Category: Productivity

Habit Stacking: 17 Small Productivity Habits

“The goal of a mini-habit is to be consistent. In fact, consistency is much more important than what you accomplish with this daily habit.”

"The goal of a mini-habit is to be consistent. In fact, consistency is much more important than what you accomplish with this daily habit."

The Mini-Habit

The idea behind mini habits is that you can get to a larger habit if you start small, create simple goals, and aim for consistency.

In his book Mini Habits: Small Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise gives the example of “The One Pushup Challenge.”

He was doing what a lot of us do. Feeling guilty about not working out, he tried to fit years worth of exercise into the first workout which created an all or nothing attitude (not to mention a focus on goals and not process.) Well, one day he decided to do the opposite. He did only one pushup.

This allowed him to check the box that he did his activity. Only he didn’t stop at one, he did 14 more. Then he did one pull-up and guess what? He didn’t stop at one. His workout went on like this and when he was done it was a pretty decent effort. It started with one pushup.

In Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less, author S. J. Scott writes:

The core idea behind the mini-habits concept is that you can build a major habit by thinking small enough to get started. Most people don’t need motivation to do one pushup, so it’s easy to get started. And once you get going, you’ll find it’s easy to keep at it.

Habit-Stacking

The purpose of habit-stacking is to create simple and repeatable routines (managed by a checklist). The goal is to get this out of the cognitive load, “because all you have to remember to do is follow the checklist,” and not each individual habit. You do this by doing the same set of actions in the same order and way each day. Checklists, do more than simply tell you what you need to do next, they help you deal with complexity and increase productivity.

“Linking habits together is a way of getting more done in less time, resulting in a positive change in your life. As you perform the stacked actions every day, they become part of your daily routine.”

 

According to Scott there are 8 Elements of a habit-stacking routine.

  1. Each habit takes less than five minutes to complete.
  2. It’s a complete habit.
  3. It improves your life.
  4. It’s simple to complete.
  5. The entire routine takes less than 30 minutes.
  6. It follows a logical process.
  7. It follows a checklist.
  8. It fits your life.

17 Small Productivity Habits

All of these habits are from Scott’s Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less.

I don’t agree with all of them; Most of these seem like common sense.

Scott argues that if you add them to a routine, “you’ll see a dramatic improvement in both the quantity and the quality of your efforts.” I think a lot of that improvement will be from simply bringing awareness to how you spend your time and what you’re doing.

#1 Drink a Large Glass of Water

Even mild dehydration can cause headaches and fatigue, affect your concentration, impair short-term memory and impede mental function. If you want to be at your most productive , it’s important for your brain to be firing on all cylinders. Therefore, you should make sure you are sufficiently hydrated before starting work.

#2. Schedule Your Day and Prioritize Your Tasks

Without at least a basic schedule, it’s frighteningly easy to get to the end of the day and realize you’ve achieved nothing of importance. At the very least, you should make a list of the tasks you want to accomplish during the day and decide where your priorities lie.

If you’re lost on how to make this change or what it looks like, let Peter Bregman explain.

#3. Focus on Your Three Most Important Tasks

Another way to plan out your day is to focus on your Most Important Tasks (MITs). With a daily schedule, it’s easy to try to do too much. Then, when you get to the end of the day and haven’t completed everything, you feel like a failure . Picking your MITs each day gives you something to focus on so you don’t waste your day on tasks of low importance. If you manage to complete your MITs, you’ll feel productive— even if you do nothing else on your list.

#4. Turn Tasks into Manageable Steps

For each task on your schedule, consider how it can be broken down into smaller steps.

#5. Create Accountability by Telling Others

If your tasks don’t have accountability built into them (like a client deadline), creating accountability by letting others know your intentions is a great way to discipline yourself into staying on task. You won’t want to embarrass yourself by admitting you didn’t get any work done, so you’re much more likely to achieve your goals if you make them public.

#6. Reward Yourself for Task Completion

To keep your energy up and motivation high, alternate your work tasks with small treats. These treats not only act as a break to replenish depleted levels of concentration, but also work like a carrot on a stick— you’ll work faster and with more enthusiasm when you have something to look forward to at the end of it.

#7. Remove Distractions Before Working

Rather than struggling against your brain’s natural inclination to procrastinate, save yourself a lot of time and hassle by simply closing your email tab and banning social media during work time.

#8. Clear Your Desktop

Clear all paperwork off your desk except what you will need that day. Put everything else into physical folders, file boxes and drawers— out of sight, out of mind.

#9. Play Music or White Noise to Improve Focus

Low-level background noise helps muffle any distracting sounds that could interrupt your work and has been shown to improve creativity and focus for many people.

#10. Do the Hardest (or Most Unappealing) Task First

Look at your list of MITs (Most Important Tasks) and underline the one that you know you’d put off indefinitely if you had the chance. Get started on this task before you have a chance to think about it. Don’t work on your other tasks until it’s finished.

#11. Commit to a Very Small Goal

Look at your hardest task and plan a small, easy first step to completing it that will take only a few minutes. Pick a simple metric that you know (without a doubt) you can complete.

#12. Work in Small Blocks of Time

The Pomodoro technique is probably the most well-known version of this technique. It involves working for twenty-five minutes and then taking a five-minute break.

#13. Track Time for Different Activities

Most people overestimate the amount of time they spend doing actual work and spend a surprisingly large amount of time doing mindless tasks. By tracking your time, you become more aware of how you’re spending it, and you can start to spot patterns in your schedule that are reducing your productivity.

#14. Use the Two-Minute Rule

If a task will take you two minutes or less to do, deal with it immediately and move on.

Keep in mind that this type of framework is how the urgent trumps the meaningful.

#15. Capture Every Idea
Our minds tend to wander. Despite our intentions they drift off from the task at hand. Rather than a drawback this is one of the fascinating ways that we gain insights. Pull out a notepad and write them down. You can come back to them later and, who knows, it just might be a great idea or the solution to a problem you’ve been working on.

#16. Write a Done List

Most people are familiar with to-do lists, but these lists can easily make you feel overwhelmed and demotivated if you try to plan too much. A done list has the opposite effect. By writing down everything you achieve each day, you’ll feel motivated to continue.

#17. Review Your Goals

Everybody has goals. Whether they are big or small, we all have things that we want to accomplish. Sadly, the daily hustle and bustle of life can make us get off track. You need to review your goals so that you can create plans to reach those goals, put your day in perspective and know what’s important to accomplish.

Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less goes on to offer small habits in six other areas: relationships, finances, organization, mental well-being, physical fitness, and leisure.

The Common Pattern To Procrastination

Procrastination

​​“Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace of which you have not availed yourself. It is time to realize that you are a member of the Universe, that you are born of Nature itself, and to know that a limit has been set to your time.”Marcus Aurelius

If you procrastinate, you’re in good company. Most of us, and I’m talking like 95% of people here, are in the same boat. “To stop procrastinating” is one of the top goals of many people I run into.

In his book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, Piers Steel says “Procrastination is pervasive. Almost as common as gravity and with an equal downward pull, it is with us from the overfull kitchen garbage can in the morning to the nearly empty tube of toothpaste at night.”

Steel perfectly describes the pattern common to all procrastination:

At the start of a big project, time is abundant. You wallow in its elastic embrace. You make a few passes at getting down to it, but nothing makes you feel wholeheartedly engaged. If the job can be forgotten, you’ll forget it. Then the day arrives when you really intend to get down to work; but suddenly it’s just something you don’t feel like doing. You can’t get traction. Every time you try to wrap your mind around it, something distracts you, defeating your attempts at progress. So you forward your task to a date with more hours, only to find that every tomorrow seems to have the same twenty-four. At the end of each of these days, you face the disquieting mystery of where it went. This goes on for a while.

Procrastination

Eventually, time’s limited nature reveals itself. Hours, once tossed carelessly away, become increasingly limited and precious. That very pressure makes it hard to get started. You want to get going on the big project but instead you take on peripheral chores. You clean your office or clean up your e-mail; you exercise; you shop and cook. Part of you knows this isn’t what you should be doing, and so you say to yourself, “I am doing this; at least I am preparing by doing something.” Eventually, it is too late in the day to really get started, so you may as well go to bed. And the cycle of avoidance starts again with the dawn.

At this point, in an attempt to quash our growing anxiety, we often seek diversion. Hello email or our new found love of cricket, a sport we had never thought to watch before but now find utterly fascinating. We go on facebook, reddit, twitter and the like which offers us a rush of dopamine. They provide small quick and continuous rewards, unlike the task at hand, which is a one time future reward.

Soon these temptations have seduced you. The task still waggles itself in the periphery of your vision, but you don’t want to look it in the eye—it will have you if you look—so you burrow deeper into your distractions. … Pleasure turns to powerlessness as you become unable to extract yourself.

Yet the deadline approaches and our diversions need to increase in intensity to match our growing anxiety. Avoidance kicks in, we don’t even want to open emails from people or with subjects that remind us of the dreaded task. Eventually something clicks, perhaps our desire to prevent pain kicks in and we start working.

Some inner mind has quietly boiled the task down to its essence, as there are no more moments to spare. You wade into the work, making ruthless decisions and astonishing progress. In place of that menacing cloudiness, a glittering clarity comes over you. There is purity to your work, fueled by the real urgency of now or never.

This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.
For some of us this initial rush is enough to power us through. For others, it is only the sprinter failing to pace himself at the start of a marathon. In the face of depleting energy and interest we turn to caffeine, sugar, and all nighters. Time runs out and we deliver what we have content that, while it was not our best work, at least we got it done.

The relief at getting a job done doesn’t always make up for doing a sloppy job. Even if you managed to perform brilliantly, the achievement is tainted with a whiff of what might have been. And this kind of procrastination has likely cast a cloud on an evening out, a party, or a vacation, which you couldn’t fully enjoy because half of your mind was elsewhere, obsessing about what you were avoiding.

Yet this is an excuse. Something that lets us out of committing ourselves. We convince ourselves that we could have done a better job if we hadn’t left it to the last minute…but maybe we couldn’t have. This way we never fail.

We tell ourselves that we will never never again be in this situation, that the cost of procrastinating is too high, that …

The trouble with such resolutions is that procrastination is a habit that tends to endure. Instead of dealing with our delays, we excuse ourselves from them— self-deception and procrastination often go hand-in-hand. Exploiting the thin line between couldn’t and wouldn’t, we exaggerate the difficulties we faced and come up with justifications: a bad chest cold, an allergic reaction that caused sleepiness, a friend’s crisis that demanded our attention. Or we deflect responsibility entirely by saying, “Gee whiz, who knew?” If you couldn’t have anticipated the situation, then you can’t be blamed.

We tend to explain procrastination as perfectionism. “That we delay because we are perfectionists, anxious about living up to sky-high standards.” But it doesn’t pan out.

Based on tens of thousands of participants— it’s actually the best-researched topic in the entire procrastination field—perfectionism produces a negligible amount of procrastination.

Piers offers a simple explanation for why we believe this theory despite the evidence. “Perfectionists who procrastinate are more likely to seek help from therapists.”

“You value rewards that can be realized quickly far more highly than rewards that require you to wait; simply, you are impulsive.”

 

As for combatting procrastination. That’s pretty simple. “Proper planning,” he argues, echoing the likes of Peter Bregman and Tim Ferriss, “allows you to transform distant deadlines into daily ones, letting your impulsiveness work for instead of against you.”

Still curious? The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done goes on to explore the science of procrastination.

Hyperbolic Discounting and The Science of Procrastination

Temporal Discounting

A great short video on the science of procrastination and the role of hyperbolic discounting.

Basically, when we procrastinate, we often choose things like video games, facebook, twitter, and even email. These options are very attractive because they provide small quick dopamine rewards, unlike what we’re avoiding, which is likely a one time future reward.

Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be — meaning, the further away the reward is, the more you discount its value. This is often referred to as Present bias, or Hyperbolic discounting.

Forget The “To-Do” List, You Need A ‘Stop Doing’ List

Warren Buffett

It’s interesting to think about the things you want to accomplish in life and work towards those goals.

This is, after all, what we’ve been taught to do since birth. But over time we accumulate other habits and end up spending our time on things that aren’t important to us.

Jim Collins, author of the cult business classics Good to Great and Great by Choice, suggests an interesting thought experiment (reminiscent of Alan Watts) to help clean the windshield so-to-speak.

Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

What would you stop doing?

In his book How To Avoid Work, William J. Reilly offers the three most common reasons we give for not doing what we want.

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it’s always one or more of three:

  1. ‘I haven’t the time.’
  2. ‘I haven’t the money.’
  3. ‘My folks don’t want me to.’

Each of these, Reilly argues, “melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it.” Time is the key. “Without time nothing is possible.”

Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats every living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

We invest time consciously and unconsciously. If you believe the advice of the wisest Americans many of us think about how our time is spent at the end of our lives, only to find regret about how our precious resource was squandered on the meaningless.

Collins’ thought experiment is an attempt to help us think about how we’re spending our time today, when we can still do something about it to change our ways. We don’t want to wake up when we’re 80, for instance, and realize that we unconsciously allocated all of our thought and effort.

But the value of this experiment applies not only to people but to organizations. The velocity and complexity of problems is increasing. In part, to ward off this pressure and delegate decisions to lower levels, organizations respond with a perpetually increasing internal information velocity. New policies and procedures are easily added while legacy ones are slowly removed. Culturally we value decisions to add things more than we value decisions to remove things.

Echoing the words of Steve Jobs on focus, Collins writes:

(This) lesson came back to me a number of years later while puzzling over the research data on 11 companies that turned themselves from mediocrity to excellence, from good to great. In cataloguing the key steps that ignited the transformations, my research team and I were struck by how many of the big decisions were not what to do, but what to stop doing.

A lot of people wait until the start of the New Year to pause and reflect but there is no better time than now.

Collins also suggests that you ask yourself these three questions as “a personal guidance mechanism.” The answers can be used to course-correct.

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What are you genetically encoded for — what activities do you feel just “made to do”?
  3. What makes economic sense — what can you make a living at?

Think of the three circles as a personal guidance mechanism. As you navigate the twists and turns of a chaotic world, it acts like a compass. Am I on target? Do I need to adjust left, up, down, right? If you make an inventory of your activities today, what percentage of your time falls outside the three circles?

If it is more than 50%, then the stop doing list might be your most important tool. The question is: Will you accept good as good enough, or do you have the courage to sell the mills?

Question 3 is the most complicated, perhaps because in the ‘find your passion’ movement doing what you love will not necessarily lead to a living. Cal Newport argues the counter-point: following your passion is horrible advice.

(Image Source)

An 18-Minute Plan for Managing Your Day And Finding Focus

We start every day knowing we’re not going to get it all done or fit it all in. How we spend our time is really a function of priorities. That’s why Peter Bregman argues in 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done that we need to plan ahead, “create a to-do list and an ignore list, and use our calendars.”

“The hardest attention to focus,” he writes, “is our own.”

***
The Ritual of Managing Our Day

We need ritual to manage our days, “clear enough to keep us focused on our priorities. Efficient enough not to get in the way.”

Bregman argues that ritual should take 18 minutes a day: Your Morning Minutes, Refocus, and Your Evening Minutes.

***
Step 1 (5 Minutes) : Your Morning Minutes

Echoing Tim Ferriss Bregman recommends planning ahead. Ferriss prefers the night before, Bregman prefers the morning.

Before you turn on your computer, sit down with your to-do list and “decide what will make this day highly successful.”

Take the items off your to-do list (a picture of Bregman’s to-do list is below) and schedule them into your day.

Berger's To Do List
Bregman’s To Do List

“Make sure,” he writes, “that anything that’s been on your list for three days gets a slot somewhere in your calendar or move it off the list.”

***
Step 2 (1 Minute Every Hour): Refocus

Some interruptions help us course correct.

Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour and start the work that’s listed on your calendar. When you hear the beep, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour. Manage your day hour by hour. Don’t let the hours manage you.

***
Step 3 (5 Minutes): Your Evening Minutes

“At the end of your day,” Bregman writes, “shut off your computer and review how the day went.”

Ask yourself three sets of questions:

  1. How did the day go? What success did I experience? What challenges did I endure?
  2. What did I learn today? About myself? About others? What do I plan to do—differently or the same— tomorrow?
  3. Whom did I interact with? Anyone I need to update? Thank? Ask a question of? Share feedback with?

***

The key to this is the ritual and its predictability.

If you do the same thing in the same way over and over again, the outcome is predictable. In the case of 18 minutes, you’ll get the right things done.

Bregman speaks worldwide on how we can lead, work, and live more powerfully. 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done is an easy to read book that will add a few tools to your toolbox.

Still curious? Check out how to be insanely more productive.

9 Habits You Need to Stop Now

habits to stop

Rather than read all of these self-help books full of things you should start doing to be more productive, it’s often better to look at what you should stop doing that gets in the way of productivity.

Looking at a problem backwards is called inversion and it’s often a better approach.

With that in mind, Tim Ferriss, the author of The Four Hour Workweek, recently talked about this in a short podcast on productivity tricks.

Here is Tim’s list of nine things you should stop doing right now.

1. Do not answer phone calls from people you don’t know.

The logic behind this one is that calls from people you don’t know are often disruptions. Further, these calls can sometimes surprise you and that puts you in a poor negotiating position. Just let it go to voicemail.

2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, says “One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task.”

In fact matching skills to the time of day is one of the most important changes you can make to improve your working habits.

You want to get out of a reactive loop. If you move creative and thinking work to the start of the day, when we’re at our peak, you’ll have the rest of the day to be reactive.

The window for peak performance is two and a half to four hours after waking. In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body, Jennifer Ackerman explains:

Studies show that alertness and memory, the ability to think clearly and to learn, can vary by between 15 and 30 percent over the course of a day. Most of us are sharpest some two and a half to four hours after waking. For early risers then, concentration tends to peak between 10 A.M. and noontime, along with logical reasoning, and the ability to solve complex problems.

Email is the king of making us reactive. How many times have you gone to the office, noticed you had a free hour, opened up outlook and had that hour disappear. Email makes us reactive. There is also some psychology at play here, email offers us variable reinforcement. It’s like cocaine for the brain and it makes us feel important.

Tim says checking email in the morning, “scrambles your priorities.” And checking email right before bed, a habit most of us have, impacts your ability to sleep.

3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time.
This is a personal favorite of mine.

Tim says:

If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics/questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you “can best prepare and make good use of the time together.”

If the agenda is not clear, force people to make it clear. It’s easy to call a meeting, especially in large organizations. The person who wouldn’t otherwise be entrusted to spend $100 of the company’s money can easily call a meeting with 10 people and spend more than the $100 in time. Making the agenda clear and specific inserts friction into the process. Not only will meetings generally be better and shorter, there will also be fewer of them.

4. Do not let people ramble.
This is one I hadn’t really thought of before. Skip the small talk. If you’re answering your phone say “I’m in the middle of something, but what’s up?” That helps people get to the point.

Tim says “a big part of getting things done is getting to the point.”

5. Do not check email constantly.

In The Tyranny of Email, John Freeman explains:

Working at the speed of email is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train—and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The email inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest—there’s always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day’s priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels–via email, Facebook, Twitter, instant message–and in this era of backup we’re sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand emails still sitting in our inbox.

So why do we email all day? I think we like the attention email gives us. Email is addictive in the same way slots are — variable reinforcement. Tim calls email the “cocaine pellet dispenser.”

6. Do not over-communicate with low profit, high maintenance customers.
While Tim doesn’t extend this to people, we all have people in our circles who consume a lot of our time but add very little meaning or value in return. You can minimize these (unhealthy) relationships.

7. Do not work more to fix being too busy.

This is really a matter of priorities. As in, you’re not making decisions. You need to say no.

Ferriss suggests defining your “one or two most important to-dos before dinner, the day before.” Work on those the first thing the next morning.

If you don’t know your real priorities, everything will seem important and urgent and that’s a recipe for disaster. The sweet spot is feeling busy but not rushed.

8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
Tim calls this a “digital leash.” I agree. I hate to tell you, but odds are, you’re not that important.

9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should.
Tim says:

Work is not all of life. Your co-workers shouldn’t be your only friends. Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting. Never tell yourself “I’ll just get it done this weekend.”

Work expands to the amount of time you give it. This is Parkinson’s Law. When you give it a lot of time, it will consume that time. Give it less time and you’ll be more productive.