20 Bad Habits That Are Making You Less Productive

There are a host of bad habits many of us do every day, and research shows these habits really hurt our productivity, especially at work. The more aware we are of how these things are affecting our productivity, the more proactive we can be at taking responsibility for our choices.

In this list, I’ll break down some of the most common examples of bad habits that stifle productivity and some ways you can break them.

Table of Contents

Bad Habits Examples List

How to Break a Bad Habit

Bad Habits That Are Making You Less Productive

1. Rushing in the morning.

When the morning rush becomes a habit, there can be negative consequences to your sense of well-being and your overall productivity.

Why this habit is bad:

When you start off your day in a frenzied state of mind, you’re not giving your brain any time to decompress, reset, and prepare for the day. Instead, you’re pumping it with adrenaline first thing in the morning, which can cause you to crash later on.

How to break this bad habit:

If your mornings lack time and space to breathe, try waking up 10–30 minutes earlier and starting off with a quick meditation session.

Try the free app Headspace to start: It gives you 10 free guided meditation sessions, with the option of signing up for a monthly subscription.

2. Skipping breakfast.

Whether you blame it on being too rushed (see #1) or just not feeling hungry, eating a well-rounded breakfast just isn’t a priority for a lot of people.

Why this habit is bad:

When you’re sleeping, you’re fasting — meaning you wake up with low blood sugar. That low blood sugar is exactly why many of us feel tired, apathetic, and even a little irritable first thing in the morning. It’s not you; it’s your inherent need for the sustenance that, you know, keeps you up and running as a human.

How to break this bad habit:

What about replacing food with coffee? Sure, the caffeine rush from your morning coffee can help hide the symptoms of low blood sugar — but it won’t satisfy your need for food. In fact, it’ll likely cause you to crash later in the day, which can really harm your productivity.

Prioritizing a healthy breakfast is a key to boosting productivity for the rest of your day.

Try healthy breakfast foods that have the fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals that’ll give you energy. Avoid breakfast foods with added sugar like sugary cereal and pastries.

3. Tackling the easy stuff first.

It can be very tempting to get all the easy tasks out of the way first before tackling the tough stuff. This is especially true when you’re dreading that challenging task.

Why this habit is bad:

Tackling the most difficult tasks on your to-do list early on in the day is actually better for your overall productivity. Researchers have found that willpower is a finite resource that steadily decreases throughout the day, according to the book The Willpower Instinct. So your brain is much better at handling the hardest tasks at the beginning of the day when you’re more focused.

How to break this bad habit:

Mornings also tend to lend fewer distractions, making it easier for you to get things done. My colleague James Gilbert suggests that folks “take advantage of morning hours to crank through meaty projects without distractions, and save any calls or virtual meetings for the afternoon.”

Creating a to-do list is the easiest way to prioritize tasks effectively. Everyone has their own to-do list style, so check out this list of the best to-do list tools and apps out there and see which ones work best for you.

4. Checking and responding to emails as they come in.

Email is supposed to help us do our work, not distract us from our work. So why does it always feel like a productivity suck?

Why this habit is bad:

In an effort to stay on top of a constantly overflowing inbox, it can be tempting to check and respond to every email as soon as it comes in. Receiving email notifications in real time certainly doesn’t help. But constantly switching tasks between work and email can really hurt your productivity.

How to break this bad habit:

To help you focus in chunks of time, turn off those pesky email alerts and limit checking your email to specified breaks.

If you’re worried about missing an important email, try selecting “Important mail notifications on” and Gmail will notify you for emails it thinks are important to you based on past activity.

To turn off alerts in Outlook: On the “Tools” menu, click “Options.” Open the “Preferences” tab and click “E-mail Options,” then “Advanced E-mail Options.” Under “When new items arrive in my Inbox,” clear the “Display a New Mail Desktop Alert (default Inbox only) check box.

5. Checking social feeds.

The whole “easily distracted” thing goes for social media notifications, too. The urge to check for social media notifications makes it hard to check our News Feeds “just this once” — and usually ends up in a lot of mindless browsing.

Why this habit is bad:

As my colleague Scott Tousley says, “We are madly in love with distracting ourselves.”

My colleague Alec Biedrzycki solves this problem by removing all social networks from his toolbar bookmarks. “Even if I don’t mean to browse them, some uncontrollable impulse subconsciously clicks on them when I experience downtime,” he says. “You can get sucked in without knowing it (or even intending to), so eliminating the gateway to those networks keeps me on track.”

 

How to break this bad habit:

To turn off notifications for social media so that you’re in control of when you check those apps. You can do this in the apps themselves or in the settings of your smartphone.

6. Keeping your phone with you at work.

Raise your hand if you panic when you realize you don’t have your phone with you—whether you’re sitting at your desk, attending a meeting, grabbing coffee, or heck—even going to the bathroom. (I’m guilty of this, too.)

Why this habit is bad:

Smartphones are one of the most prominent distractions on the planet. And when you keep your phone with you at work, you’re putting your productivity levels at risk.

A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found that when people who were performing a task that required intense focus received a text or call on their phone, they had more incorrect answers and were more likely to make quick guesses. People who received notification of a call — even if they didn’t pick it up — were 3X more likely to make mistakes. In fact, error rates were about the same whether or not people answered that call or text.

Why does receiving that text or call hurt our productivity so much? Researchers from that study say that, although the actual moment of interruption is short-lived, our thoughts are disrupted for a considerably longer period, making it tough to refocus.

How to break this bad habit:

There are a lot of different ways to curb your phone addiction. The simplest is to turn your phone on silent and put it away while you’re at work. If that isn’t cutting it, try an app like Forest. This app will prompt you to plant a virtual tree when you start working, which “grows” over the course of 30 minutes. The more 30-minute periods you don’t use your phone, the larger your forest will grow; but if you leave the app, you’ll have to start all over again.

7. Black hole browsing.

You know the feeling when you search for something work-related, then click on a related video, and before you know it, you’re knee-deep into TikToks about building a tiny house in the middle of a remote forest?

Why this habit is bad:

It’s a dangerous side effect of having a job that requires internet research. It’s one thing to mindlessly browse the web outside of work or when you’re on a break. (In fact, I have a great list of the best sites and apps for wasting time on the internet for times like those.) But it’s another entirely when you’re supposed to be doing actual work.

That’s what Tousley likes to call “black hole browsing,” and it’s become one of the most productivity-sucking psychological addictions out there.

How to break this bad habit:

You might feel like getting lost in the black hole is inevitable, but there are tools out there that can help you prevent it from happening. For example, StayFocusd is a Google Chrome extension that breaks the black hole browsing cycle by blocking distracting websites after a set amount of time.

8. Working through your lunch break.

Eating at your desk doesn’t just make you antisocial. According to HBR, it’s also “bad for thinking, bad for creativity, bad for productivity, [and] bad for your body.”

Why this habit is bad:

To be fair, if you’re among those people who take lunch at your desk instead of taking a break, it may not be your fault. Perhaps it’s not built into your office culture, or maybe you have a deadline that’s pressuring you to squeeze every waking moment out of your day.

But taking the midday break can be mentally rejuvenating — and, in many ways, more productive than plugging away at your desk between mouthfuls.

How to break this bad habit:

The best way to take a lunch break is to remove yourself from your desk or workspace and eat somewhere else — like a cafeteria, restaurant, or public park. Better yet, build your network at work by eating with a colleague. (Here are some more ideas for what to do during your lunch break.

9. Not active listening.

One of the sad consequences of being constantly distracted is the epidemic of only half paying attention — and thinking that’s OK. You might think that any time someone else is talking and you’re not, that means you’re listening. But, as my colleague Andrew Quinn wrote in his post on bad conversational habits, it doesn’t. “The real question is who are you listening to when [someone else] is talking,” he wrote. “I’m willing to bet a good portion of the time, you’re actually listening to the voice in your head.”

That, or you’re reading that email that just came in. Or checking to see why your phone buzzed. When you’re in a meeting, how much can you really be paying attention when your laptop is open?

Why this habit is bad:

Not only can not listening carefully cost you relationships, it can also cost you in the time it takes to make up for whatever information you missed.

How to break this bad habit:

Becoming an active listener is a critical part of becoming more emotionally intelligent. This means really, truly paying attention to what people are saying — and it’s a skill that’ll set you apart in both your professional and personal life.

10. Saying “yes” to every meeting.

Being “in the zone” is when you lose yourself in whatever you’re doing — so much so that you lose track of time. It’s one of the keys to both happiness and productivity at work.

Why this habit is bad:

Nothing disrupts that flow like a meeting. Especially an unnecessary one. It turns out that the average person wastes 31 hours in unproductive meetings per month. These unnecessary meetings are ones where you or the organizer isn’t prepared, you didn’t really need to be there, and so on.

How to break this bad habit:

Want to get those 31 hours back? Here are a few suggestions:

Be sure you’re only attending meetings you actually need to attend. If you don’t see yourself actively contributing to the group, politely let the meeting requester know that you won’t be able to attend.
If you’re the one calling the meeting, send invitees a note, description, or some sort of heads up along with your calendar invitations. This’ll give them an idea of why they were invited or need to be there. Try an app like Do or Solid to help keep your meetings organized and actionable.
Schedule meetings in bulk if you can. This is a strategic way to ensure the time you do have outside of meetings is spent as productively as possible, since it takes people an average of 23 minutes to refocus after switching tasks.

Speaking of which …

11. Multitasking.

Multitasking can seem inevitable in our modern, ever-connected lifestyles. But it can make us less productive and increase mistakes and stress.

Why this habit is bad:

Remember that bad habit of not listening? People do that a lot during meetings when they try to multitask — whether it’s reading and responding to emails and messages, scrolling through their Twitter feeds, or something else.

How to break this bad habit:

Getting out of the habit of multitasking is difficult, but certainly doable. Removing notifications from your work computer (see #5) and putting away your cell phone (see #6) are two great ways to start. Other ideas include establishing a no-laptop rule for meetings, using the Pomodoro Technique (where you work in sprints in a way that complements the body’s natural ultradian rhythm), and planning your day in blocks that include built-in breaks.

12. Playing with your phone before bed.

Have you ever lay in bed with the lights off and spent a few minutes scrolling through your phone to respond to last-minute texts and emails, check Instagram, or scroll through TikTok? Now, raise your hand if those few minutes have ever turned into half an hour, forty-five minutes, or even an hour.

Imagine how much more sleep you could’ve gotten that night if you’d simply gone to bed when you first turned the lights off.

Why this habit is bad:

But it’s not just about the amount of sleep — it’s also about the quality of sleep. Studies have shown that people who gaze at a backlit screen right before bed actually report having lower-quality sleep — even when they get just as much sleep as someone who didn’t look at their electronics before bed. This is because presence and absence of light tell our brains whether or not they should release the sleep hormone melatonin that makes you tired. Because the LED lighting emitted by the screens on our electronic devices is so similar to daylight, it can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, causing us to stay awake for longer.

How to break this bad habit:

The best way to break this habit? Buy an alarm clock that’s not your phone, and charge your phone in a separate room so you avoid the temptation of checking it altogether. If you’re worried about missing an emergency call, then try sending those last-minute texts 30-60 minutes before you hit the hay. It’ll mean you get more sleep and higher quality sleep, leading you to operate at peak productivity the following day. (Read this blog post for tips on getting the most out of your sleep.)

13. Moral Licensing

Moral licensing is a common indicator of lower productivity at best and a fast track to a performance improvement plan at worst. Using a good deed to cover up a bad one is morally wrong and can become a bad habit before you know it.

Why this habit is bad:

Once developed, this type of bad habit can cause you to procrastinate on your work, take shortcuts, miss deadlines, and leave your team in a lurch. It might seem far-fetched in the beginning to cut corners when nobody is watching, but after it’s become a habit, it can wreak havoc on your productivity and work life balance.

How to break this bad habit:

Instead of banking good actions to compensate for a poor action every once in a while, commit to doing what you say you will and following the rules set out by your workplace. If you feel as though the guidelines go against your own morals, bring this up with your manager or consider looking for a new opportunity.

14. Sitting down too often.

If you work a sedentary job, it may be difficult to remember to stand up from time to time. This is especially true if you participate in a lot of meetings and calls

Why this habit is bad:

Sitting for too long is related to several health issues like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and other metabolic issues. All of this can not only lead to a lower quality of life, but potentially death.

How to break this bad habit:

Standing up for a few minutes each hour can do wonders for your mental and physical health during the workday. For one, you engage more muscles when you stand which is great for maintaining proper posture and mobility. In addition to that, you’ll circulate blood flow which can help you think more clearly.

Use a tool like a fitness watch to remind you to stand throughout the day. Or, use a free timer on your desktop or cellphone to alert you when it’s time to stand up for a moment.

15. Poor prioritization.

Have you ever woken up and immediately felt like tasks, events, and requests were happening to you rather than you choosing to participate in them? This can be the result of poor prioritization.

Why this habit is bad:

When you’re not in control of your priorities each day, it’s not likely that you’ll get to the tasks and activities that you wanted to. You’ll be in reaction mode—prioritizing everything for everyone else.

How to break this bad habit:

To improve your prioritization, there are a few techniques you can try. Creating a list is a popular way to focus on what you plan to get done each day. Some people schedule each hour of their day in a digital calendar—equipped with reminders and alarms to keep them on schedule. Whether you go the manual or digital route, prioritizing your day first thing in the morning can break the bad habit of poor prioritization.

16. Over-planning

Just as we mentioned above, prioritizing your day is a great habit to start doing to become more productive. But over-planning can lead to some bad habits as well.

Why this habit is bad:

Planning every second of your day without room for personal matters, urgent tasks, travel time, and a moment for reflection can lead to burnout—especially if you’re mindlessly following a script you’ve created for yourself.

How to break this bad habit:

Instead, get comfortable with the idea of flexibility in your day. Aim for no more than five to seven must-do tasks per day and leave a few hours open. That way, you’ll feel good about prioritizing what you need to do while still having time (and a clear mind) to help others, or simply rest and recharge for the next day.

17. Being late.

Better late than never, but never late is better. Punctuality is a skill that is not innate in most people, it is something we all have to learn as children and practice constantly as adults. The key to not developing the bad habit of being late in the first place is to value your own time and the time of others.

Why this habit is bad:

When you’re late, you indirectly tell the other person that your time is more valuable than theirs. And I get it—sometimes things come up and being late is unavoidable. That’s where prompt communication comes into play to rectify the situation. But if you’re always running out of time, rushing through the door, or joining a meeting a minute or two behind schedule, this could be a bad habit in the making.

How to break this bad habit:

Time management best practices are prevalent, and just about anyone you ask will have a tip or trick for you to try. One tip in particular that works well to increase productivity is adding buffers to your digital calendar. For example, if you have a meeting from 2:00 to 3:00 and another from 3:00 to 3:30, add a 5 minute buffer between the two by either scheduling the first meeting to end five minutes early or start the second meeting five minutes late. Doing this in advance when sending your meeting invitations is key—everyone will understand what time the meeting begins and ends, even if it’s an unconventional scheduling practice.

18. Gossipping.

Gossipping is a bad habit that many of us disguise as venting, but there is a difference between the two. Venting is conversation with a beginning and end—usually done in a safe space— that is typically outside of work with people who could offer help or advice. Gossipping, on the other hand, is a toxic bad habit with the purpose of being distracting and unkind.

Why this habit is bad:

Gossipping is known to tank the productivity of everyone who engages with it. Even if you’re only listening, you’re spending time and energy consuming unhelpful information when you could be focused on work.

How to break this bad habit:

If you’re the deliverer of the gossip, take a moment to reflect on your priorities. Are you happy with your career? Are there areas of your life where you’d like to see change? If yes, then talk to a trusted mentor, friend, or advisor rather than gossip about others. If you’re surrounded by gossip but want to stay productive, remove yourself from the environment by taking a walk, moving your lunch break to a different time, or meeting new people during the lulls in the day.

19. Not reflecting on goals for the week.

Going from week to week with no time in between for reflection and goal setting is a sure way to see a productivity dip at some point.

Why this habit is bad:

Without reflection, it can be difficult to see where your growth opportunities are, predict roadblocks, and be proactive in your work. If you’ve ever heard of people feeling as though they are on a hamster wheel, not reflecting on their goals each week is a contributing factor.

How to break this bad habit:

A simple 15-minute check-in at the end of the work week can be all you need to develop a healthy habit of reflection and goal setting. Here are a few things to consider during this weekly assessment:

Did I achieve my goals for the week?
What made me happy?
What went wrong?
Who did I help/who helped me?
What am I grateful for this week?
What are my goals for next week?

20. Poor Communication

When we communicate clearly and timely, productivity improves as a result. But poor communication can become a bad habit for many reasons which not only impacts you and your work but those you interact with, too.

Why this habit is bad:

Poor communication as a bad habit is pretty clear: sending last-minute emails or Slack messages, asking unclear questions, or leaving stakeholders out of the loop are all examples of poor communication that when done frequently or in conjunction with one another, can become a bad habit.

How to break this bad habit:

To break the habit of poor communication, keep two words in mind: be proactive.

If you’re estimating that a project will be later than expected, even by just a few days, communicate it as early as you realize. Your team will appreciate you taking accountability, but they appreciate the fact that they can plan around this inconvenience well in advance.

1. Research the bad habit.

Before you can begin breaking a bad habit, you have to understand why the habit exists to begin with. Almost all habits serve a need and have a trigger. But those two things may be difficult to uncover on the surface level.

For instance, if you have a bad habit of being late, the need is not that you have more time in your day. It’s likely that you need to prioritize your day better. With a little more planning, you’ll be able to see your time-bound commitments approaching and give yourself enough time to meet them.

2. Set a realistic goal.

Once you understand the need your bad habit serves, you can set a realistic goal around breaking the habit. Breaking bad habits does not happen overnight, and it may not even happen in the first week of the strictest habit management practices. The key here is the word “realistic.”

A common goal for people who want to break bad habits is to do it within three weeks. But once those three weeks are up, you’ll need a sustained sense of motivation to keep up the good habit. So set a goal around how you’d like to feel once you drop the bad habit. Sustaining this feeling will help you stay the course and kick the bad habit for good.

3. Change your routine.

Routine is one of the biggest influences of a bad habit. This alone can make or break your chances of success in kicking a bad habit.

If you know your mind goes on autopilot around 3pm at work, you’ll want to interrupt that routine before it begins. You can do this by setting an alarm, scheduling a coffee chat with a coworker, or taking a walk to redirect your mind away from the bad habit.

Although changing your routine alone won’t stop the habit in its tracks, it will make it harder for you to maintain the habit which gives you the space to replace those negative actions with positive ones.

4. Limit opportunities to attempt bad habits.

The environments we spend the most time in can influence both good and bad habits. To mitigate ad habits, it’s important to limit the opportunities where we could engage in them. This may mean changing your surroundings more often or limiting contact with people who encourage bad habits.

And this tip goes for both remote workers and in-office folks. Bad habits can develop in both environments, so it’s your responsibility to be honest with yourself about when and where bad habits typically occur in order to improve your productivity.

5. Ask for support.

Nipping bad habits in the bud is hard enough, but going through it alone can make it much more difficult. Teaming up with a support network or an accountability partner can help you ease into the change without judgment or grand expectations.

Rather than relying on your own willpower, you can lean on your network for support as you get used to the changes you’re making in your worklife to be more productive. And while we all strive to be on our A-game, everyone has a bad habit or two to break, so be sure to return the favor to them when the time comes.

6. Implement a rewards system.

Breaking bad habits doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be rewarded for our progress. In fact, using rewards can help you stay on the good habit wagon much longer than if you relied on sheer willpower alone.

Make note of small niceties that you enjoy (and that are appropriate in relation to the habit you’re breaking) to treat yourself when you surpass a milestone. Just make certain that you don’t develop new bad habits in the process of breaking an old one, like spending outside of your budget, developing unhealthy wellness habits, or imposing on your friends and family to help you celebrate too-frequent milestones.

7. Be patient.

Last but not least, be patient with yourself. Since bad habits can affect productivity, it makes sense that productivity may not increase right away or even after you’ve hit your first milestones toward developing good habits. Improved productivity comes with time, repetition, and incorporating several good habits consistently at scale.

When it comes to ending ad habits and beginning good ones, enjoy the journey. You’ll likely learn a lot about yourself, your work ethic, and the environment around you so that you can prevent bad habits before they form in the future.

This post was originally published in March 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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