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Developing Productive Habits Requires Productive Action — How to Defeat the Cycle

Developing Productive Habits Requires Productive Action — How to Defeat the Cycle

    Have you ever known someone who consistently fails to complete things? Have you ever known someone who always gets the job done on time? I’m sure you have. In fact, I’m sure most people you know fall into one camp or the other. Which one of these two types of people are you?

    There’s a reason that 99.9% of people fall into one of these two camps, but not somewhere in between. How many people have you known that are just as likely to get things done as they are to let things slide? Come to think of it, I’ve never met a person like this in my life. It’s because the trend to complete or to procrastinate are not mere fluctuations in our mood or our environment, but habits in and of themselves.

    The key to getting things done is to consistently get things done. It is about building a new habit and making it so much a part of you that you don’t have to think about how you’re going to get it done and what you’re going to do to psych yourself up for it; you just sit down and complete it.

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    Motivation is important, but I’d contend that it’s not a big part of how much you complete. It can certainly affect you on an off day, but if your problem is repeated, regular procrastination, your problem isn’t motivation. It’s bad habits. In my opinion, this is the most fundamental piece of knowledge to changing your productivity patterns.

    It’s not about systems. It’s not about hacks. It’s not about the way you feel.

    It’s about the way you consciously and subconsciously approach taking action in general. If you’ve got a procrastination problem, you’ve most likely got one that affects getting around to changing a lightbulb at home just as much as tasks at work.

    The problem with is getting out of the loop; to form a new habit, you have to consistently complete tasks until it just becomes a part of your personality and attitude. And consistently completing tasks is the problem you’re having in the first place, so how the heck do you get out of the cycle?

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    Reminds me of the dilemma I face each morning: in order to drink my coffee and become alert, I’ve got to make the coffee, which is fiddly and requires alertness.

    (I’m not quitting coffee. Don’t even say it.)

    Start Small

    Discipline, which is at the core of building new habits until the associated actions don’t require discipline in order to be executed, is like a muscle. That’s nothing new. I’m sure you’ve heard this said many times before.

    What do you do when you’re out of shape and you want to get back in shape? To do this successfully, you start small. Of course, the temptation many people fall for is going for strenuous runs and workouts straight away, but what always happens, happens: they fail and give up.

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    To build any new habit, you must take small steps and increase the size of these steps only once you have no difficulty with the one you’re on. If you’re doing fifty push-ups in your workout and this becomes easy and unchallenging, you up the number. It’s the same with general personal productivity. You start by assigning yourself small tasks and once you fly through the little, easy items on the list, you step it up a notch and tackle something a bit larger.

    Be Consistent

    Whether you start small or you start big, you’ve got to be consistent. Doing push-ups each day for a week as you try and get back in shape, then forgetting for two weeks and doing it for one more week before you forget again, is not likely to help you out all too much. The progress you’ve made on developing new habits, and improving your fitness, will quickly disappear. Again, it’s the same in the case of learning this “completion attitude” — if you give your productivity muscles a work out infrequently, the time in between will murder any progress you have made.

    Fortunately, to assist our lazy and undisciplined minds, we have alarms which you can set on your phone, in iCal or Outlook, or whatever it is you use. Of course, the only problem then is obeying the reminder!

    Don’t Be Complacent

    The first and most obvious piece of advice that falls under this heading is: start small, but don’t stay small. It’s easy to get comfortable with your progress and not push yourself further. Remember to consistently increase the level of challenge or difficulty, no matter what it is you’re trying to master.

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    The second, less obvious, but perhaps more important thing is: don’t have an end goal. And by that I don’t mean you shouldn’t set goals and milestones, but don’t have a place where you’ll just stop trying and plateau. Life’s not meant to be lived that way. You can always improve, no matter what it is you are doing. The ability to fly through work so you can get on with life is no different. You can always build and reinforce the good habits that allow you to tackle consecutively larger and larger projects with increasing ease.

    If you stay on this road, there will come a day when you’ll want to tackle a project that everyone around you says is too big for you to realistically handle — and you’ll handle it with ease.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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