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The Necessity of Habits for Productivity

Dec 4, 2013

Habits require little thought or planning because we’ve done them repetitively over a period of time and have become second nature. Simple domestic habits might include making a cup of coffee, opening or closing curtains, taking a shower, or brushing teeth. Only when we think about it do we know that we have performed these actions; but at the time we were probably on auto-pilot, paying little attention to what we were doing.

Habits are essential for productivity for that very reason. Activities that have become habits require little in the way of planning or mental energy. We don’t have to think about the possible ways of accomplishing tasks that have become habits, nor do we need to analyse the potential outcomes. We don’t have to learn tasks each and every time we tackle them. We just complete them the way we always have, giving us more time to get on with other things and leaving our brains to function more freely. Habits make scheduling and planning easier as we can build our days around established rituals.

There are many habits that will help to make you more productive, if you can manage to form them. Some examples of habits which could increase productivity include:

  • Focusing on the tasks that will really make a difference and eliminating the things that don’t matter. This habit uses the 80:20 rule which says that 20% of what you do each day produces 80% of your results.
  • Tackling the task you are most likely to procrastinate on first upon beginning the day. In his book Eat That Frog! Brian Tracy suggests that “eating a frog,” or tackling an intimidating task, first thing in the morning will make you more productive for the rest of the day.
  • Choosing two major tasks each day that will really have an impact on your business or personal life. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey describes this as placing two ‘big rocks’ in your bucket before you fill the rest with less crucial tasks or smaller stones.
  • Taking regular breaks from work and getting exercise or fresh air. Building your day around an exercise schedule is a great habit to get into to increase energy and productivity.
  • Making specific time slots for processing e-mails each day, and creating a system such as Inbox Zero for processing your e-mails so your inbox doesn’t sap your productivity.

Identifying the habits you’d like to form is one thing« actually forming them is something else altogether. Bad habits are easy to form and difficult to break, while the opposite tends to apply to positive productive habits. There are three stages in forming a habit:

  1. Trigger – this is the environmental or emotional cue that leads to a certain behaviour
  2. Routine – this is the physical, emotional, or mental response to the trigger
  3. Reward – this is the benefit you experience as a result of the routine

The amount of time or number of repetitions it takes to form a habit is open to debate, but the general rule is that it takes around 30 days to make a daily task into a habit. Although a task may not truly become second nature after 30 days, it will certainly take less conscious effort to complete it.

Here are a few tips to help you in forming those productive habits:

  • Know what you want. Being able to visualise the positive impact of your habit will help to you persevere with it. Making a list of the benefits can be helpful, and you can also make a list of the costs so you can prepare yourself for them and offset them against the benefits.
  • Commit to your habit. Forming a habit takes effort and commitment. You may fail to maintain your habit on one or more occasions, but don’t give up, and make sure you re-commit to it each and every day.
  • Give up another habit. Replacing a bad habit with your new positive habit may make it easier to maintain. For example if you have got into the habit of heading to the office canteen for a coffee and a pastry first thing in the morning, replace that habit with tackling your most challenging task during that part of the day or eating something healthier
  • Start slowly and build gradually. Be realistic when setting goals for your habit and make them achievable before building up. For example if you’re a writer and you want to write 1000 words before breakfast every day, maybe you could start with 250 words and build up from there. This will be less daunting and you are less likely to fail. Writing 250 words every day for a month is better for forming a habit than writing 1000 words twice and then giving up.

When we can form positive and productive habits and make them part of our daily routine, it will free up time, mental energy, and creativity that we can channel into other areas. Often a new habit will impact an area that you don’t expect. For example if you shift your most challenging tasks to the morning, you may find you have space in the afternoon for further training or education that you thought you didn’t have time for. Take one productive habit at a time and repeat it over and over until it is fully formed, and you will find you are ready to to move onto the next.


  • Kosio Angelov December 10, 2013 9:21 pm

    Great tips Caroline! Habits are absolutely essential to productivity. What also helps me, in addition to what you have already listed, is to have an accountability buddy – a 3rd party that knows about your habit and is going to keep you accountable. Even if person checks on you once in a month, knowing that you are accountable to someone other than yourself really helps to form a new habit (or break an old one).

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