How to Win Your Guerrilla War Against Bad Business Habits

bad business habits

Planning to fight that bad business habit.

How do we suppress bad business habits?  You know… habits like procrastination, that bugbear for so many of us?

You can tell the news isn’t all good from the give-away word in the first sentence: “suppress”.  Here’s the bad news right upfront.  Even ingrained habits can be overcome, but they can’t be eliminated.  Recent advances in neuroscience tell us that we should be aiming to suppress and supplant bad habits, not eliminate them.  So… while forming good habits is a campaign, suppressing bad habits is guerrilla war.

We’ve already written about forming good business habits.  This practical article is about handling the other side of the coin…those bad habits that keep us from succeeding in business.  We’ll start by answering some questions and then move into a very practical discussion about:

  • identifying the behavior behind a bad habit
  • moving from a plan to the powerful IF-THEN intention
  • choosing from a bag of tricks to to wage our guerrilla war
  • declaring success… and then fighting on

We’ll close with a summary and a few handy links that expand on our themes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Bad Business Habits

In one sentence, what’s a habit? The American Journal of Psychology defines it this way: ‘A habit, from the standpoint of psychology, is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.’”

What does the most recent neuroscience tell us about habits?  We can’t directly observe habits in the human brain, but we can see them at work by the bursts of neural activity that enable them.  While we’re forming habits, that burst of neural activity occurs in one of the most primitive parts of our brain, the striatum, helped out by the prefrontal cortex.  There’s a cue, or trigger that starts the firing process, and when the group of activities finishes, there’s another burst of neural activity.

When the habit is well formed, our brain “packages” those bursts of neural activity a block.  Then it “transfers”  or imprints the block of neural activity from the striatum to the pre-frontal cortex to the infralimbic cortex.  The the infralimbic cortex seems to handle habit in the same way as long term memory… that’s why fully formed habits are so persistent.

Is there a difference between good habits and bad habits?  Just like a good habit, a bad habit is a standardized block k of neural activity.  And just like good habits, bad habits are very persistent.

So… getting rid of a bad habit is just like developing a good habit, only backwards?  Well, no.  Habits of any kind, once ingrained, can’t actually be eliminated.  Those blocks of neural activity, so carefully stored in the infralimbic cortex like long term memories, can’t be removed.  We can block or suppress the bad habit, but it’s still in the background.  We have to use a different approach to suppressing bad habits, and suppressing habits is more difficult than forming new ones.

How do we really break bad habits? Instead of a futile frontal assault to eliminate the habit, we’ll work to overlay one or more new (better) habits in place of the older bad habit.  We’ll outflank that block of infra limbic cortex neural activity by  taking apart the different bursts of neural activity and specifically and deliberately counteracting each one of them.  Then, knowing that we’ve suppressed the bad habit, we’ll have tools ready for those stressful times when that bad habit might re-emerge.

How to Suppress Bad Business Habits

While it’s a challenge, we can break bad habits.  We can’t make them go away, but we can do the next best thing: make them irrelevant to our daily lives.  Let’s see how we might do that, using procrastination. one of the most infamous bad habits, as our example.

Unfortunately, frontal assault doesn’t work.  There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and a host of science-based research that “just saying no” and using simple willpower is just about the least effective way of beating a bad habit.  It saps our energy, it brutalizes our self-confidence, and it almost never works for more than a few weeks.  No, we’re looking for an effective approach that works over the long term.

Instead, we’re going to suppress our bad habit in 4 steps.  You’ll remember that habits are actually blocks of neural activity in three parts: cues or triggers, behaviors and rewards.  We’re going to:

  1. recognize our bad habits when they start
  2. hijack and redirect the habit’s cue or trigger
  3. substitute specific constructive intentions, submerging the bad behavior(s)
  4. reward ourselves for carrying through our constructive behavior.

Finally, recognizing that we may relapse, we’ll prepare, ahead of time, specific fallback intentions so that we don’t waste time feeling guilty or sorry for ourselves.

1. Recognizing That Bad Habit

Like so many bad habits, we realize most clearly that we’re procrastinating after the fact.  While it’s happening we have all sorts of rationalizations why we’re (a) not wasting time, (b) doing something more urgent, (b) waiting for the right moment, etc.  Often, we don’t know when procrastination starts.

But we need to see it right from the start, because once that deeply ingrained block of neural activity is triggered it’s almost impossible to break off.  How do we recognize the start?  It turns out there are two ways.

We need to be aware of what we’re doing.  One way is by trying an offshoot of meditation called mindfulness.  Mindfulness is nothing more (or less) than deliberately paying attention to what we’re doing … but as if we were watching ourselves from outside as our own best friend.  No judgements, taking a kindly eye towards our shortcomings, as we patiently observe our habits throughout our day.  Mindfulness is a very useful tool for suppressing bad habits precisely because it makes us aware of them; how they start, what we do under their influence, and how we feel about it.  I won’t dwell on practicing mindfulness… here’s a very good explanation of mindfulness basics.

Some of us might find the idea of mindfulness, or any  seemingly spiritual technique, vaguely disturbing. Keeping a journal is another way to stay aware of what we do throughout our day.  When we write about our activities we bring them back to mind; again. we have a chance to discover our habits at work.

While mindfulness and journaling have many uses, we’re using them to expose our habits, and more specifically, the starting point or trigger for our bad habits.

For example, we might find that we procrastinate most often when we’re faced with tasks we’re not confident we can finish.  We find that the cycle often starts when we tell ourselves “how do I do that”, or “I don’t think I have enough parts”, etc.  Let’s follow that thought.

2. Hijacking the Trigger

Now we’ve found the starting point, the cue or trigger that begins the habitual procrastination cycle.  To hijack the progression of procrastination, we’re going to use a very simple but very powerful tool;  the IF-THEN intention.

IF-THEN intentions are nothing more than a statement saying “when something happens, we will respond by doing.”  IF-THEN intentions become powerful when the THEN is practical, specific and doable.

In our example, we’ve found that doubts and questions begin our cycle of procrastination.  First, let’s try using that self-doubt trigger, but divert ourselves into a different response.   Here are a couple of examples:

IF I don’t know how THEN I Google the problem to look for answers on the web.

IF I don’t have parts THEN I’ll make a list AND I’ll go buy them at the hardware store.

Please notice that each “then” is a very specific, immediate action.   The action stops our destructive self-conversation and diverts our attention to a useful activity.  Also, the second intention has two THEN activities.  Instead of something general like “buy parts” there are two specific sequential activities that we can do right now.

Now let’s suppose that’s not enough to derail our delay-causing self-doubt.  Our second approach could be slightly more indirect; we’ll use that self-doubt trigger to substitute another, more useful trigger:

IF I don’t know IS REALLY I’m rationalizing.

Now I’ve redirected the self-doubt trigger away from some type of self-evasion and towards truth.  Then I can follow up with:

IF I’m rationalizing THEN I’m procrastinating AND I don’t want to procrastinate.

Now I’m facing my bad habit squarely and openly, instead of letting it take over (as all well-ingrained habits do.)

3. Submerging the Activities of Bad Behavior

Now that we’re interrupting the trigger, it’s time to deal with the activity itself.  Remembering that resisting or “saying no” doesn’t work, we’re going to submerge the bad habit under a new habit.  With many bad habits that’s not so difficult.  If we have a junk food craving, we can substitute a sweet healthy treat or, more radically, some outdoor exercise.  However, when we procrastinate, any substitution is itself a procrastination.  What can we do?

Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project has a brilliant alternative.  It’s do the task at hand or… do nothing.  How does that work?  Here’s how she explains it.

This rule was inspired by the habits of writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler set aside at least four hours each day for writing; he didn’t force himself to write, but he didn’t let himself do anything else. He wouldn’t let himself read, write letters, write checks—nothing. He summed up: “Two very simple rules:

a. you don’t have to write.

b. you can’t do anything else.

The rest comes of itself.

Here’s the IF-THEN intention that expresses it:

IF I’m procrastinating THEN I do nothing.

Almost everyone prefers to do something, anything, rather than nothing.

[Stepping back to bad habits generally, sometimes we can’t come up with one practical/specific/doable activity.  Instead, we can substitute two or three smaller, incremental activities.  We can put them together to build up our substitute activity.  Remember, as the the new activities take hold and become automatic, our infra limbic cortex bundles the incremental activities blocks in the same way that it associates fragments of long term memories.]

4. Rewarding Ourselves

It’s strange to think that we reward ourselves for bad habits, but we do. When we procrastinate, we often “reward” ourselves by doing other things offering immediate gratification.  Our “reward” is that rush of temporary interest and involvement, however tainted with guilt.

So… when we’ve disrupted the trigger, and submerged the bad habit by performing our new activities, how can we reward ourselves for successfully overcoming our bad habit?

There are two approaches that psychologists label “intrinsic” (coming from within ourselves) and “extrinsic” (using something external).

Of the two approaches, intrinsic rewards are the more effective and more long-lasting, and the most effective intrinsic reward is satisfaction.  Can we give ourselves satisfaction?  Fortunately, there’s a way.  We can stimulate feelings of satisfaction by recounting, to ourselves, our accomplishments and our better qualities.  (The popular literature calls it self-talk, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.)

Extrinsic rewards, like giving ourselves a present or doing something we enjoy, are also effective… but it turns out they’re less effective over time.  The reward has less and less effect the more we use it, so we have to increase the amount of the reward (better presents) or change it altogether.  That’s an additional complication we can do without.

Self-Control and the Long Term

Wait a minute… if “just saying no” doesn’t work, why should we even be talking about self-control?

After the first couple of months, the suppressed habit won’t bother us much… but it remains.  During stressful times it might resurface.  When it does and we relapse, it’s best not to berate ourselves.  We’ll say “next time….” and review the if-then intensions that helped suppress that bad habit.  We need a little self-control to get “back on the program”.

We all have a limited supply of self-control and every time we use some, there’s less.  We use it in all sorts of ways to squelch frustration, ignore discomfort, keep to our schedule in spite of distractions, and so on, throughout every day.

When we’ve used our limited supply of self-control to overcome everyday annoyances, we don’t have it available to beat back a resurfacing bad habit.

Here’s good news about self-control.  First, we can replenish it.  Second, the more we use it, the more effective it becomes.  Replenishing self control is actually quite easy; a nutritious meal, some pleasant conversation and a good night’s sleep will restore us.  Remember what we said about self awareness?  When we realize that we’re exercising self-control we can congratulate ourselves.  A little positive reinforcement builds up our willingness and ability to use self-control again.

When we have reserves of self-control and the willingness to use them, a resurfacing bad habit isn’t a train wreck; it’s just a delay, and we’ll soon be on our way again.


We can’t eliminate bad habits, but we can suppress them.  Although suppressing habits isn’t like forming them (it’s harder and we have to use different techniques), over time we can effectively submerge our bad habits beneath different, better habits.

We can use a four-step technique to suppress our bad habits.:

  1. recognize our bad habits when they start
  2. hijack and redirect the habit’s cue or trigger
  3. substitute specific constructive intentions, submerging the bad behavior(s)
  4. reward ourselves for carrying through our constructive behavior.

It will take a couple of months to be effective, and we might relapse in the future when, under stress, our old bad habit might re-emerge.  We’ll use (a little bit) of self-control to go back to the techniques we used to break the habit initially.

Would You Like to Read More About Habits Right Now?

Here are some interesting references to broaden our understanding of breaking bad business habits.




  1. Most businesses are failing because of bad business habits. The blog post in broad perspective covers the subject well.It’s a must read for aspiring entrepreneurs and those already in business.

  2. Good read. Made some very good points there. Most people wouldn’t believe how many bad business habits are practiced daily – even by successful companies. I’m glad you shed some light on the subject.

  3. muhibbur rashid says:

    Thanks for the great article. I learn many information about bad business habit.

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