Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Are You Driving People To Distraction With Your Habits?

Make a habit of noticing your habits.

Behavioral and communication habits are often like tics–we do them as a spasm of movement or sound rather than on purpose. Repeated movement and vocal or sub-vocal habits are noticeable enough to others that they start focusing on those things. If you have a controllable habit that is distracting or irritating, you will do yourself and others a favor by eliminating it.

I want to be sure to emphasize that I am not referring to to tics that are neurological or psychological in origin. I’m strictly referring to habits that can be controlled–which refers to most of the habits we have, from twirling eye glasses while we talk on the phone to tapping out a rhythm with a pen, to squinting and making a weird face when we’re concentrating–and all the other habitual behaviors you can describe.

Even relatively benign words, phrases, sounds and actions become irritating after about three times in a few minutes or if it is noticeable every time you communicate. In an office setting or close work areas, repeated unnecessary behaviors and sounds can be tremendously distracting and can lead to anger and ongoing conflicts. Most of the time these can be controlled–although, as with any habit, it is not easy.

1. Purposely notice your own habitual behavior. Become aware of repeated actions. The moment you do some of the more typical habitual actions, notice it and see if you repeat it. If you do, make yourself stop. If you cannot stop on your own, you may have a medical or neurological issue that needs attention.  Among those habits are repeatedly touching the face, hair or clothes, scratching, tugging on the ear lobe, nose, throat, neck, lips or hair, as well as all the vocal habits that can make others uncomfortable and frustrated with you.

2. Listen to yourself and monitor repetitious sounds, words and phrases. You should be aware enough of what you are saying to be able to notice when you are repeating something. Examples include words and phrases (like, Doh!, Awesome, OK, Ummmmmm , You know, and similar exclamations or space fillers) as well as sub-vocal sounds such as coughing, sniffing, snorting, lip smacking, nervous laughs or chuckles, or anything else that others hear you say or do repeatedly.

Here are some general guidelines to avoid habits that irritate others in a workplace (or anyplace else for that matter.)

  • Keep your hands off your face, clothes and body unless it is absolutely necessary to touch, adjust or scratch something. If it’s necessary, do it then stop and don’t do it again. If it’s a real problem, leave the area and do what you have to do before you return.
  • Don’t make unnecessary noises. Unless you are speaking in a purposeful way your noises, sighing, singing, humming, gum cracking or chewing or other sounds are not communicating anything positive.
  • Don’t twist, wrinkle or screw up your face. Your face is what people are looking at while you talk. When you distort it or contort it habitually, you lessen your ability to communicate and leave a very unpleasant memory.
  • Don’t move around without a purpose. Leg shaking, finger snapping, head movement, neck twisting and other movements are very noticeable and become nerve wracking to others very quickly.

3. Have a friend mimic you or tell you about your habits. I’ve mentioned this before and know it is difficult and not for the sensitive. However, it is one way to know what others are noticing about you. Ask a friend to help you by pointing out even the most seemingly minor habit or repetitious behavior. Your friend will probably assure you it’s not a real problem. But, if it’s noticeable enough to remember, it’s a problem.

4. Don’t make excuses for your distracting habits, just stop them. None of us like to admit that we have a distracting habit, so it is easy to try to reduce embarrassment by explaining it away to  make it seem as though the other person is being hyper-critical. However, there really is no explanation the justifies being irritating, distracting or offensive to others, when it is within our power to control it–which is usually the case.

A supervisor habitually picked at the hair in his moustache. (Almost everyone with a moustache or beard habitually touches it and irritates the heck out of everyone else–which is why I don’t have one.) When his boss asked him to stop because several people at meetings had commented on how distracting it was, the supervisor said he knew it was irritating but it wasn’t really a habit. He explained that when he talked it tended to make the moustache hair get unkempt so he was smoothing it down and straightening it out. That is a pretty desperate excuse!

Even tics associated with Tourette Syndrome (TD), a neurological disorder, can often be treated with medication or self-management techniques to reduce the repetitive behaviors. If you do not have that kind of condition, you should feel grateful and resolve to show more control over the things you can control, since others may not have that good fortune.

5. Focus on positive methods and habits. If you can establish some positive habits they might help you replace the less effective ones. For example, an employee told me he had a habit of constantly humming or whistling under his breath as he walked through the office area and someone had commented on it. He replaced that with a focus on observing, smiling and talking to people or just walking silently with good posture and a professional demeanor. He said he never realized how habitual his humming or whistling had become, until he had to stop himself several times in one trek through the office!

The bottom line:When you communicate with others you are presenting yourself in a direct way. You want them to see you as positively as possible. When you are not directly communicating with others, you can still be observed and heard, and that sends a powerful message about you as well. Be purposeful about what you say and do. You will soon get over feeling self-conscious about it and you will develop more positive habits of posture, conversation, movement and expressions. Those are the kind of habits that make you a welcomed addition to any group.

March 2nd, 2009 Posted by | Assessment Centers and Interviews, Personal and Professional Development, Service to Customers, Clients and Coworkers | 6 comments


  1. My true confession is that I used to suck my teeth when I was typing or thinking. Ray, who you met in the class, walked over and told me I wouldn’t have teeth to suck if I kept doing it. I had a hard time stopping it but I did. This next one is kind of gross but it’s the truth, I used to pick at a mole on my forehead until it bled. It hurt too, but I scratched at it all the time when I was concentrating on something. I guess I got over that on my own because I don’t do it anymore.

    Should I tell my wife about her bad habits?

    Comment by wiseacre | March 3, 2009

  2. Hi Tina! I LOL at your comment about not having a beard or moustache! The habit I had was not even whistling, just sort of blowing air in time to music I heard in my head. I stopped myself when they moved us to really close cubicles. Everyone who works in cubicles ought to to be told ahead of time about how sound travels and even things like toe tapping can drive everyone else nuts. I just sent the link to this to a bunch of other people.

    Do you have ideas for how a person can tell a coworker to stop doing something repetitive that is irritating or distracting? D.

    Comment by denisek | March 3, 2009

  3. I think this is a gender thing in some ways. Women seem to notice things that men don’t. I don’t know if anyone in my office has a habit because I never notice. And I don’t know if I have a habit. But, my wife notices things like you do and will ask me about them and get mad because I never noticed. I get your point, but I guess I’m in my own world and don’t let anything else distract me. I caught the moustache remark though! Scott M.

    Comment by Snort | March 3, 2009

  4. Tina says:
    Thanks to you wiseacre, Denise and Scott for your comments!

    Wiseacre: I think you meant your question as a joke…but I’ll answer anyway! If your wife has a habit that is irritating or offensive to you, why not ask her to try to reduce it? If she does it around you she probably does it around her coworkers and they might like her to stop. The severity of the habit and the impact it has on you and your relationship with her are the important issues to consider.

    Denise: I’ll send you an email about your question and will do a post on that subject soon.

    Scott: I do believe people vary in their awareness of their environments. But, I get emails and comments in classes from both men and women about behaviors that drive them to distraction. In those same classes some people will say they never notice anything around them.

    In a workplace, awareness is another way to describe interpersonal sensitivity as well as environmental sensitivity. Maybe we can find a way to increase the former and reduce the latter!

    I honestly wish I wasn’t so aware of things around me, because I can’t seem to shut it all out as you do. On the other hand, part of my work involves assessing people and situations, so I benefit from that awareness sometimes.

    We’re all pretty weird, when you think about it! 🙂

    Comment by TLR | March 3, 2009

  5. What about a very nice woman who shakes her leg so much it shakes the whole row of cubicles? She doesn’t do it at lunch or in the break room, only at her desk. And, she twists her hair around her fingers all the time! She fidgets perpetually!! It drives everyone crazy! I hope a lot of people with irritating habits read your post!

    Comment by T. M. | March 4, 2009

  6. Hello Tina! Good post with good reminders. People with offices don’t usually realize what it’s like in cubicles and open work arrangments. There’s no getting away from each other! I didn’t comment on the last couple of posts, but they were very good too. Phyllis

    Comment by P.A.H. | March 7, 2009

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