Soapy Dinners and Unconscious Habits

The other day I threw my husband’s dinner into a sink full of dirty dishwater, and I wasn’t even angry with him. In retrospect, it was actually a very funny illustration of the power of habit.

I had prepared an early dinner for my daughter and me so that we could meet my husband at an after-work event. I carefully set aside his portion to warm up when we got home later that evening, covered it and placed it on the stove. I then proceeded to clean up, and that’s when the habit took over. When the dishwasher was full and the delicates hand washed, I scanned the kitchen for any holdouts and spotted the covered pan that had apparently eluded my cleaning attempts. I grabbed it and threw it into the sink, realizing as the lid came off that I had just consigned my husband to a soapy dinner.

Do you ever do that with your to-do list? Just knock off items without really thinking about who should be doing them or when they should be done? Or maybe you’ve performed a task the same way over and over again, when there may be a better way to do it? What about answering email? Do you ever answer “just one email” and then find you’ve spent the better part of the day managing your inbox instead of working on an important project? Once we are in the grip of a habit, it can be very difficult to break free. Here are two suggestions to short-circuit those habits that aren’t serving you as well as you’d like.

  • Before you start the activity, plan an interruption. For instance, you could set an alarm to spend only 15 minutes on email. That would provide the double benefit of focusing your attention on the truly critical email and allowing time to work on important tasks.
  • Alter one of the key steps in your habit. For example, if there is a specific task that you want to do differently, or perhaps assign to a team member as a developmental assignment, change the first step in that task. If the task originates from a written request, put a sticky note on it to remind yourself to delegate or to try a new approach. In the case of my husband’s soapy dinner, I would place the pan in an unusual place, like the table or the top of the microwave. That visual cue would be just enough to cause me to pause and to kick-start my brain.

Habits are powerful and generally serve us very well, allowing us to navigate our days with a minimal expenditure of energy. However, when going on autopilot leads to less than optimal results, a moment of awareness can help us short-circuit that habit and create a new one.