Always hungry and grazing at work?

It is easy to let small, negative behaviours at work become routine, and undermine us. But simple changes can help us perform better and enjoy our jobs. Sharon Brennan breaks down five common bad habits every day this week, and explains what to do about them


Always hungry and grazing at work?

How often have you woken up determined to have a successful day at work only to leave in the evening disappointed? Yes, outside forces can send us off track, but we also get in our own way. Our intention to be creative, efficient or focused can be derailed by bad habits which are stopping us from fulfilling our potential.

If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit you’ll know how hard it is – this is because we can’t simply ‘think’ ourselves out of a habit. ‘There is a dual mind at play,’ says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. If the ‘intentional mind’ is engaged we can make conscious decisions about our behaviour, but when our ‘habitual mind’ is involved, we struggle to understand why we do what we do, as habits function largely outside of our awareness.

We’ve picked five common bad work habits (we'll look at one each day this week) to see what we can do to change our behaviour.

1. Grazing at your desk

Have you ever opened a packet of biscuits mid-morning only to find yourself sneaking the empty wrapper into a colleague’s bin later to hide the shame?

Thankfully Catalyst Behavioral Sciences, a behavioural health agency based in the US, has found practical ways to help us make changes to habitual snacking behaviour. In a 2011 study it told cinema-goers to eat popcorn with the opposite hand to the usual to short circuit the well-worn habit pathway in the brain. This simple change saw participants eat less popcorn, with consumption driven more by hunger. It’s an easy tip to adapt to the workplace to help us think twice about mindless snacking.

The agency admits, though, that the gains can be smaller the more tempting the treat, so perhaps combine the opposite-hand trick with a study from City University London, which looked into another technique for wresting control of our urges. Participants were told to imagine their habitual impulses were passengers on a bus they were driving – this ‘mind bus’ technique teaches you that you can control the bus route no matter how much noise your passengers (habits) are making. Despite only practising this resistance technique for five minutes a day, those taught it ate 18 per cent less chocolate over a five-day period than those who weren’t employing the practice. The next time you want to eat chocolate at your desk, consider reminding the chocolate who is in charge.