Improve Productivity – Develop Good Habits

Improve Productivity – Develop Good Habits

6 Steps to creating better habits

I am constantly coming across people who wish to change the occasional bad habit or develop some new habit or discipline to improve their productivity or performance. For instance, overcome the tendency to procrastinate or to plan more perhaps.

If changing bad habits or creating new habits was easy, we’d all be stars, but the truth is, it is not easy to change habits that have been with us for a long time. So I decided to put together a short article that spells out the essentials you will need to put in place in order to overcome bad habits or create new ones. I hope you find it helpful.

It turns out that goals are not as good at changing behaviours as creating good habits can be. Psychologist Wendy Wood of Duke University and some of her colleagues undertook a study in 2007 where they examined what happened to a group of students who developed the habit of exercising every morning. They found that, those students who  were shifted into a different environment were more likely to drop their exercise habit than those who remained in the same environment. Woods and her colleagues also discovered that people who have ingrained a habit, use less conscious thinking and have less stress than those who set themselves a goal and strive to achieve it. In fact what they discovered was that even after a goal was achieved, it is quite likely that a new habit will just continue.

Ie That is; Habits = less thinking and less stress.

In the study then, they identified a strong link between habits and environment. So Wood and her colleague David Neal at Duke University identified a theory of habit-goal interface. (In A New Look at Habits and the Habit-Goal Interface) They proposed three principles:

  1. Habits respond to environmental cues (ie. same place, same time)
  2. Habits arise when people use a particular behaviour to pursue a goal, and habits will remain even after people stop having that goal as a pursuit (ie. the habit of running every morning can aim towards the goal of losing weight; running will be habitual even when the ideal weight is reached)
  3. Habits do not change to meet current goals; they remain linked to the environment in which they were created (ie. running outside in the summer may not be transferable to running on a treadmill inside in the winter)

I think I can relate to this and maybe you can too. For example, I notice that when I am working from my office in Wodonga, I find myself going for my morning walk without even thinking about it. When I am in Melbourne though, I find I am less likely to do the same morning walk routine. It turns out that my habit of a morning walk in Wodonga every morning, has not been so easily transferable to my Melbourne office and now I know why! The environment is a factor to be considered.

The Habit Myth

Let’s also dispel the Repeat-ability Myth – It is not about days or repeat-ability. This is the Habit Myth. Truth is, it is different for everybody. The key lies in the goal you set yourself and how committed you are in achieving it! Sure the longer you do something more ingrained it becomes, but we are rarely motivated by how many times we have performed a Task. We are more likely to be motivated by seeing our progress. More on this below.

So with the above things in mind, I’ve tried to come up with 6 simple steps that we can all use when wanting to create new habits.

  1. Establish a Goal –  Firstly identify the change you wish to make and write it down –It’s OK to Dream Big at this stage.  What is it you want to change or what good habit do you want to create for yourself.  Don’t just leave it in your memory as a wishful thinking idea. Ie. I want to be a more proactive planner and less reactive.
  2. Small Steps Please. – Break it down into what you need to do to achieve the change or the goal you have established for yourself. Ie I want to spend 15-30 minutes each day planning ahead. I want to be more prepared for my meetings.
  3. Same Place/Same Time – As highlighted above, new habits are easier to install if we establish some environmental clues. That is repetition in the same environment helps create a habit. This is easy if the physical environment is the same, ie. The same office, but harder to do if you are always traveling. It may require some creative thinking on your part to identify an environmental  constant. It almost goes without saying, a geographical constant may not be possible.
  4. Use “IF-THEN Planning” (or the “When – If“ ) technique. This is a powerful way of creating a close alignment between a specific situation we are likely to encounter and the new action we wish to take. So  IF X THEN Y. For instance, If I find myself getting distracted by other workers, THEN I will only allow myself a 5 minute chat and resume work.Apparently this is all about reducing the need for the brain to stress or think. Ie. When it gets to 5.00pm, I am going to stop working and look at my calendar for tomorrow. Or WHEN I get invited to a meeting THEN I will immediately place create  a calendar entry for preparing for that particular meeting.
  5. Easy Does It. A little bit of preparation and thinking beforehand can help ensure we are more likely to do the what it is we set out to achieve. For instance, if when you wake up, you have to go into another room to pick up your gym clothes or shoes, you are more likely to want to roll over and go back to sleep. If on the other hand, your clothes and shoes are already out and beside your bed, you are far more likely to just get up and go. Or if there are no healthy snacks available, you may be tempted to reach for the Tim Tams instead! Or for a productivity example, if you are wishing to spend 15 minutes at the end of each day planning tomorrow, then make sure you have all the information readily available.
  6. Measure Your Progress. Finally, don’t Break the Chain! Measure your progress constantly until the new behaviour happens unconsciously.  Create some simple measurement so you see you are achieving what you set out to achieve. Ie apparently Jerry Seinfeld created a habit of writing some new material every day. So he put a big red X on his monthly calendar every time he wrote new material. None of us like to see a chain like this broken, so we are more likely to keep it up. So in our example of the meeting preparation, you might like to colour every meeting in outlook that you have done some preparation for. Ie they are in your calendar in one colour before you do the preparation and then you change the colour once you have done your preparation.

I hope you find some of these strategies helpful as you try and create some good habits that will improve your productivity.


Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, April 2014

Workload & Email Management Training/Coaching. MBTI Consultant

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