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Helping Clients Build Positive New Habits

Have you ever worked with a client who, after months or years of unemployment, struggled to get into the daily rhythm of a new job? Perhaps you saw them lose a job or a promotion because of their habitual lateness? This common challenge is an excellent example of the role of habit in workforce attachment and the importance of helping clients harness habit for positive impacts.


In employment and training services, we will often notice our clients have accumulated survival and coping habits that are inhibiting or limiting their job search or workplace success. Services that respond to this reality and intentionally help clients understand and leverage the power of habit will give their clients a critical leg up in terms of success.


To understand how programs and services can use habit intentionally, we first need to understand: what is a habit and why do our brains form them? Simply put, habits are biophysiological shortcuts. Habits free up brain space by allowing our bodies and brains to put certain functions on ‘autopilot’. For example: if you have a habit of cooking a certain way, you can probably let your mind wander as you do that. This is because you’ve spent hours practicing and repeating those skills. Over time, our habits become so ingrained that we stop noticing them and they continue to function in the background of our lives.


If you are like most people, however, you have a mixed bag of habits. You may have picked up some negative behavioral habits during times of stress (think stress-induced smoking or unhelpful ways of communicating under stress) that you are not happy with but feel unable to change. If you reflect on your internal life, you might also notice that you have internal habits. In addition to habitual behaviors or external actions, we have habitual thoughts and habitual feelings that we ‘default’ into. These unconscious internal states are extremely powerful. The average person has about 6,000 thoughts a day, and 95% of them are the same thoughts they had yesterday. If we have a lot of negative habits (including thoughts, behaviors and feelings), this can have a very significant cumulative effect on our lives.


So, how can employment and training programs help clients to leverage the power of habit? How can we design programming that help build positive habits and interrupt negative ones? The first step is to integrate accessible and non-stigmatizing psychoeducation about habits. You can use videos like this one to help your clients understand what habit is, why habits happen and how habits can be broken. Be sure to follow this with discussions of why and how habit is relevant to the process of job searching and retraining.


The next step is to invite your clients into opportunities to reflect on their own habits. You can do this in 1:1 work, or in groups. Group work on habits can be very rich because participants learn so much from their peers. When your clients feel ready, offer small, self-selected challenges related to habit-strengthening and habit-changing. Make sure to invite your clients to describe and celebrate their progress on breaking and making habits (replacing old habits with new ones). Reflecting on successes will strengthen their self-efficacy, self-esteem and motivation.


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