also help you better observe yourself when engaged in a bad habit.  You can also ask trusted colleagues to point out your subconscious habits.

Protective Patterns:

Sylvia Lafair identifies 13 common destructive workplace patterns in Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success,  She explains that we learn these patterns in our family of origin and reenact them in the workplace.  Sylvia labels these patterns: Super-Achiever, Rebel, Procrastinator, Clown, Persecutor, Victim, Rescuer, Drama Queen or King, Martyr, Pleaser, Avoider, Denier, and Splitter.

You can develop a “pattern-aware” workplace.  To do this everyone must learn to see the patterns in action, weaken them, and transform them into choice and positive action.  For each pattern, Sylvia identifies a more positive possibility.  Here are a few of her examples, from:

  • Super-Achiever to Creative Collaborator
  • Procrastinator to Realizer
  • Persecutor to Visionary
  • Martyr to Integrator
  • Denier to Trust Builder

How to get started: 

Choose one habit you want to replace and follow these steps:

  1. Notice the habit: Carry a notebook and record each time you engage in the habit.  For example, consider procrastination where someone avoids a high-value task by doing something of low value.
  2. Learn the trigger: Notice what your mind, emotions, and body just before engaging the habit; were you stressed or overwhelmed?  Perhaps you are afraid that you may not do well at the task.
  3. Identify the reward: What benefit are you getting from the habit?  For example, with procrastination, it may relieve your stress in the moment.
  4. Replace the habit:  What activity can you use to replace procrastination?  Neuroscience suggests that just doing nothing for 5 to 10 minutes is a good strategy.  And you can break the big complex task you are procrastinating over into small manageable chunks.  So when you notice your urge to do something unimportant to avoid something important just stop, sit, and do nothing instead.
  5. Eliminate as many triggers as possible – Anticipate and avoid your trigger.  For procrastination perhaps you begin the day with your most important task when you are fresh and less stressed.  Or perhaps you find a way to get more rest, or take more breaks, to be more energized before you begin.

Posted by David Sherman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *