Making Emotional Intelligence Habitual

By Dr. Travis Bradberry

Having emotional intelligence (EQ) won’t make you successful. But, using emotional intelligence habitually will help you achieve your goals.

Today, it’s well known that personal and professional success are deeply intertwined with emotional intelligence. But logically understanding how emotional intelligence works and actually putting it to work for you are as different as night and day. For instance, do you behave with emotional intelligence even when your mind is still reeling from that curt email you just received from your boss? How about when you’re consumed by an impending deadline?

In order to maximize your success in leadership, communication, service delivery, or virtually any other endeavor involving people, you must turn your emotional intelligence into an automatic process—a habit.

The Shortcut to Habit Formation

There are two ways to form habits—the long way and the short way. Most of us are familiar with the long way. Do something every day for a minimum of 3-4 weeks (often 6-12 months) until performing that action becomes second nature.

However, few people know about the shortcut to creating habits. New York University psychologist Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues are some of those few. Gollwitzer’s team has amassed over two decades of evidence supporting the idea that wording can make all the difference between good intentions and automatic actions.

Allow me to explain. When we put our intentions into an if-then format, we create what Gollwitzer calls “instant habits.” For example, say you want to improve your self- management skills by working on proper breathing. Instead of saying, “I will practice inhaling through my nose and exhaling through my mouth,” phrase it as “if I read an irritating email from my boss today, then I will inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth.”

Gollwitzer has found that even a slight change in wording makes people up to two to three times more likely to stick to an exercise regimen, eat healthier, avoid distraction, or do just about anything else that pits our wills against our wants. So, why does this work? The “if” part of the statement gives your brain an automatic reminder to be on the lookout for a specific situation. Without that automatic reminder, your brain has to not only remember the intended behavior, but it must also constantly calculate whether a given moment is the right one to perform the intended behavior. On the other hand, when your brain recognizes that you are indeed sitting at your computer today reading an annoying email from your boss, it automatically cues you to perform the “then” action (i.e. “inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth.”)

A similar psychological mechanism gives smokers the urge for a cigarette at the end of a meal. The situation cues the action without the brain consciously thinking about it. The beauty of if-then formatting is that it doesn’t take years of behavioral conditioning to create the association between the situation and the response. If-then formatting creates the subconscious association instantly.

Creating Instant Emotional Intelligence Habits for Yourself Today

What behaviors are you trying to make habitual in the quest to improve your emotional intelligence skills? If you need some suggestions, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 includes 66 proven strategies for building your EQ. Nearly all of these strategies can become habitual if you turn them into detailed, if-then statements. The breathing scenario above is just one example. Let’s take a look at a couple of others.

If you find yourself hurrying through your day making rash decisions, then you might want to try self- management strategy #8 “Set aside some time in your day for problem solving.” Instead of saying to yourself, I will spend some time today on problem solving, decide that, after today’s team meeting, I will spend 30 minutes on problem solving. The key is to make the strategy specific to your unique situation by describing the time and place in which that situation is likely to, or will, happen (i.e. “in my office after today’s meeting”).

Maybe you have a bad habit of treating minor setbacks as though they are the first sign of the apocalypse. If so, you might want to try self-management strategy #9 “Take control of your self-talk.” In this case, you can state your intention like this: if I mess up the presentation today, I will remind myself that it’s just a mistake from which I can learn. Considering your reaction ahead of time will prevent you from falling into toxic self- talk, like I always mess up my presentations . . . I’m a complete failure!

By putting any of the 66 EQ skill-building strategies from the book into the if-then format, you will jump-start the process of increasing your EQ through trusted and habitual EQ behaviors.




Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmartEQ, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

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