Personal productivity as a habit

Laura Stack — №14 with Augusto Pinaud

By this point in your career, you’ve certainly figured out the basic requirements for achieving workplace productivity. You have a good idea of how to manage your time, set goals, prioritize your task list, shake off procrastination, and dodge perfectionism. In other words, you’ve learned the principles of high performance.

But knowing what to do doesn’t matter if you don’t do it, day in and day out, in all circumstances, even when you don’t feel like it. Fortunately, human nature serves you well here. Once used to a task, you can shift into a semi-automatic mode that allows you to perform the task efficiently, without having to remind yourself about what comes next. Having such a routine saves you time, effort, confusion, and conscious thought.

Now, I’m not telling you to just turn off your brain, and I certainly don’t mean you should ever stop looking for more efficient ways to do your job. But habits can help you achieve a consistent level of productivity. Mind you, this falls into the “easier said than done” category, because the overall productivity habit consists of numerous smaller, self-reinforcing habits that come together to maximize efficiency.

Formulating a plan

Most of your actions stem from established habits. The problem is that individual habits can work against each other. To use an analogy, if you hitch a wagon to four strong horses, all pulling in four different directions, you won’t make much progress. Ah, but when you get the horses yoked together properly and going in the same direction, off you go at a good pace.

So examine your routine and ask yourself what each of your existing habits does for you. If necessary, document your entire day from the minute you arrive at the office to the minute you leave. You may discover that some of your habits actually work against you. If you regularly arrive late or take a smoke break every hour, you can safely say you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Even necessary tasks can hinder productivity if you approach them the wrong way. Email is the classic example—checking it repeatedly diverts your attention and destroys your focus. Unless your job requires otherwise, a better habit would be to process your email in batches several times a day.

Again, easier said than done. But habit is all about making gradual changes to your behavior, until you break out of the old grooves and develop new ones.

Making and breaking

As you embark on your voyage of self-improvement, don’t get in a hurry. Accept that developing a new routine takes time. It’s best to work on one habit at a time (though you can simultaneously break an old one and replace it with another). Don’t try to multitask; “single-task” fiercely, focusing on making the new habit a solid part of your life before moving on to the next thing you want to change.

Once you’ve chosen a habit you want to modify or establish, make it a top priority. If necessary, write out a plan for setting or breaking the habit, with milestones to mark your progress. You may find it easier to form a new habit by making yourself publicly accountable for it. Tell other people you intend to change, so their expectations keep you on the straight and narrow. You can also join forces with a buddy trying to change a similar habit, such as compulsive cell phone or Facebook checking. Either way, the support you receive can push you farther toward achieving your productive ends.

Forging ahead

As you work toward setting a new habit (or breaking an old one), do your best to avoid falling back into your previous way of thinking. Don’t pretend the temptation doesn’t exist; when you get the urge to act in the old unproductive manner, deliberately do something else until the urge passes. Don’t fall prey to rationalizations like, “Just this once won’t hurt.” That can sabotage the entire effort; ask anyone who’s tried to quit smoking. Missing one day might not derail you, but missing two could. If you don’t persistently exercise the new behavior, then how can it become a habit?

As a mere human, you can’t possibly achieve perfection all the time; you may backslide a bit before you get your new habit on track. If it happens, don’t ignore the failure, but don’t fret too much about it. Just get right back on the horse.

And remember: Five minutes spent formulating and implementing your new habit is better than no time spent at all, even if you meant to spend an hour at it. If you just can’t seem to get going on the habit no matter what you do, stop and try to figure out why. You may discover that at some level, you simply dislike the new habit. If so, investigate the reasons. Do you find it distasteful? Does it require too much work? Does it simply not fit into your working style? Are you being lazy?

Once you’ve pinned that down, decide whether you truly want to pursue the habit. If the drawbacks outweigh the productive benefits, rethink whether you should develop the habit at all.

If the habit does seem worthwhile, determine which obstacles you must overcome to achieve it, and start eliminating those obstacles. Get serious about incorporating the habit into your routine. You’ll find it much easier to do so if you can learn to enjoy some aspect of the task, no matter how annoying, unpleasant, or unrewarding it may be. If you have to, just fake it until you make it. Sweeten the pot with some reward for putting your head down, focusing, and pushing on through. If you can subconsciously associate the task with something enjoyable, you’ll have less of a problem making it stick.

The bottom line

When properly applied, consistency is incredibly productive. Once you establish a good set of workplace habits and practice them so often they become automatic, you can conquer the world. Take care here: don’t switch your brain off as you work through your routine, because that can lead to unproductive ruts and “good-enough” behavior. But do take advantage of this powerful aspect of human nature to boost your workplace effectiveness and make productivity a glorious habit.

Photo: Flickr / adambermingham CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Laura stack

Laura Stack

Laura Stack is America’s premier expert in personal productivity. Since 1992, she has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of five books, including “What to Do When There’s Too Much To Do.”

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