It can be tempting to use the quieter summer months to start planning for what might come along in September. Whilst it can be a helpful process, even the best plan can only take you so far. What happens when a curveball is thrown in? What happens if your plan is challenged by people or circumstances beyond your control? Which folder did you even save the optimistically unrealistic document in anyway?
As John Lennon so beautifully put it, ‘life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans’. So a more productive and creative working life has to be more nuanced than sticking to the RACI matrix you created whilst on your sun lounger. To state the obvious, writing down what you need to do helps to organise your thoughts but it does not mean that you will do anything. No amount of daily RAG status recording (always, amber and red on the really important stuff, we find) will motivate you to do something that requires time, effort and discipline. Creating good working practices and habits is the only way to take control of your work and leave you with the sense of satisfaction that only true productivity can bring.
Habits are normal
Habits are in the very fabric of our daily lives. Most of our habits serve us well: drinking water, brushing our teeth, remembering to check that the hob is off before we go to bed. And, of course, we all have habits that are less useful or desirable: biting nails, drinking alcohol with that water, leaving the hob on…you get the idea.
Forming habits comes naturally to us. If something is necessary or brings us pleasure, it quickly becomes part of our repertoire and we are rarely conscious that this process is taking place. According to Steven Covey, an activity becomes a habit once it has been repeated more than 21 times. So it makes sense that the most persistent habits are those that we repeat daily or multiple times a day and are cognitively connected to other parts of our routine. That’s why whenever we switch off the kitchen light we feel compelled to check the hob. Completing a sequence of habitual rituals becomes almost impossible to deviate from once they become part of our routine.
So why does forming a new, positive habit often feel so clunky? In fact, it’s not the habit forming itself that is hard work, it’s breaking an old one. Quite often, in order to form a new habit we have to override the well trodden neural path we have created through those countless repetitions, replacing an old action with a new one.
This process can feel almost painful at first. That’s because it requires huge amounts of effort to control our impulse to complete the sequence of activities that the original habit is part of. We are cutting ourselves off from the gratification we feel when this sequence is completed. We are, quite literally, working to change our brains, ever so slightly.
A brain workout
In order to form better habits, we need to flex our mental muscles and work to improve our brain’s executive functions (the part of the brain that helps us to regulate our behaviour). When we perform our habits, we are under the influence of the more instinctive hippocampal region of the brain. This is the part of the brain that stores memory and generates emotional reactions. In effect, when we perform habits, we aren’t actively thinking; our brains are on autopilot.
To create a new habit, we need to actively involve our executive functioning in order to process the new instructions we are now reprogramming our brain with. If, for example, we always check our emails before we start to write a report (and then inevitably find ourselves in a downward spiral of procrastination) we will need to consciously stop ourselves from checking emails first, breaking the pattern of instinctive behaviour, so that we can reorder our actions; making the report writing our first action, rather than the emails. This act requires persistence, commitment, effort and, above all, patience.
For some, the idea of actively forming good habits not only feels like too much effort but may feel rigid and even a bit dull. Surely we should remain flexible so that we can meet emergent issues or make room for spontaneity? Of course, but, in his book ‘Atomic habits’, James Clear argues that forming and performing good habits actually creates more freedom in our lives. If we have already been for our daily 7am run, we don’t need to try to fit it in later or worse, feel the weight of guilt creep over us when we decide to watch that Netflix docuseries instead; making an experience that should be pleasurable, less so.
In addition, when something new truly becomes a habit, it feels just as easy as the less helpful habit it replaced. Because of this, it’s far easier to get back to. So, you don’t have to cram running shoes into the suitcase for your week on a Greek beach because it won’t feel like a herculean (or heraklean, maybe, if we’re being pedantic about the Greek reference) effort to get back into it when you get home. It will feel like a natural and welcome return to your normal routine.
Forming habits that create positive outcomes is one of the contributing factors to lives that are reported as being ‘happy’ and are associated with both success and satisfaction at work. So, it’s worth the time and effort.
The instant gratification trap
The biggest blocker to the formation of healthy work habits is the siren call of activities that bring us an immediate sense of pleasure - however minor or short-lived the feeling may be. We don’t need to watch this video of the ‘Marshmallow Test’ (but do, because it’s funny) to know that human beings find it extremely hard to delay the pull of instant gratification, despite knowing that the ability to do so is the hallmark of the most successful amongst us.
In order to cultivate good working habits, we need to try to avoid distractions and suspend gratification for as long as possible. For most of us, the meatiest and most rewarding part of our work requires concentration, few distractions and discipline. When we force ourselves to do this kind of work, we get into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a ‘flow state’ that, once we are in, helps us to avoid distraction because it brings us pleasure.
A new and positive habit that sets us on the right path is to, as coach for creatives Tommy Ludgate puts it, ‘create before we consume’. So, at the beginning of the day, before we scroll through our phones or check emails, we should write something down; a thought, an idea or even an action. Doing this gets the creative juices flowing and moves us towards action and away from procrastination. Even if this immediate act of creation is then temporarily interrupted by children, pets, partners, the realisation that we forgot to set our alarm and are now in a mad rush to get to work.
Take it easy on yourself
As we now know, the most deeply rooted habits feel easy but, after the initial pain of breaking a less useful habit, forming a new one doesn’t have to feel hard. We know that habits are best performed in sequence with other routines so, creating a cue for a good habit to follow is a good way of making habit forming feel that bit easier.
Putting a note pad by the side of your bed and your phone on the other side of the room is a great way to encourage creating before consuming. Switching off social media and instant messaging notifications on your laptop is another way to steer you towards work that matters. Setting aside time every day to complete ‘deep work’ rather than engaging in the constant stream of ‘shallow’ tasks (unless truly urgent) is another.
When you create the conditions for good habits to thrive, the plans you have made are far more likely to come to fruition than if you remain stuck in the habit of prioritising emergent, easy to complete and often mundane tasks.
We are not suggesting here that the only work habits that matter are those that involve closing yourself off to those around you and diving into solitary work all day every day. In fact, making time to attend to important work relationships should be right up there on your healthy work habits’ agenda. In addition, having someone to help you to stick to your most productive work habits is not only desirable but essential. Seeking support is always the easiest way to give yourself a break.
The new you
As a shorthand we have referred to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ habits but, in truth, no habit is objectively any of these things. Only we can decide which of our habits are helpful to us and which aren’t. In order to differentiate, we need to understand more about our motivations. We need to tune into not just what we want to do but who we want to be.
Deciding that you are a, for example, productive person, becomes the north star for habit formation. When you are tempted to check your phone for the 1037th time while writing a blog post (for example…), asking yourself, ‘is this what a productive person / successful person / serious writer / expert would do?’ is a great way to get back on track. Or, as journalist Lizzie Denning put it in her most recent newsletter, do the ‘future self test’ - what would the future, better you think of this?
Changing the habits of a lifetime can feel lonely and unrewarding at first but, if you stick with it, with support, you can keep that better version of yourself happy and get those best laid plans off the ground, once and for all.
To find a peer who can mutually provide support in this and all aspects of your career, find out more about Voco here.