Liz Ryan: Ten Nervous Habits That Will Damage Your Career

We don’t know our own habits. Other people have to tell us about them.

I worked with a woman who could not let anyone around her finish a sentence. We will call her Beth.

Beth had a nervous habit that drove her co-workers crazy. Whenever anyone spoke to Beth, she cut them off. She couldn’t help it. Here’s how her conversations went:

Jorge, Beth’s Colleague: So Beth, the report looks good but we still have to add a pie chart showing sales by region. I think Emmanuel has that data but if he doesn’t, then –

Beth: After the sales by region pie chart goes in, what else does the report need?

Jorge: I was just going to say that if Emmanuel doesn’t have that data, Kristen should have it. Once the pie chart goes in, then the only thing we still need –

Beth: Kristen is on vacation this week – I wrote to her yesterday and I got her vacation response message back.

Jorge: Okay, well let’s cross that bridge if Emmanuel can’t help us out. I was trying to say that after the pie chart is added, we only need the list of new accounts opened this quarter, which you can get –

Beth: All new accounts, or just national accounts?

Jorge: All new accounts. You can get the new-account reports from the report writer, but you have to specify –

Beth: Who can help me create that report? I haven’t done one of those yet.

Jorge: Should I send you an email message? It’s very hard for me to finish a thought.

Beth: Sure, send me an email!

Beth’s boss finally clued her in to her exasperating tendency to jump on her co-workers’ lines and keep them from getting a full sentence out. Beth told me “I had no idea I was doing that. My mind moves at one speed and my mouth moves at a different speed.”

We all have habits we’re not aware of, that get the better of us at times. We may have had our nervous habits for years. They may show up all the time, or only when we feel stressed.

That’s why it’s a good idea whenever you have the chance to ask your co-workers and friends, “What habits could I cultivate to make my life easier — and which habits could I drop?”

Here are ten nervous habits that can hurt your relationships and slow down your career progress:


1. The habit of multi-tasking when you should be concentrating on the person you’re interacting with, and the words they say. Put down your phone, look at your conversational partner’s face and focus on what he or she is saying.
2. The habit of automatically saying “I’m sorry” when you have nothing to apologize for. Many working people have fallen into the trap of apologizing for things that aren’t their fault — just to make their boss or whomever is unhappy feel better. They apologize reflexively. Don’t do it! If someone is upset, you can say “That sounds frustrating. Let’s talk about how to fix it.” Not everything that goes wrong is a mistake on your part!
3. The habit of saying “Yes” whenever someone you work with needs help. It is great to be helpful, but if you are always available to save people who don’t take responsibility for their own desks, several bad things will happen. You will become exhausted. The person you helped will not learn how to fend for him- or herself. Worst of all, your valuable time and attention will be devalued when they are constantly available. Get used to smiling and saying “I’m sure you will figure out how to surmount this obstacle — you’re a very smart person!”
4. The habit of taking work home. A lot of people take work home because they don’t know how to wrap up their work for the day and turn their brain to a new channel. That’s a critical life skill we all need to practice! When you’ve put in a full day’s work, stop.
5. The habit of judging your success or failure at work based on your manager’s emotional state. Managers are people. They go up and down emotionally like everyone else. It’s nice when your manager is pleased with you, but you can have a successful day, week or month even when your manager is in a bad mood. Separate your own feelings from his or hers!
6. The habit of ending your sentences with “If you guys agree” or “If that’s okay.” You can make a declarative sentence when you feel strongly about something. You don’t have to tag on a plea or a disclaimer, like “But if you feel differently, that’s okay too!”
7. The habit of allowing people to interrupt you in your work. It’s fine to say “I can’t stop this project I’m in the middle of, but I’ll call you when I’m done.”
8. The habit of responding to every text and email the minute you receive it, no matter what the hour of day. We train the people around us. You will train people at your job to respect your boundaries, or you will train them to trample on your boundaries (because you don’t seem to value them, yourself).
9. The habit of skipping lunch to get a little more work done. If you can’t give yourself a break to recharge once per day, how can you run an entire career?
10. The habit of avoiding conflict by telling people “Whatever you want” when you strongly disagree. Eventually you’ll get tired of letting people push you around. You have a voice. Now is a great time to use it!

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