Let's be real: productivity is difficult. You get motivated, you set goals, you put systems and routines in place... but reality doesn't seem to care. Another urgent crisis calls, the baby wakes up too early, you get sick, or drama at work erupts, again. Your plans crumble under the weight of one unavoidable interruption or one obligation after another.
You can't guarantee an interruption-free, emergency-free, drama-free existence, even for a few days or hours. You can't control the world; you can, however, control your part of the world. When you build strong, helpful, energizing and overall good personal habits into your life, you lay down obvious tracks to follow. The stuff of life will derail you, sometimes, but the tracks will be there. The more consistently you follow them, the easier they become. You don't even have to think about it.
Build these important personal habits, one at a time, until they are integral to your life. The result will be you, but better, working at higher levels of efficiency, intelligence, creativity, and focus.
1. Value Your Sleep
Lack of sleep, or poor quality of sleep, is a pretty big problem: sleep deficiency results in increased risk for obesity and disease, reduced immunity, moodiness, and impaired cognitive functioning. You're just not as good at thinking, concentrating, being creative, solving problems, or making decisions when you're tired.
So why aren't we sleeping enough? Our ability to create artificial daylight, plus our tendency to get lost in screens and our weird cultural obsession with being busy enough, adds up to a devaluation of sleep. We have developed a caffeine-culture which awards points to the one who stayed up latest, got up earliest, and seems to be the busiest, most important, most sleep-deprived of the group.
Frankly, that's just stupid. Not sleeping enough doesn't make you important; it makes you tired. The truth is that we do end up getting "enough" sleep, somehow. But it's often due to lack of routine, sleeping in past alarms, sleeping away weekends and days off, or crashing for a short nap that stretches into all afternoon. We end up missing out on the parts of life we want to be experience.
The recommended eight hours of sleep per night is no magical number. The amount of sleep you need may be less, or more; you'll need to do some investigating to find out. First, start tracking your data: when you go to bed, when you wake up, your quality of sleep, and how tired or alert you feel during the day.
Next, give yourself either a regular bedtime or a regular wake time. If you set a regular bedtime, let yourself sleep until you wake naturally. Or, if you set a regular wake time, let yourself go to bed when you start to feel tired. You may need "extra" sleep for a few days as your body catches up, but soon you should start to see a somewhat steady sleep amount. Once you've determined that amount, stick to it as best you can. Say no to things that keep you up past your ideal bedtime, turn the screens off, or, if you know you'll be up late at an event, give yourself a later wake time the next day.
With adequate sleep, you won't be operating from exhaustion anymore. You'll process and analyze information better, you'll make better decisions, and you'll remember more. You'll get less frustrated by obstacles and feel less overwhelmed by big projects or complex tasks. Hypothetically, you'll even be less irritated by idiotic people, but I make no guarantees on that last one.
2. Exercise Every Day
Here's what happens when you exercise, according to neuroscientist Judy Cameron, Ph.D:
Immediately, the brain cells will start functioning at a higher level... making you feel more alert and awake during exercise and more focused afterward. When you work out regularly, the brain gets used to this frequent surge of blood and adapts by turning certain genes on or off. Many of these changes boost brain cell function and protect from diseases...
You take in more oxygen when you exercise, and your hippocampus, the part of your brain that makes learning and memory possible, gets a boost from all that extra oxygen floating around. Regular exercise can actually increase the size of your hippocampus, over time, effectively reversing, or slowing, the effect of aging on your brain.
Exercise makes your brain work better, in other words. It also gives you more endorphins, which make you feel happier and better about life in general. Pop quiz: Is it easier to tackle a big project, make a difficult phone call, or finish a complex task a) when you feel tired and down and sluggish or b) when you feel alert, focused, and optimistic?
I know, I know: exercise takes time. Who has extra time? When you're busy, stressed, and behind, exercising regularly seems unappealing and impossible. The benefits are worth the effort; it's when you're busy, stressed, and overwhelmed that you need exercise the most.
You don't have to join a gym or carve out an hour of time. Aim for 20 minutes a day, which will get you a recommended 2.5 hours of exercise each week. Making exercise a small daily habit can make it easier to stick with than doing a longer exercise session a few days a week. Daily means no excuses, no options, and no negotiating. It simplifies the process, by giving you less to resist or bargain with yourself about, so it becomes easier to just do it.
Tai chi, walking, and strength training are among the top 7 exercises recommended by Harvard Health, but there are plenty of other options. The key is to make it simple, accessible, and easy to begin.
3. Establish a Power Hour
You can call it something different. Planning time. Morning motivation. Evening ritual. Personal growth pursuit. Whatever. The important thing about this habit is not what you call it, but that you do it. Set a regular time. Daily is best, but biweekly or even weekly is acceptable. An hour is great, but not required; if thirty minutes is what you have, thirty minutes will do.
This habit is difficult to teach, because precisely what you do is up to you. The goal is to spend this time improving yourself and managing your life. Meeting those goals can look very different from one person to the next.
Here are a few of the things I do or have done in my power hour:
- Write in a journal.
- Do yoga.
- Pray and meditate.
- Read something inspiring and thought-provoking.
- Work on a new skill or topic of learning.
- Research something I'm interested in.
- Plan my week/day/month.
- Look ahead at future goals for the next quarter or year.
- Make high-level plans/strategies for future goals.
- Analyze processes and systems in my life.
- Complete a short course or class.
At first, don't worry about the agenda. Maybe write down some notes, or read a book or an article. Review your calendar. Think about a big goal and how you could work toward it.
It's the practice of attention that is important as you establish the habit: you are training yourself to give proactive attention to your personal development and your life. Instead of waiting for the next crisis, you're thinking about your desires, your priorities, and the things you need to accomplish ahead of the need. Maybe at first, you will always feel behind the need; that's normal. It will get better.
When you establish this daily time in your life, you will start to feel more in control of your life. That feeling of control will not be absolute; doubt creeps in, your task list is still too long, the stress comes back. But every day that you accomplish this small but powerful routine, you will sense the control grow and the stress diminish.
You will see that you are able to change things. You will gain perspective. You are on your way to creating and governing your own life, rather than responding to various events and circumstances, running frantically and never catching up. You'll start seeing things before they happen. You'll be taken by surprise less: fewer instances of "Oh, I totally forgot about the seminar today!" and more instances of "That seminar is tomorrow, I'd better get ready." Those are small victories, sure; but they add up to a life that's less stressful, less chaotic, more certain and confident.
The internal confidence you build by spending time on yourself and life management is huge. You'll start to get to know yourself. You'll start to peel through the layers of obligation and need and begin to discover your own desires and abilities again. And you'll start to see how to reclaim your time, how to manage your life, how to pursue your goals, how to reach your potential.
There's one caution with this habit, and that's to avoid the trap of overconsumption. It's easy to get addicted to the input portion of this hour, the part where you're reading or researching, doodling or sketching out plans or taking a course. Those inputs are good, but without a corresponding output, they create internal stagnation.
If you've been doing some kind of power hour for a while, but you feel stuck and unmotivated, this might be your problem. All inflow, no outflow. Stagnation creates self-doubt, which turns into paralysis.
After your habit is well-established, then, examine your input-output balance. Do some reading, researching, planning, and learning, then do some practicing, publishing, doing, sharing. Start producing what you're learning, even in the most rudimentary way. As you match output with input, you create flow in your internal life. Each small bit of progress creates more momentum, leads to more progress, and ramps your productivity (and happiness) up another level.
4. Give Your Brain Downtime
This habit translates into one really basic action: put your screen(s) away. Your brain needs downtime, time when it's not busy receiving and processing a million bits of information per minute. Attention and memory are "our brain's two most precious resources," says neurologist Richard Cytowic. When we squander them on barely conscious social browsing, game playing, and phone tapping, we suffer needlessly. Lack of stimulus-free time leads to depleted neural resources, decision fatigue, and reduced energy, while regular downtime helps your brain create connections and solve problems, improves your concentration, and, ultimately, raises your productivity.
There are many ways to help yourself do less screen-staring; probably the worst way is to mentally determine to "check my phone less" and then depend on willpower to make it so. Good luck, Chuck; it's not gonna happen. The phone habit is ingrained, deep and wide, and a private decision plus a waning supply of willpower is not going to break it.
Fortunately, there are better ways.
- Start by taking the "Smartphone Compulsion Test" from The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. I scored 8 out of 14; the results blurb explains that if you score (or answer Yes) to more than 5, "you might benefit by examining how much time you spend on your Smartphone and consider changing your use patterns."
- Install Checky (Android, iOS), Moment (iOS), or QualityTime (Android) on your phone to start examining your use patterns. Checky is a simple app that tracks two things: how often you check your phone and where you are when you check it. Moment and QualityTime track the amount of time you spend on your phone.
- Turn off app notifications. This will weaken the habit loop by removing (some of) the cues that trigger you to pick up your phone again. Alternately, use Airplane Mode to disable all notifications at specific times; just remember you'll be disabling calls during that time, as well.
- Give your phone a home. At home, I have a small shelf installed on the wall just outside of my kitchen; that's where my phone lives during the day. Find a similar spot for yours, at home, in the car, and at work. Anywhere that's not your work surface, your hand, or your pocket, because that makes your phone too readily accessible. The goal is to make checking and using your phone just difficult enough to require a conscious decision.
- Get an app to help you hold yourself to limits. How much time do you want to invest in your phone everyday? Use an app like Moment (iOS), QualityTime (Android), or BreakFree (Android, iOS) to set a daily usage limit. Freedom (Android, iOS) is an app that sets a block on your phone (or any device or computer) for a certain amount of time: handy for focusing during a work session or family dinner.
- Get rid of your biggest offenders. We all have those apps that just suck us in. Sometimes the best method is to simply remove those apps so they're no longer a temptation.
- Get your screens out of your bedroom: the phone, the tv, the iPad, the laptop. No, really. Make your sleeping space sacred and screen-free. If you like to work on projects in bed, set a time limit; an hour or two before bed time, take the screens out. Charge phones and devices a room away. If you're worried about missing an emergency call, assign your high-priority contacts a distinct, loud ringtone that will reach you in the next room. Get an actual alarm clock; remember those? They still work, and it's never tempting to just stay up way past your bedtime staring at your alarm clock.
Digital devices and screens are great, helpful tools. Too much is just too much. When you don't have downtime, you're just more likely to be anxious, distracted, and unable to let your brain rest or develop any kind of high-level perspective on your life.
Television can be a big distraction, too, and can negatively affect your sleep; set the same 1-2 hour pre-bed limitation, and unwind with a book, puzzle, art, conversation, journaling, or other hobby before bed.
Finally, you'll have to learn, once again, how to be bored. It's okay to stand in line without a phone in your hand. It's actually not bad for you to sit quietly on a bench, or take a walk, or have a conversation, or stare out the window, without devisus interruptus on the scene.
Rediscover the things you like to do, whatever they are, and give yourself guilt-free, undistracted time to do them. Your brain will be busy in the background, doing its thing, while you do yours.
Consistent Habits for Consistent Productivity
These four habits are going to be difficult to establish for most of us. It's probably best to choose one at a time and do it consistently for a month or two. Then add the next.
So much of your productivity success comes straight from your internal workings, your attitude, and your physical health and energy. Organization, systems, and productivity tools are great, of course; but being energized, focused, and positive is even better. Start there, and you'll be able to use your productivity learning, your systems, and your tools even better.
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