Five Key Steps to Habit Change

Daniel Goleman

Five Key Steps to Habit Change
June 16, 2013

Last week I heard about an executive who had a self-defeating leadership habit: whenever a direct report’s performance disappointed him, he launched into a vicious attack on that person. The results were always negative: the person felt awful and his performance suffered as a result – and the relationship between the executive and that direct report became toxic. In addition such a leader misses a teachable moment: a chance for constructive feedback on what the person needs to do differently or better in the future.

The basal ganglia plays a key role in the formation of such leadership habits, both the good ones and the bad ones. As we keep repeating a routine of any kind, the brain shifts its control of the habit from areas at the top of the brain to the basal ganglia at the bottom. As this switch occurs, we lose awareness of the habit and its triggers. The routine springs into action in response to a trigger we don’t notice, and does so automatically. We lose control.

To change the habit we must first bring it into consciousness again. That takes self-awareness, a fundamental of emotional intelligence. When that leader became mindful of his self-defeating habit, he realized that it was his own fear of failure that made him panic inside and lose control of his own behavior. He knew it did not help to attack, but could not seem to stop himself.

This leadership case came up at a workshop I gave with Tara Bennett-Goleman on her new book, Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-defeating Emotional Habits, which explains the neuroscience of habit change. She recommends mindfulness as a way to bring unconscious habits back into awareness where they can be changed. And she outlines a simple five-step process for making that change, especially helpful if the person is working with a coach.

1) Familiarize yourself with the self-defeating habit. Get so you can recognize the routine as it starts, or begins to take over. This might be by noticing its typical thoughts or feelings, or how you start to act. You can also follow Paul Ekman’s simple suggestion: keep a journal of your triggers.

2) Be mindful. Monitor your behavior –thoughts, feelings, actions – from a neutral, “witness” awareness.

3) Remember the alternatives – think of a better way to handle the situation.

4) Choose something better – e.g., what you say or do that would be helpful instead of self-defeating.

5) Do this at every naturally occurring opportunity.

Tara cites the neuroscience evidence that the more often you can repeat the new routine instead of the self-destructive one, the sooner it will replace the self-defeating habit in your basal ganglia. The better response will become your new default reaction.


Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman lectures frequently to business audiences, professional groups and on college campuses. A psychologist who for many years reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times, Dr. Goleman previously was a visiting faculty member at Harvard.

Dr. Goleman’s most recent books are The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence – Selected Writings. (More Than Sound). Goleman’s latest project, Leadership: A Master Class, is his first-ever comprehensive video series that examines the best practices of top-performing executives.

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