How do you create effective work habits?
You probably struggle with procrastination, time management, or focus. Everybody has been there before. It’s just how work is supposed to be.
Or is it?
Sometimes, it’s easy to be productive. But more often than not, it’s hard to get any work.
This is because you don’t rely on work habits.
Everybody can be productive once in a while. But if you want consistent progress, you need the right work habits.
It is easy to overlook your habits in a busy schedule. They take time to make an impact and you can’t wait weeks to see results. You got deadlines tomorrow!
But what if you could get immediate results while building long-term habits?
You’d finish the project and have more free time.
The question isn’t whether you need them or not, but what are the best work habits?
If you Google the question, you’ll find dozens of obvious tips: be positive, take initiative, show up on time,…
But if you only apply the five I’m about to show you, you’ll become unstoppable at work.
In fact, most of your success will come from this one:
#1 Deep-Work Habit
It’s no secret that great results come from hard work. But when you only have 24h a day, there’s only one way to multiply your output: focus.
How you work determines how much you do. Improve your focus, and it will take you less effort to finish your projects.
What happens when you combine hard and smart work? You get Deep Work.
Free Yourself From Distractions
Focus happens when there’s nothing else other than the task you want to finish.
All it takes is tiny changes:
- Power off the devices you don’t use
- Close other projects until you finish the current one
- Work in a moment of the day where nobody distracts you
- Keep in your desk the tools you’ll need, never the ones you don’t
Once you get rid of this resistance, your focus will appear like magic.
Work With Intention
Work doesn’t get done by just looking at it from your desk. If you’re “at work” with your mind at something else, you’re either getting nothing done, making mistakes, or wasting your time.
What to do about it?
- Set accurate tasks. Don’t write “work for 2 hours.” Instead, write something like “Finish editing the last part of the 3rd week’s video on this program before 5 PM.”
- Challenge yourself. Do as much work as possible within a small time limit (e.g.,25m)
- Follow a checklist. Create a list of steps on how to complete your tasks. So you don’t have to think of these decisions every time
Mind that it’s harder to focus the longer you use this “superpower.” That’s why you need to…
Optimize Downtime For Focus
It’s simple. The better you recover, the better you focus.
By recover, I mean:
- Giving yourself enough time to rest
- Not thinking of work at all
- Relaxing your mind
You can improve your recovery by:
- Spending your downtime away from your workplace. This is especially important if you work from home
- Avoiding overstimulating your brain. Spending all your downtime on social media will make you more prone to distractions while working
- Sleeping enough
- Doing physical exercise
Worrying less, in short. Who would have thought that not working makes you work better?
Not only downtime makes deep work possible. It’s essential for the next key habit…
#2 Consistency Habit
When the best rewards come from the long term, it’s not enough to get it right once. As they say:
“Success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in and day-out.”
Why is this second on the list? Because you can’t get results without consistency.
You can’t be productive unless you’re producing.
Consistency means you have no problem working (even if you don’t feel like it).
But wait, it’s easier than it sounds.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” — James Clear
Therefore, the secret is to improve your systems:
- Commit to a daily task that’s easy enough to never miss
- Slowly make it more demanding as you get used to it
- Set a maximum workload for the day and respect it
If you work too much today, you will make excuses not to work tomorrow. It is best to work at a pace you can see yourself following daily.
And the easiest way to do so is by doing it at the same time every day.
Schedule Your Priorities
I don’t recommend you to just write your priorities on a to-do list. You’ll find excuses to drag your priorities to the end of the day. There will always be something more “important” to do.
You need to allocate time to your priorities.
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” — Stephen Covey
If your goal is to read 30 minutes a day, go to your calendar and schedule:
4 PM to 4:30 PM — Read Atomic Habits
If something comes up at that time, your first instinct will not be to say yes. Instead, you will weigh in the benefits of each task a see what is best for you.
This way, you will be more consistent and less stressed.
Track Your Progress
What do you need to do today? How much did you actually do?
When you don’t track your progress, you signal to your brain the task isn’t important. Chances are you will fill your time with unimportant work and procrastinate.
If it’s not worth tracking, it’s not worth doing.
- If you have metrics to calculate your productivity, include them in a document and compare them with previous weeks
- Break your tasks down. If you need more than 2h to tick off a box of the list, you’re doing it wrong
- Keep a journal where you write your day in a few lines, especially on a bad day
Once your work pattern is more predictable, you’re ready to prioritize results.
#3 Prioritization Habit
No matter the project, there’s always one task that moves the needle. Nothing else counts unless you do complete that task. Especially when your time is limited.
Don’t try to do everything. Focus on the essential.
It may be intimidating, but this habit will save you hundreds of hours at work.
“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker
Avoid The Productive Procrastination Trap
Procrastination rarely means doing nothing. It’s about doing what makes you feel productive as long as it’s not the thing you need to do.
I call it a trap because it allows you to work on easier tasks by delaying the most important ones.
Don’t get me wrong. This “trap” can make you more productive. But you need to use it as a support, never as the primary method:
- You can do those small, urgent tasks as a warm-up, 20 minutes max. After you build that momentum, you work on the MIT (Most-Important-Thing)
- Tackle simple tasks that don’t require much thinking
- You can plan your day if you don’t feel like starting that project
Plan Your Day
When you feel productive, it’s easy to feel in control. But that feeling is misleading when the completed tasks aren’t important.
If you don’t plan your day, you’ll end up reacting to the distractions that come up.
The fix is simple:
- Write down what you want to do when, and where
- Consider contingencies. What if something ruins your plan?
- What did go well? What didn’t? Review by the end of the day to plan better for tomorrow
Tip: The best way to prioritize is to allocate more time to your MIT. If you have a complex schedule, that costs you efficiency due to context switching.
Minimize Context Switching
Context switching isn’t any better than multitasking. When you start more tasks than you finish, it’s harder for the brain to prioritize.
The answer? Minimize:
- Don’t commit to any projects until you finish the current one
- If a task takes longer than expected, finish it anyway. It’s better to lose time than to leave it undone
- Use batching to group simple tasks and separate them from your deep-work time
Not only will you manage your priorities better, but also save at least 20% of your time.
#4 Time-Management Habit
Anybody can do almost anything if you give them enough time. The problem is: time is scarce.
Time costs you opportunities. And you neither can create habits without it. That’s why time management must 100% be on your habit list.
So how do you do it?
Label Your Time
Despite its scarcity, time is useless until you use it. Without meaning, you’ll simply waste it.
Once you give it a purpose, that will encourage you to protect time and create more:
- Organize your activities in time blocks. You can’t switch tasks during these periods
- If your schedule involves multiple projects, use themed days instead of time blocks. So you spend the whole day on just one
- Be flexible time-blocking your downtime. Don’t over plan fun
Labeling time keeps you organized. But to create more time, you need a sense of urgency: treat every hour as if it was the last.
Pro Tip: When using work timers, don’t use countdowns. Instead, use a stopwatch to see how long you’ve worked.
Use Time Logs
It’s hard to realize how much time we waste when we have lots of it. But you can become more self-aware by tracking your time:
- Choose an app for accurate tracking (Toggl, RescueTime, Timely…)
- Every 1–6 hours, take a minute to write in a time log what you’ve done and for how long
- Calculate how you spent your time on each task last week.
- Which activities did nothing for your goals? Remove them so that you can spend more on the ones that matter
Try tracking some hours. Like magic, you’ll find yourself more cautious using your time.
You’ll probably find that you are spending more than you thought on useless tasks. So your next step is to…
Avoid the planning fallacy
Think of your project. How long do you think it takes to finish it? How long if you give your best? And in the worst case?
Are you assuming nothing will go wrong? That there will be no unexpected blocks? That you will have no bad days?
Ignore the planning fallacy, and you’ll end up with not enough time and lots of stress.
Do yourself a favor:
- When you plan the project, question your projections just in case
- Assume everything will go wrong to increase your sense of urgency
- Rate your tasks. Ask yourself: “How confident am I (from 1 to 10) that this task is the best use of my time?”
If it’s less than 9, stop it.
Not doing the wrong thing matters as much as doing what’s right.
#5 Reflection Habit
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein
You need to reflect on your results to fix what’s wrong.
Mistakes happen all the time. But how are you going to solve them?
You do that by reflecting on your work and yourself.
Reflection is what brings clarity to what works and what doesn’t. It’s about adapting your strategy as you get new data. It’s a must-have if you don’t want to waste time on frustrating mistakes.
And the first step is to take control.
You can only solve mistakes under your control. You can’t find solutions until you take the blame for your mistakes.
Change your mindset by:
- Correcting reactive language to a proactive one (e.g., I have to work VS I choose work as my priority)
- Looking for mistakes and writing them down. List every way you think you could have avoided it
- Listing some possible solutions to the problems and make it your priority
But the mindset isn’t enough. You need to implement a system to tackle mistakes.
In my case, I like to reflect on my week with weekly reviews. It takes under one hour and it drastically improves my productivity.
Here is a quick summary of what I do every Friday:
- Clear physical and digital inboxes. I organize my emails, files, and notes and clear everything I don’t need
- Review my week. I go over What I did, How I felt, and What went wrong
- Uncover insights for next week. I adapt how I work according to my results
- Plan my next week. I plan my work around my highest-leverage tasks
Use this review to evaluate your work habits and make sure you are using them effectively.
How Do You Implement A Good Habit?
Any habit is as good as its implementation. You will not see long-lasting results from using each habit once or twice.
It is all about nailing down each habit and sticking to them.
In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear goes over the 4-Laws to implement a new habit:
The 1st Law: Make It Obvious
- Fill out the Habits Scorecard. Write down your current habits to become aware of them
- Use implementation intentions: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]”
- Use habit stacking: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]”
- Design your environment. Make the cues of good habits obvious and visible.
The 2nd Law: Make It Attractive
- Use temptation bundling. Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do
- Join a culture where your desired behavior is normal
- Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit
The 3rd Law: Make It Easy
- Reduce friction. Decrease the number of steps between you and your good habits
- Prime the environment. Prepare your environment to make future actions easier
- Master the decisive moment. Optimize the small choices that deliver outsized impact
- Use the Two-Minute Rule. Downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less
- Automate your habits. Invest in technology and one-time purchases that lock in future behavior
The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying
- Use reinforcement. Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit
- Make “doing nothing” enjoyable. When avoiding a bad habit, design a way to see the benefits
- Use a habit tracker. Keep track of your habit streak and “don’t break the chain”
- Never miss twice. When you forget to do a habit, make sure you get back on track immediately
Use these 4 laws to nailed down your new work habits.
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Originally published at https://dansilvestre.com on February 22, 2021.