For most of us, life has its routines: we get up about the same time every day, we eat the same breakfast and we take the same route to the office. It’s a reassuring pattern that enables us to focus on the higher-functioning tasks. Or so we like to think.
In reality, researchers have found that 40 percent of our actions are not conscious decisions; they are habits we have developed throughout our lives. These automatic actions take place while we are actually thinking about something else, but they can set in motion patterns of behavior that can either power our success or sow the seeds of our failure.
Developing good habits that make you more efficient and productive can not only improve your work life, they can increase the satisfaction you enjoy in the rest of your life.
The key to changing habits is to find out the cue that is triggering the behavior and the reward it is delivering. The simplest good habit for success many employ is the daily to-do list written each morning with every intention of completing it. And then the bad habits intervene to keep us from accomplishing them.
I plead guilty to that – given the inundation of emails, phone calls, texts and information, I struggle to stay on task for that list I create each day. My solution has been to cultivate a positive habit to make myself more productive: I get up from my desk at least once an hour to get away from distractions and clear the clutter from my mind. It’s kind of like the free-throw shooter who steps away from the line after a missed free throw. By the time I sit down again, I feel a renewed sense of focus for the tasks I want to accomplish. And, by the end of many days, I have been able to take a chunk out of my to-do list.
There’s a great book about this issue called “The Power of Habit” by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg that outlines a lot of this information in more depth. He cites research that shows how changing habits actually rewires your brain.
So, how do you rid yourself of the bad habits and focus on the good ones? The answer: replacement habits. Habits are easy to develop and very hard to break. Research shows that you can’t really eliminate a habit, you can only exchange it for an alternative, like my habit of stepping away from my desk. It’s why many people who quit smoking gain weight, unfortunately. They replace their cigarette habit with compulsive eating.
Here are some steps to take for creating better habits that make you more productive:
- Assess your routines: What behavior is causing you to do things you want to quit. For instance, are you grabbing a sugary snack instead of a healthy one? Are you leaving the office before you finish a project or make that extra phone call to a prospect?
- The underlying cause: What’s your trigger for the behavior? Are you rewarding yourself with a candy bar in mid-afternoon? Are you using office distractions to keep yourself from tasks you don’t enjoy doing?
- What are you going to replace the behavior with? Can you grab an orange instead of a donut? Can you take five minutes to proof a document before you hit send?
- The plan: Once you figure out these steps, put it in writing and make a habit of documenting your behavior on a regular basis.
- Little wins: Don’t try to change big behaviors in one fell swoop. Look for little wins. In their own way, they will be rewards you can build on.
Duhigg’s book quotes researchers who have found that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whatever way you want. What habit do you want to change?