This week we’re talking about habits, specifically looking at some habits that help me stay productive and a few that don’t. We also discuss how to replace “bad” habits with ones that will really serve you in your daily life.
Productive Habits–and Those that Aren’t
We’ve talked a lot about habits over the years on this podcast because I believe our habits determine the quality of our productivity and our life. In his fascinating book called The Power of Habit (the subject of episode 147 in our Productive Reading series), Charles Duhigg says:
“Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.”
He cites a 2006 paper published by a researcher from Duke University that found that more than 40% of our daily actions are not actual decisions, but habits.
What’s a habit?
A habit is something we do automatically, without conscious thought–which shoe we tie first, which side of the bed we sleep on, where we put the milk in the fridge, the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning, the route we take to work and back. Duhigg notes the technical definition of a habit as “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”
- Habits of action — things we do (or avoid doing)
- Habits of thought — unconscious thought patterns that either serve us or don’t
The dictionary defines a habit as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” The brain favors the familiar because habitual actions consume less energy (in the brain) than non-habits. So when we do something repeatedly for which we get that dopamine hit, the brain sees that as something important and creates strong neural pathways to support it. The brain doesn’t differentiate between things that help us and things that hurt us–it just recognizes repetition.
Productive Habits (habits that help me)
- Regular exercise. This habit serves me because it furthers my goal of being healthy as I age. For me, this is what I call an anchor habit and what Duhigg refers to as a keystone habit, which is one that serves as a foundation for other habits. When I exercise regularly, I also tend to drink more water and to eat better, because I don’t want to undo the benefits of the hard work. It’s also a habit I need to nurture intentionally because I don’t like to sweat or breathe hard or work that hard, so if it’s not habitual, it’s easy to skip. I try to keep the habit going, doing it daily and not allowing myself to miss more than one day. To develop the habit of exercise, I had to start small, bargaining with myself for just 5 minutes on the treadmill and developing the feeder habit of putting my workout clothes on as soon as I get up. Once that 5-minute workout became habitual, I started pushing myself to add a minute or two, then over time another minute or two, and so on. Once I’d established 30 minutes of walking in the morning as a habit, I started increasing the incline, then pushing myself to go a little faster for a few minutes. Now I go about 40-45 minutes a day at a moderate incline, mostly fast walking but increasing to a jog for 2-3 minutes at a time every 5 minutes.
- Automatically writing appointments and other commitments onto my calendar. This is something I’ve done my entire adult life and something that has made a huge difference for me in terms of consistently being where I’m supposed to be on time and prepared. Every time I schedule anything, it goes into my digital calendar. I write down the day, time, name of the person I’m meeting with, address (if it’s away from home), login info if it’s a Zoom or Teams meeting, or phone number if it’s a dial-in. My digital calendar has an option to show travel time, which I use if it’s a meeting away from home, so the necessary travel time is shown on my calendar as well. I always set alerts, 15 minutes before if no prep time is necessary, 30 minutes before if I need prep time, such as to set up my podcast gear for recording an interview.
- Creating and scheduling content for TPW and the processes for doing it. This habit serves me because having systematized the process makes me more efficient and because I feel good about keeping my commitment to the TPW community of putting content out regularly. After nearly 7 years of podcasting, this has become habitual for me. I have a series of processes that I follow in terms of capturing ideas and choosing and scheduling topics.
- I use Drafts to capture lists of ideas and potential guests
- I outline episodes in Google Docs and share the outlines in Dropbox with my VA so she can work on show notes with me.
- I have a template for a checklist of steps to complete an episode; that’s kept in Asana, and shared with my VA.
- I have time blocked in my calendar to finish my part of the show notes, and a regular schedule for a new episode to be published early each Wednesday morning.
- Putting things away. This habit serves me because I enjoy a generally clean and tidy space and because it avoids letting things pile up into a big mess that requires a big time and energy investment to get it back in order. I generally keep countertops pretty clear and rooms generally tidy by cultivating the habit of putting things away as I go. I’ve trained myself to take the few extra steps to put my shoes, purse, etc., where they belong instead of dropping them on a counter when I come home. I’ve trained myself to notice when something’s out of place and take it with me when I go from the room it’s in to the room it belongs in. I try to store things as near as possible to where I use them, and if I notice things getting out of place, I evaluate where I’m storing them to see if I need to rearrange space to be more functional. I try to make it easier to put things away than it is to get them out (because I’m usually more motivated to get something out than I am to put it away).
Habits I need to work on
- Procrastinating. This doesn’t serve me because (a) I end up not finishing things that need to get done, or getting myself in a stressful time bind because I wait too long, and (b) I don’t like feeling like a person who doesn’t keep her promises to herself. I don’t tend to procrastinate on things I have committed to doing for other people, but rather things I have committed to doing for myself, such as putting things on my to-do list but not doing them. Generally, it’s things that require a lot of exertion, either physical or, more likely, mental. I’d like to work on cultivating the habit of doing the things that I put on my list–and not putting things on there that I’m not going to do.
- Staying up too late. This doesn’t serve me because if I don’t get enough sleep, I’m less energetic and happy the next day; it simply makes everything harder. Some of this is because I have trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep, and for that, meditation and/or the Calm sleep stories have made a huge difference. I have a comfortable pair of Bluetooth headphones I can fall asleep in so I don’t disturb Mike with the sound. But I also have a habit of getting sucked into a book on my iPad or, worse, watching YouTube videos with my Bluetooth headphones on, and then staying up far too late. It makes it harder to get up in the morning, which can interfere with my morning routines and leaves me with less energy and a worse mood the next day.
- Mindless social media. This doesn’t serve me because I use up time I’d rather use for better purposes, like reading, working on important projects, or simply being present with the people I’m with. Like a lot of people, I struggle with addiction to checking my phone and looking for new messages and new posts on various social media channels. I find myself, when working on something that’s challenging or boring, interrupting myself to check social media instead of staying focused on my work. Similarly, when watching TV or reading or doing other things, picking up my phone to check social media instead of being present in the moment.
- Impulsive or boredom-driven online shopping. This doesn’t serve me because I simply spend too much money, sometimes on things I end up not using, and this gets in the way of important financial and personal goals, like saving money or decluttering the house. It’s too easy to see something recommended on, for example, a YouTube channel I follow, click the link to Amazon, and order it from my phone, iPad, or computer. I’m not a clothes horse, so I don’t spend much on clothes, but I do find myself impulsively ordering books or tech or household organization or decor items, among other things. The reward I get is that hit of dopamine, the pleasure of packages arriving at home. Because we have no student debt left and our cars are paid for, we are fortunate to have a fair amount of disposable income, so I’m not running up credit card debt (we pay our cards off in full each month) but still I don’t like the feeling that I’m spending impulsively and sometimes end up with things I don’t need or use. There are, for me, better ways to use our money and better ways to combat the boredom or anxiety that sometimes drives these purchasing habits.
Replacing “bad” habits with habits that serve you
- Start by awareness. Part of what’s difficult about overcoming bad habits is the fact that they’re so automatic–we don’t even recognize them unless we go looking for them.
- When you identify a habit that doesn’t serve you, study it. Keep in mind the habit loop (cue, action, reward). What is the cue that triggers the habit? When do you do it? What is the reward you’re getting from it?
- Recognize that it’s very hard to “break” or eliminate a habit, but easier to replace it with a habit that serves you better. When you identify the cue or trigger for a habit you want to replace and the reward you’re getting from it, intentionally choose a different action you’ll take in response to that cue, preferably one that will get you the same level of reward.
- Intentionally practice this new habit loop until it becomes automatic–make it habitual.
In his remarkable book, Atomic Habits (episode 230 in the Productive Reading series), James Clear says that: “in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.”
What do you think?
What habits have you cultivated that help you stay productive? What habit would you like to replace with one that serves you better? Please share your questions or thoughts in the comments section below this post or on The Productive Woman’s Facebook page, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- How to Break Bad Habits and Create Good Ones in Your Planner – The Organized Money
- The Science of Habits (TEDx talk by Harvard researcher Marco Badwal)
- The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg TEDx talk
- The Power of Habit (book) by Charles Duhigg
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Calm sleep stories
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