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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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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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