How Habits Can Transform Your Productivity

by on Jul 24, 2017 in Careers

Why is it that some remote workers can get all of their work done in just a few hours, while others spend the entire day struggling to achieve much of anything at all?

The answer is simple: The achievers set positive and intentional daily habits for themselves. As a result, they are able to nail down their daily routines and create structure in their lives, thereby maximizing their productivity. The non-achievers, on the other hand, often don’t have positive routines and habits set in place. They lack structure…and productivity.

And structure, you see, is the number one key to success for remote workers.

Let me explain…

How Habits Work

Let’s start with defining what habits are exactly. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how all habits form a three-step process, called a “habit loop.” It all starts with a cue, or a trigger, which starts the routine, or the habit itself. The cue can be anything, such as a location, a time of day, an emotion, one’s surroundings, or a preceding action. Finally, there is a reward for completing the habit (which is what turns it into a habit, as opposed to just a one-time action).

For instance, let’s say you wake up every morning and crave a cup of coffee. Do you crave it right away or as soon as you step in the office? For some, the cue for coffee might be location and for others it could be time of day. The reward that follows the routine of drinking coffee will depend on each person. Some people might love the feeling that they derive from it, while others might get enjoyment from the way that it tastes.

Habits are so ingrained in our everyday life that for the most part, we don’t even think about them. They are automatic. But recognizing your habits—and learning how you can change the bad ones and create new, positive ones—is the first step towards productivity.

How to Create New Habits

Developing new habits doesn’t always happen seamlessly. It often takes discipline and effort in order to become a habit. And for whatever reason, it always seems easier to fall into bad habits than to develop positive ones.

Let’s say you want to create a new habit of waking up early each morning. You’ll need to create a cue, or something that will remind you of the habit (like setting your alarm). The reward might be making yourself a cup of coffee or listening to your favorite podcast as soon as you wake up. Once you identify the cue and reward, it will be easier for the action to become habitual.

Group habits are easier to evolve than individual ones, since, as Duhigg discusses, people face peer pressure to continue the action. If you are trying to set personal habits for yourself, it’s important to keep in mind that habits are much more likely to take form if there is some sort of craving involved in the reward. For instance, if you start to crave that cup of coffee or awesome podcast, then you’ll be that much more likely to eagerly jump out of bed as soon as your alarm goes off early in the morning.

How to Change Your Bad Habits

Here’s the thing: As Duhigg talks about in The Power of Habit, habits cannot be eliminated. Instead, they must be replaced. In order to replace a bad habit, you have to first think about the cues and rewards. Why are you getting the urge to complete a certain action? And what reward are you seeking from it?

For instance, let’s say you have the bad habit of always procrastinating. No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to break out of the vicious cycle of leaving your work until the very last minute. Ask yourself: what is the cue that is driving my behavior? 

Do you procrastinate whenever your phone is around? Maybe you need to turn your phone on airplane mode for one hour at a time. Then reward your productivity by checking it for ten or fifteen minutes each hour.

Do you procrastinate because you aren’t interested in the work you’re doing? Maybe that’s a sign that you should reassign yourself new projects—or transition into a role that makes you happier.

Is it because you simply feel too overwhelmed with everything you have to do? Consider having a talk with your manager and seeing if some of the work can be distributed more equally. If that isn’t an option, then maybe you can break up your tasks into manageable bits or write out a schedule for yourself each day.

The trick is to think about what is triggering the action (or in this case, lack of action) so that you can then replace slacking off with another, more productive behavior—like tackling your work early in the day. That way, when that familiar urge to procrastinate comes, your substitute action will kick in instead.

Also think about the rewards that you are seeking from the routine. Does procrastinating make you feel less stressed temporarily? If that’s the case, then for each time that you get your work done early, you can reward yourself with some meditation or a relaxing movie—whatever might help you feel relaxed.

Maybe you procrastinate because you think you have all the time in the world and simply prefer to put it off until later. In that case, set a time limit for yourself. Make plans for later (even if it’s just a movie date with yourself), so that you have to finish your work by a certain time. Set an alarm if you have to. And for each time that you are productive and get your work done by the time you have planned, reward yourself. That way, you will come to seek the reward that accompanies being productive, and will be punished (with no reward) when you are not. Take note of how many hours you are wasting procrastinating. Writing it down will make it more real and will make you more aware of how much time you are throwing out the window.

If you do that, eventually the habit of productivity will replace the bad habit of procrastination.

The Importance of Keystone Habits

Have you ever found that as soon as you change one small thing in your life, many other habits seem to change, as well?

Many people find that when they start exercising, they suddenly find themselves eating better, watching less TV, being more productive at work and feeling less stressed. That’s because exercise is a keystone habit or a powerful habit that builds other good habits and ends up having a powerful impact on one’s entire life.

Let me give another example, provided by Duhigg in The Power of Habit. When he was elected as CEO of Alcoa, Paul O’Neill decided to focus all of his energies on one thing and one thing only: worker safety. He wanted to make sure that Alcoa became the safest place to work in the country.

In order to protect employees, the manufacturing processes had to be investigated to find out when and how things went wrong. As a result, more efficient procedures were implemented, which led to higher quality products, lower cost of production and higher productivity. Since employees felt taken care of, they were also happier. And happier employees always leads to better results. A win-win all around.

In order to ensure worker safety, O’Neill implemented a habit loop: each time something went wrong (cue), the unit president had to report it to O’Neill within 24 hours and present a plan for ensuring that it would never happen again (routine). The reward? Only those who followed this routine were promoted.

As a result of this habit loop, communications systems completely changed for the better. While the initial idea was to create a more efficient communication system to improve worker safety, the new system did much more than that. Employees had the newfound liberty to speak up not only about safety issues, but also about ideas that they had on how things could be improved.

Alcoa also created the first international electronic network for safety reasons (keep in mind that this was before the era of email), but this network ended up becoming a platform for sharing information and exchanging ideas, which gave the company an edge over their competition.

And all of these changes happened because of one single habit…have I made my point?

So, start by implementing one keystone habit into your life (like making your bed each morning, planning out your workdays, or exercising several times a week), and you’ll find that all of the other good habits will start to fall into place simultaneously. Easy peasy, right?

The Importance of Willpower

We all wish that we had more willpower. After all, willpower is what makes us get off of the couch and exercise. It’s what makes us be productive and finish our work on time. It’s what helps us resist that box of Oreos tempting us on the kitchen counter.

So how can you get more willpower? As Duhigg claims, willpower is like a muscle. It can be strengthened with practice. And the best part? If you strengthen willpower in one part of your life, you will automatically strengthen it in other areas, as well.

At the same time, because it’s like a muscle, it gets tired, and the more willpower you use, the less willpower you will have reserved for other things. So if you are trying to making exercise into a habit, for example, aim to workout at the beginning of the day, rather than the end of the workday, when you will probably be tired and have used up all (or most) of your willpower on writing long emails or completing strenuous, mentally-tiring tasks.

So why all this talk about willpower? Because the more willpower that you have, the more ability you have to change your other habits for the better. And the more ability you will have to create new, positive-impacting ones moving forward. For that reason, Duhigg notes that willpower is probably the most powerful keystone habit of all.

So how can you turn willpower into a habit? Duhigg claims that when trying to change a habit or create a new one, we need to think about the challenges we are going to face and how we are going to deal with those challenges ahead of time. Then, when we are confronted with that challenge, it will be easier for us to follow our pre-determined routine.

For example, if you find that you are always checking your phone at work, so much that it is interfering with your productivity, before you can change that habit, you need to come up with an actionable plan. Maybe it involves turning your phone on silent, so you don’t hear it. Maybe you should delete the apps that are most distracting. Maybe you need to reach out to your friends and tell them not to contact you during the workday. Think about how you are going to overcome the challenges and temptations that you’re faced with (in this case, checking your phone). Then each day, practice spending more and more time away from your phone. For the first few days, you might check your phone every half an hour. Then every hour. Before you know it, you will have built the resolve to check it only a few times a day.

Of course it’s always easier said than done and it’s not going to be easy. But if you can strengthen your willpower even just a little bit, those other positive and intentional habits will start to fall into place simultaneously.

How Habits Can Help You Build Structure—And Maximize Productivity

First, you need to determine how to best structure your day to maximize productivity. Do you work best in the morning or night? How many breaks do you need to take in order to stay focused? Does it help you to read or meditate during those breaks? Or do you prefer to take a walk? If you aren’t sure, test out different things to find what works.

From there, define the small, manageable habits that you need to implement to follow through with those things and make them into a routine. For instance, let’s say you want to read during your work breaks, but find that you spend all of your free time scrolling through Facebook instead. Aim to read just five pages during your break. Those five pages will likely turn into more—and even if they don’t, you will have at least set a small habit for yourself.

In order to actually create that habit, think about Duhigg’s habit formula: cue, routine and reward. Set a cue for yourself and find a reward that you will crave. Set your book by your desk each day. This cue that will be pretty hard to ignore. Then think about a reward that will make you want to keep reading. Maybe that reward is as simple as the satisfaction that comes from increasing your knowledge or gaining a new perspective. Before you know it, reading will become automatic.

Or perhaps you want to meditate more (a keystone habit that has the capacity to increase your concentration and productivity, while decreasing stress). In order to make this a habit, set a yoga mat on your floor before you go to sleep (cue), so that as soon as you wake up, you will be reminded to meditate on that yoga mat. Having a visual reminder will help the action to take place. Then your reward for meditation could be taking a shower or making that cup of coffee.

Setting Daily Plans for the day is another keystone habit that can maximize productivity. At the end of each workday, plan what you are going to conquer the next day and approximately how long each task will take you. Write out your tasks in order of importance and in the order that you plan to complete them, preferably listing your hardest and most undesirable tasks first. That way, you can get your hardest tasks over with first (when your energy and motivation is likely to be at its highest), and everything that comes after will seem easy in comparison.

The important thing to is to start doing something, no matter how small it is. Oftentimes, motivating yourself to start doing something is the hardest part—but the good news is that once you make it into a habit (which now you know how to do), it won’t require any motivation at all. It will be second-nature to you. Your day will be composed of a collection of habits…also known as a daily routine. Your day will be structured and as a result, productive.

How We Do it at SUCCESS agency

In case you’re curious, at SUCCESS agency, we have many different small team habits set in place in order to add structure to our lives and maximize our productivity.

For starters, our team kicks off the day with our “Morning Hangout” and “Morning Rundown” sessions. In the “Morning Hangout,” we all spend 15 minutes talking about our lives. Sometimes, one of us will take the stage and, through a pre-prepared presentation, share something that we recently learned (through what we call “Value-Adds”). In our departmental “Morning Rundown” meetings, we all go over what we plan to tackle for the day and any collaboration needs that we have. These daily morning meetings help to bring our team together and facilitate collaboration for the rest of the day. In other words, they are tiny habits that help us to maintain structure in our workdays.

Here’s another example: Each team member must submit a “Daily Plan,” outlining what they plan to accomplish that day, along with the estimated time that each task will take to complete. It’s a small daily habit, but one that helps each person on the team to remain aware of what they need to focus their energies on and how they are spending their time. Then at the end of the day, we each post a “Daily Recap,” which, just as it sounds, recaps what we worked on throughout the day and how long was spent on each task. We also post a tentative Daily Plan for the following day. That way, we never “leave the office” without an idea in mind of what we plan to conquer the next day. This makes it easier to jump right into work the next day.

Wrap-Up

Structure and productivity are like two peas in a pod—without structure, productivity inevitably falters. And establishing structure (and maximizing productivity) means ingraining small, positive-impacting habits into your everyday routine.

Determine how you will structure your day to maximize productivity. Start by writing down a daily schedule for yourself, made up of the habits that you plan on following through with each day. Maybe that’s waking up at a certain time, followed by making your bed, a little meditation and then hitting the gym. Or maybe you prefer to meditate in the morning and exercise at night, when the workday is over (although keep in mind that you will have less willpower later on, so this will probably be harder).

Once you’ve found the schedule that maximizes your productivity (this may take a bit of trial and error), ask yourself: What cues and rewards can I put in place to ensure that I follow through with each of these actions every single day? How can I turn these actions into habits and create a daily routine?

Think about and try to identify some keystone habits, like willpower and daily plans, that have the potential to positively change everything else.

And remember: when it comes to habits (especially personal ones, which tend to be harder to implement, since you aren’t motivated by peer pressure), start small and then expand.

It won’t happen overnight. But once you’ve nailed down those positive and intentional habits, your day will become structured. In other words, it will become productive.

About the author of the post
Mary Blackiston is the Content Marketing Specialist for SUCCESS agency.