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Design and Build Successful Habits for Managers

This article was based on episode 120 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get every full episode guide when you become a member at Purchase individual full episode guides at

There is something magical about habits. They exist in every aspect of our lives and yet we almost don’t notice them. They can be both things we do, and things we don’t do. They occur daily, weekly, monthly, annually, or whenever triggered. These powerful little habits dictate our lives in ways we often don’t understand.

What happens when you begin to pay attention to your habits? As a manager, you can unleash the full potential of yourself and your team.


A habit is a behavior, which includes both actions and thought-patterns, that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. In essence a habit is what we do automatically.

Researchers have found that between 40-80% of our daily actions are habitual. This finding implies that most of the time, we run on auto-pilot. The benefit of habits is that our precious brain power, energy, and attention is reserved for moments and activities that really matter. But the downside is that, since our habits are predominantly formed by accident and not intention, the majority of how we behave is somewhat arbitrary.

The habits we develop are influenced by our values and desires, but also by our culture, physical environment, and social surroundings. This is why we may know it’s unhealthy to eat right before bed but still join our partner in a late night snack.

As managers, it is critical we develop habits for successfully managing ourselves and our teams. When we stop relying on motivation, intent, or memory, and instead focus on creating habits, we can finally align what we know is good for us and our team, with how we actually show up in real life. Here are some suggestions for how to develop habits based on leading habit researchers James Clear, Charles Duhigg, BJ Fogg, and Wendy Wood.


To change your habits, it’s helpful to understand how they work. Here is habit formation 101:

The Cue: First there is a cue that signals to your brain to perform the habit. This could be an internal cue, like an emotion, or an external cue like a time, or an environmental cue like a place, or a visual cue like an object. Regardless, it's your brain taking notice of that cue that starts the habit loop.

The Behavior: Next is the action or thought-pattern. This is the automatic behavior that happens without conscious thought. It could be the voice of your inner critic, opening your email on your phone, or rushing to meet a deadline.

The Reward: Lastly is the reward or reinforcement. This is where the brain connects the action or thoughts to a positive feeling which encourages you to do that same behavior or have that same thought-pattern in the future.


Before I began studying habits, I’d tried many times to improve my habits and often failed. Thanks to habit researchers, I learned a few approaches that can be the game-changer in whether you succeed or fail at rewiring your brain. Once you apply these habit hacks, you’ll discover that changing your habits isn’t as difficult as you think.

Start super small. It’s exciting to imagine yourself as a the kind of manager who meets weekly with their team members, or spends 30 minutes each morning planning their day, or reads one book per week or never gets defensive when receiving feedback. When we select a new habit, it’s important to start as small as possible and build upon it over time. For example, instead of spending 30 minutes planning, spend 1 minute determining your top 3 actions for the day. When the behavior is tiny, it becomes a no brainer. You no longer need massive motivation, time or energy to make it work. You simply do it.

Set up the default to be in your favor. Sometimes we can make one change which automatically makes the habit easier going forward. For example, if you have a bad habit of accepting meetings during the lunch hour and therefore skipping meals, put a recurring hold during the lunch break on your calendar. This won't necessarily stop colleagues from booking meetings during that time, but it will help because your default will be ‘busy’ instead of ‘free’.

Create the ideal environment. Our brains like the path of least resistance. We can use that to our benefit by proactively creating an environment that facilitates the desired behavior or inhibits the undesired behavior. The environment can be both physical and digital. For example, if you find yourself jumping between work and email, close the tab or log out of your email. The addition of the few clicks to re-open it will help deter you from floating back and forth.

Find the first domino in a habit routine. Sometimes we just need to get the ball rolling because once it's headed down the hill, it’s not going to stop until it reaches the bottom. A habit routine consists of multiple steps that link to one another. When you develop a tendency for the first step, in essence, you’ve developed the entire routine. For example, if you want to have a tidy workspace, but by Friday afternoon your desk is a mess, the first domino might be to remove everything from your desk. Once you do this, it’s nearly impossible to stop. Sure, you could just put everything back in piles, but more likely, you’ll return the items in an orderly fashion. Instead of feeling the weight of a big reorganizing project every Friday, focus only on taking everything off your desk. That feels like a more manageable action, but it ultimately results in the same clean workspace.

Write down a habit statement. Instead of proclaiming a desire, write down a habit statement that articulates exactly what you’ll do (behavior), when you’ll do it (cue), and why (reward). A habit statement helps you clarify these critical components, making it more likely the habit will stick. For example, if my goal is to give more praise to my team members, I haven’t yet converted that into a workable habit. My habit statement might say, when I sit down at my desk on Friday morning, I will write a personal note to two team members thanking or praising them for something they did in the past week, because I want my team members to know I value them and their contributions.

Incorporate a habit goal or reward. Some researchers suggest doing something small each time you complete the habit to help solidify it in your mind. This could be as simple as telling yourself ‘good job’ or using a habit tracker that provides the satisfaction of checking off the box. Some people also find it motivating and useful to have a big reward to work towards. In this case, you set a goal of completing the habit a certain number of times or for a duration of time and reward yourself at the end. The reward can be anything that will inspire you since it is designed to incentivize habit formation by helping you stay motivated to get past any bumps along the way. Even though you’ve applied the habit hacks and made the habit as easy as possible, there will still be times when you need to rely on motivation to make it happen. This reward at the end of the goal can give you that extra boost.


Start by reflecting on your behavior and thought-patterns to discern where you currently have habits that are helping you be an effective manager or good bosse, and where you have habits that are holding you and your team back.

Think about how you do the following:

  • Communicate with your team

  • Invest in the growth and development of your team members

  • Show gratitude and praise

  • Build relationships on a human level

  • Organize and prioritize your work

  • Manage your email inbox

  • Start and end your day

  • Build trust with your team

  • And anything else for how you manage yourself and others

Once you’ve identified an area for investment, use the habit hacks to design a new or alternative habit that will bring you one step closer to being your best self.

This article was based on episode 120 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher.

Get the free mini-guide for this episode at Get every full episode guide when you become a member at Purchase individual full episode guides at


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