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Creating Habits for Success: Five Strategies for Staying On-Track
By Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, Founder, Cheetah Learning

What habits do you need to develop to become a more effective Project Manager? Maybe you need to get more organized with your paperwork, or change how you spend your time each day to stay on-track with your projects, or shift how you respond to stressful situations. Regardless of the kind of habit you’re trying to form, you might find that changing your day-to-day behavior is more challenging that you expected. It may be the case that you’ve tried before to adopt this new habit, but somehow got derailed from your goal.

For this month’s Know How Network, we’ll be discussing the best recent research on habits: what it takes to form a new habit, and what to do if you find yourself straying from your planned course of action. This research doesn’t just apply to Project Management; in my own life, I recently undertook a major project to adopt a new habit: increasing my own self-acceptance. I did this by taking on a challenge over 66 days to love myself more. I was inspired to do this based on an interaction with my daughter, a recently minted registered dietician. I had tired of well meaning “professionals” lecturing me on my weight. But instead of changing how they interacted with me (an impossible task), I decided to change how I viewed myself. After all, it was me who had the issue with them, not vice versa. It worked – I now feel much more favorably about myself and do not personalize “expert” advice, as it’s just someone else’s opinion.

Before you can change any habit, you need to first know what habits you would like to adopt. For example, if you’d like to become a more effective Project Manager, what habit would you like to adopt to help you achieve this? Frame this in the positive rather than negative. For example, if you want to stop giving your employees overly negative feedback, re-frame this as, “I want to give my employees five times more positive feedback as negative feedback, every day.” This re-framing makes it easier for you to recognize your progress in developing this habit, rather than only criticizing yourself for slipping up.

Next, follow these five strategies for developing a new habit:

Set up your environment for success. Let’s say that the habit you want to adopt is to complete your most important task for the day before you do any other work (this is a habit of the most effective Project Managers). What changes could you make in your environment to facilitate this habit? You may find, for example, that even if you wake up fully intending to complete your most important task first, other tasks come up that distract you from your goal. After spending an hour responding to emails that came in early in the morning, you’ll realize you’ve been derailed from your purpose and have been sucked into helping resolve other people’s problems.

Making a few simple changes in your environment can help prevent this situation. At the end of each work day, figure out the most important task you need to complete the next work day and what you’ll need to complete it, and then get these supplies ready. Close the email tab in your browser (yes, really!), and set a reminder on your phone for the next morning to remind yourself to silence all notifications. Unless it is absolutely imperative that you check your email first thing in the morning, you will likely have more success with adopting your habit of doing the most important task first if you concentrate on this for the first half hour of your day.

Don’t despair if you mess up once or twice. Especially when the habits we’re trying to adopt are challenging, it is unrealistic to think that once we’ve committed to adopting them, we’ll practice them every day without fail. Research shows that missing a day does not, in fact, have a significant impact on your ability to adopt a new habit. The crucial thing is to recover from the slip-up – fast. Missing one day is acceptable, but stretching this into five days will likely hurt your ability to make your new habit part of your automatic daily activity. Leave slip-ups in the past, and focus instead on what you have to gain by sticking with your goal of developing a new habit.

Be patient if the new habit still feels like a chore, even months later. Psychologist Jeremy Dean conducted original research on what it takes to make new habits and break old ones, and found that to do either almost always takes longer than the commonly-held perception of 21 days. Getting to the point where practicing a new habit (or losing an old one) feels automatic, he found, takes an average of 66 days. While adopting a simpler habit (like drinking water every day) may take less time, more complex or challenging habits (he gives the example of doing 50 sit-ups each morning) will likely take 80 or more days before they feel automatic.

In learning theory, a habit is called “procedural knowledge” – this is where a skilled behavior becomes automatic. I like to use the example of learning how to drive a car. At first, you must think of every step of the process, but after a few months of practice, you do not have to consciously think about each step to create the results you desire (like driving from point A to point B). If you question the the 21 days versus 66 days theory, think about getting in the car with someone who has been driving for 3 weeks versus 2 months. Who do you think will have better driving habits?

Tell others about your new habit. This is also called “accountability.” For the purpose of creating a new habit, though, it’s not necessary to have a partner or group that really holds you accountable; what matters is that other people know about the habit you’re trying to develop, and will know if you break it. Just being aware that others will know if you don’t keep up with your habit is sufficient motivation for many people to stick with their goals.

Finally, celebrate small victories. Beating yourself up for missing a day or two in the practice of your new habit is more likely to be more de-motivating than it is to be motivating. A better strategy is to keep track of how many days you’ve successfully carried out your new daily habit and reflect on what you’ve gained by adopting this habit. If the gains from adopting your new habit are less immediate (as in a diet), you can further motivate yourself to stick with your habit by setting up intermittent rewards for yourself – so long as you choose a reward that doesn’t break the habit! Over time, as your habit becomes a more automatic part of your daily activity, the rewards become less necessary.

Following these tips will significantly increase the likelihood that you’ll successfully adopt your new habit to become a more effective Project Manager. And, as with all important projects, the best time to start is now.

About the Know How Network and Cheetah Learning

The Know How Network is a monthly column written by Michelle LaBrosse, the founder and Chief Cheetah of Cheetah Learning. Distributed to hundreds of newsletters and media outlets around the world, the Know How Network brings the promise, purpose and passion of Project Management to people everywhere. Visit to learn more about Cheetah PM, the fastest way to learn about Project Management and get your PMP. You can also get your career in gear with CheetahWare, free Project Management tools from Cheetah Learning.

About the Author

Michelle LaBrosse is the founder and Chief Cheetah of Cheetah Learning. An international expert on accelerated learning and Project Management, she has grown Cheetah Learning into the market leader for Project Management training and professional development. In 2006, The Project Management Institute,, selected Michelle as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World, and only one of two women selected from the training and education industry. Michelle is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner & President Management program for entrepreneurs, and is the author of Cheetah Project Management and Cheetah Negotiations. Cheetah Learning is a virtual company and has 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide.

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