What’s the Difference Between a Big Derailer and a Bad Habit?

How do you decide which part of your mouth to brush first when you brush your teeth? You don’t. You brush your teeth in pretty much the same sequence every day without thinking about it at all. This is how your brain conserves energy, using autopilot behaviors we call habits. We have dozens of routines just like this that are initiated and executed with no cognitive effort at all.

About once a month as I’m heading to the gym at 4:30am I convince myself before leaving my neighborhood that I forgot to close my garage door. I turn around and drive back to check. It’s always closed, but I can’t remember closing it. Habits can defy memory.

System Thinking

This is what Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, described as System 1 thinking. System 1 operates quickly with little or no effort or voluntary control. System 2 is used for effortful mental activities and associated with subjective experience, choice, and concentration.

The problem with System 1 and habits is they work even when the behavior produces a negative outcome. One of the key tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.

Habits and Derailers

A derailer can be defined as a pattern of behavior that moves a person off course or gets in the way of progress. Attitudes can become derailers when they influence our behavior. Practically speaking, derailers sabotage relationships and undermine our influence.

Your most dangerous derailers are not one-off aberrations. They are predictable patterns of behavior that operate like System 1 habits. The source of derailers is often the basement side of our personality, strengths, and skills, key components in our Identity Profile. (You can learn more about your Identity Profile here.)

You might think you don’t have derailers but the people around you know better. An HBR article reported survey results showing 80% of respondents said they observed significant behavioral weaknesses in their boss that they talk about with peers but not with their boss.

The question we should be asking isn’t, “Do I have derailers?” but rather, “What are they, and when or where are they most likely to surface?” Daniel Kahneman offers this advice: “The best we can do…is learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are higher.

Big derailers are bad habits and disrupting them requires System2 thinking, or self-control. In this month’s Learning @ the Speed of Life vlog, you can learn a three-step process for disrupting your derailers, along with a FREE worksheet to help you apply it.

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