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What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits (But Can’t Get Started)

What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits (But Can’t Get Started)

It was 1978.

In the years that would follow, Dean Hovey would meet with Steve Jobs and design the first mouse for Apple Computer. But today, he was a junior at Stanford University, majoring in Product Design, and he was sitting in drawing class.

His professor, Jan Molenkamp, asked if Dean could draw the roof of Stanford’s famous Hoover Tower from memory. “Without looking, can you draw Hoover Tower’s roof? Can you recall its shape, color, and texture?”

Hovey was surprised. He wasn’t sure what to draw. Years later, he would write…

For the past three years, I had been a student at the University and ridden my bicycle or walked by Hoover Tower hundreds of times. Yet I couldn’t confidently state the roof’s shape or its color, or composition. While I’d seen it a hundred times — I really hadn’t. (Source)

Even though Hoover Tower was part of Dean’s daily life, he wasn’t really aware of it.

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I find that our habits often work the same way. We fall into certain patterns and routines — sometimes good, sometimes bad — without really being aware of the factors that are driving our choices and actions.

More importantly, just as Dean Hovey couldn’t draw the tower without first being aware of it, you and I can’t master our habits without first being aware of the decisions and actions we are taking on a daily basis. Awareness is the first and most critical piece for building good habits and breaking bad ones. Without awareness, even the most intelligent and talented people can struggle to make the right decisions on a consistent basis.

This may have you wondering…

What can you do to raise your levels of awareness? How can you change your bad habits if you’re not aware of them in the first place?

Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here is one tactic that has worked for me…

For Better Habits, Measure Something

What gets measured, gets managed.
—Peter Drucker

If you’re serious about making change, then you can’t sit around and hope to magically become aware of the important things. Instead, you need to make an active effort to measure and track what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

This is much simpler than you might think and it’s also one of the best ways to kickstart new behaviors. Here are a few examples…

Exercise — I have a good streak going with weightlifting right now. I’ve trained at least once per week for over a year (which includes travel to IstanbulMoscowItalySouth Carolina, Portland, and a handful of other places). And for the last four months in particular, I have been in the gym at least 3 times per week.

It all started when I began tracking my pushup workouts. That simple action prompted me to track the rest of my training with a more watchful eye. It sounds so simple, but writing down how many days I was training each week helped me get my butt in the gym more consistently. (And along the way, I doubled the amount of pushups I could do.)

Further reading: 6 Truths About Exercise That Nobody Wants to Believe

Writing — Before November 2012, I thought that I was writing consistently, but I wasn’t. Eventually, I decided to measure my writing output and realized that I was unpredictable and erratic. I wrote when I felt motivated or inspired, which turned out to be about once every three weeks.

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After becoming aware of how inconsistent I was, I decided to set up a Monday and Thursday publishing schedule. It’s been 10 months now and I haven’t missed a week. (You can look back in the archives and see every article I’ve written.) My Monday and Thursday posts might look like an old habit now, but the only reason I started writing on this schedule is because I measured my output and discovered my inconsistency.

Further reading: The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs and What is Your Average Speed?

Money and Business — According to many historians, John Rockefeller was the richest man in the history of the world. Recently, I read about his life and learned that Rockefeller was known for tracking every single penny across his massive empire. After reading about Rockefeller’s strategies, I was inspired to track my own finances even more closely.

What happened? I quickly became more aware of my finances and discovered a handful of places where I could cut costs and increase earnings. Furthermore, my increased tracking and measurement has helped me learn about things like tax efficiency and asset allocation, which I had previously thought very little about.

Notice that in each example above, I didn’t start by worrying about all the improvements I needed to make. I simply started by becoming more aware of my behavior. I tracked and measured. And by paying attention to what I was doing and how I was spending my time, ideas for improving my habits naturally presented themselves.

Your Challenge

It is all about paying attention.
—Dean Hovey

Nothing happens before awareness. If you aren’t aware of your decisions, then you can’t do anything to improve them — no matter how smart you are.

With that in mind, I’d like to challenge you to measure something in your life for the next week.

Pick something that is important to you and make an effort to be more aware of the things that drive your decisions and actions. Don’t worry about changing your whole life. Don’t judge yourself for not being as good as you want to be. Just pick one thing that’s important to you and measure it. Take stock of it. Be aware of it.

Your awareness and your habits go hand-in-hand. The simple act of noticing what you do is the first step for improving how you do it. If you recognize how you’re spending your time, then the next step will often reveal itself.

Featured photo credit: Chris Tse via flickr.com

More by this author

James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

3. Move Your Body

A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

4. Connect With Another Person

Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

5. Use Your Imagination

When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

More on the Importance of Taking a Break

Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

Reference

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