Bad habits like procrastination and tardiness are doubly bad at work. Here's how to deal.

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We all develop automatic, unthinking ways of doing things. You know, habits.

Many are useful tools that help us function a day-to-day basis — like buckling our seat belts or brushing our teeth. Life would be exhausting if we couldn’t put certain behaviors on autopilot.

Unfortunately, however, not all habits are beneficial. Some do active harm to our relationships, pocketbooks and — especially— careers. Chronic lateness, procrastination, impatience — these can be career killers that, once established, are challenging to shake.

The unthinking nature of habits is what makes them so insidious but it is, in fact, the clue to breaking them. Your first step? Shine the cold, clear light of day on the behaviors that you want to eliminate from your life and job. Do not try to ignore the habit; instead, really examine it and takes its measure. Once you’ve clearly recognized and named it, you can identify what triggers it, which will put you on the road to undoing it.

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It may help to deconstruct what started the bad habit in the first place, to get at the root cause. Perhaps that bad habit began by serving you in some way, but now is holding you back.

Or it may be enough to simply zero in on the culprit, devise a positive replacement for it, and begin to systematically substitute the new for the old. (Replacing one habit with a different one is much easier and more effective than simply trying to go cold turkey.)

Start with baby steps! Consider that a new environment fosters new behaviors, so look for ways to reorganize your office or workspace. Let your colleagues know what you’re trying to do and ask them for support. A change of routine can also help. Can you switch around your work hours or do tasks in a different order? These little “tricks” can be effective.

However you go about it, remember that the process will require a strong commitment of time and energy. It certainly won’t happen overnight. Don’t be surprised or discouraged by relapses. Know that it can take as long as six months to a year to permanently alter a behavior.

But it can be done, and it’s worth it.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. Email her at