Everyone wants to be more productive. I guess it’s natural, since we’re always trying to better ourselves. Productive people seem to have certain rituals and certain formulas for being more effective, almost down to a science.
Based on all the reading I’ve done, and speaking to as many people I know that I consider to be very productive, the main thing I’ve learned is that it’s no accident.
These people didn’t just become productive and build better habits overnight.
It takes meticulous planning and preparation, lots of measurements, optimizing, and reporting on yourself.
The main thing productive people do to build better habits into their lives, is they quantify their own life. Tracking every single thing they can, and then study the data to look for ways to improve.
In fact, sometimes they do this without even realizing that they’re doing this.
A few months ago, when I realized that I was starting to become less productive, and I was looking for ways to build better habits into my life, I started to do a lot of research into how to actually build better habits.
Here are a few things that I learned along the way.
IF This THEN That
Here’s an interesting statistic: 45% of our everyday behaviours tend to be repeated in the same location, almost every day.
The trick is to try and take advantage of this, and if we want to build new habits, we need to try and sneak them in somehow.
One way to do this, is through what’s called “if-then planning”, which means IF this happens, THEN I’ll do this. So, for example, let’s say you want to stop smoking, just saying “I want to stop smoking” is too vague.
You can say something like “if it’s lunch time at work, then I’ll go to the gym”. What you’re doing here is tying going to the gym to the lunch time, which in your brain acts as a contextual trigger.
From now on, lunch time means workout, instead of lunch time meaning smoking.
Just Get Started
There’s a lot of research that shows that if a project or task seems too big, we won’t want to do it, out of the fear of failure.
The biggest problem is that we fear just starting the task, because we envision the worst parts of it. It scares us to visualize how big of a task this actually is, and what completing it actually entails.
Once we get started, it’s human nature to finish it. This is what’s known as the Zeigarnik Effect.
So the next time you have a big project or task coming up, instead of getting overwhelmed, just relax, get started, and do a bit at a time.
Start Small, And Then Build Up
Stanford University researcher B.J Fogg says that the way to make habits stick is to make them so small they seem trivial.
The example he gives is about flossing your teeth. He says that to get that habit to stick, start by flossing one tooth per day, that’s it.
Another example is by Stephen Guise from Tiny Buddha. When he wanted to start exercising, he wanted to start small, so he committed to doing just one push-up per day, that’s it.
Personally, when I tried that method I found it to be too simple, so I ended up doing more. Depending on how you argue, you could say it worked for me, or it wasn’t good enough for me.
Barack Obama is known for never wearing anything but blue and gray suits. According to the president, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
According to one study, eating the same meal every day is a good way to lose weight, and build better habits into your life.
This is what’s known as the paradox of choice, made famous by Barry Schwartz in a TED talk with the same name:
When we are presented with too many choices, our mental energy is drained.