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Careers Café

New habits for a new year


One advantage to taking a real break over the holidays is that it allows you to return to your work life with new eyes.

We all develop habits. Some of them are good habits that allow you to get things done efficiently and effectively. Others are not as helpful and might be contributing to your frustration and stress.

What’s working?

Start by noticing what habits and routines you were really glad to get back into. What is working for you? What makes your day easier?

No matter how frustrated you are with your work schedule or accomplishments, there are parts of it that are working well. Take the time to notice them.

Focusing on what’s working both in your existing practices and in new things you are trying to implement has been shown to be effective in improving your performance.

Small steps lead to big results

It is tempting to radically overhaul everything that isn’t working. The culture of new year’s resolutions tempts us to make big plans and big changes.

I suggest that you take it more slowly. The habits you have took a long time to develop. You can’t just change them overnight by force of will. Furthermore, trying to do so often leads to more frustration as you struggle to make those big changes.

  • Pick a small thing you want to change.
  • Identify an easy modification that you feel confident you can make and repeat. Ask yourself “Can I do this again tomorrow?” and if the answer is yes, that’s a small enough step.
  • Make that small change. Repeat.
  • When that new habit feels comfortable make your step bigger.

How this might work

Let’s say you want to be able to work in your office without people disturbing you.

You realize that you have a habit of keeping the door open when you are in your office. You decide you want to keep your door closed unless it is officially your office hours.

This might be hard. You might feel like you are being unapproachable. Or you are shunning your colleagues. This is okay. That’s what I meant by a small step. If all day feels too hard, try 1 hour. Ask yourself, can I keep my door closed for 1 hour? Can I keep my door closed for 1 hour tomorrow, too?

Also check that other supports are in place. Are your office hours posted on your door? Is there a mechanism for people to make appointments? Do you have a plan for how you will respond if someone knocks on your door?

Then close your door for the time you decided and work. Open your door at the end of that time.

Repeat tomorrow.

When it stops feeling weird to have your door closed for an hour, choose another time period.

You may also decide to spend some time every Monday morning, or every Friday afternoon, reviewing your small changes and deciding whether you can make another small change. Stay focused on what works. Success breeds success.


Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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