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Tricks to treat bad habits

You can cure yourself of sloppy working practices. John Caunt explains how.

What were your New Year resolutions - the usual old commitments to diet and exercise? Or were you one of many who resolved to enter the new century with more organised working habits - free at last from squandered time, jumbled paper or whatever your particular workplace vice might be?

Well, here we are just eight weeks past the big M and those old working habits are looking as difficult to dislodge as the pillars of the temple at Gaza. Changing habits of whatever kind requires more than just good intentions, and if your December determination is turning to February fatigue, half-term may be a good time to re-examine stubborn aims.

For more than two years, FE lecturer John Newton (not his real name) told himself he needed to change the way he dealt with work outside college hours. He regularly took home a bulging briefcase and, despite his best intentions, always postponed tackling it until far too late.

Often it was after 10pm when, worn-out and ratty, he finally turned to the tasks that had been niggling him all evening. He was rarely satisfied with the quality of work he did this late at night and often went to bed tense and over-tired - and consequently had trouble sleeping.

Several times he resolved to get work out of the way earlier and then relax, but repeatedly drifted back to old habits.

Changing behaviour is a matter of repetition and reinforcement. We all recognise the importance of repetition, but often abandon a new routine before we have allowed enough time for it to become automatic. We also need to remember that repetition will work only if it is accompanied by reinforcement.

Every teacher knows the value of reinforcement, but we may fail to acknowledge that what works for others is just as applicable to ourselves. It doesn't have to come in the form of a major reward. A word of praise or congratulation - even if it comes from yourself - can do the trick.

Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than the unwelcome discomfort of negative reaction, and reinforcers which are clear and immediate have greater effect than those that are vague or in the future.

Just as with diet and exercise programmes, the results of a more organised way of working may be slow coming; you need to endure the short-term pain to enjoy the long-term gain.

The breakthrough for John Newton came when he scheduled a regular early evening work session in his diary for several weeks and provided himself with small rewards for sticking to it. "It sounds so Pavlovian, but it worked," he says. "After three or four weeks the routine was established and now there is no chance of me going back to the old procrastination."

Work habits are also bolstered by your perception of yourself and the prevailing culture in your workplace. If you are one of those people who finds good paperwork habits a chore, it is easy to attribute your disorganisation to your creative personality. And if distractions and interruptions are the order of the day in your staffroom, the challeng of managing your time better is rendered that much more difficult.

Successful change may require that you give attention to these background elements. So, if you've been struggling to implement your resolutions, take heart. It's not just weak will on your part. Any change to an established routine needs to be planned and nurtured until it becomes automatic. It won't happen immediately, but it will be worth the wait.

Six tips for changing work habits * Start thinking in positive terms about the habit or routine you want to develop. Associate it with desirable outcomes - the chance to free up time and energy for creative and enjoyable pursuits.

* Change the environment in which those habits you wish to change flourish. For example, arrange for a change in paper-handling habits to coincide with an overall purge on your work space and files.

* Remember that immediate positive reinforcement fixes new habits. This might mean crossing an item off a list of things to do, rewarding yourself with a desirable outcome or simply congratulating yourself on a task completed. Give yourself immediate positive reinforcement every time you engage in the new behaviour.

* If introducing new routines, hang them on to key times in your working day - first thing, just before lunch, just before you go home. This makes them less likely to be overlooked.

* Continue reinforcing and monitoring the new behaviour until it is established - include the new work habit in your diary or schedule for several weeks and reward yourself for sticking to it.

* Don't introduce too many changes at once - be satisfied with incremental steps, nurturing new habits until you are satisfied they are established before turning your attention elsewhere.

BE MORE PRODUCTIVE: IT'S JUST ROUTINE

You only have a finite amount of energy each day and you want to expend it as productively as possible. But the chances are that some of the regular tasks in your day are placing an undue demand on your available resources.

Consider the routines you go through each morning - cleaning your teeth, for example. They have become ingrained. Your thoughts are elsewhere while you are doing them - listening to the radio or planning your day - and you don't worry about them. They demand no mental energy.

Some tasks in your working day can be turned into the equivalent of cleaning your teeth - routine clerical tasks, for example. They may not permit quite the same level of detachment, but they're tasks that use up energy. They vie with all the other demands upon you for a place on your busy schedule; you have to decide when to do them, and worry about them when they are not done.

By enlisting the power of habit you can free up that energy to devote to the intensive tasks which will really make a difference to your effectiveness. If you have an instinctive antipathy towards anything that smacks of making you a creature of habit, console yourself in the knowledge that having some habits and routines in your day can give you more energy to tackle the creative things at other times.

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