How I’ve Become More Productive Than Ever

 

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” – via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Below is a list of habits that I’ve instilled in recent weeks/months/years. As of this writing, I’m maintaining them all.

  • Quick, one minute stretching routine every morning, first thing.
  • Second thing every morning: Write out my key habit for the day.
  • Twenty minutes of touch typing practice every day (I use and recommend TIPP10, it’s free).
  • Free write 1000 words every day.
  • Publish two blog posts per week.
  • 10-minute stretching routine every day.
  • Practice handstands every day.
  • A dozen myotatic crunches every day.
  • Running or gym 3-4 times per week.
  • Floss every night before bed.
  • Read an average of one book per fortnight (actually on a one-per-week pace this year).
  • Five minutes of meditation daily.
  • Text my mother every day, Skype once per week.
  • Write out six things I’m grateful for every day.
  • Note any kindnesses that come my way each day.
  • Track and record all my income and expenditure daily.
  • Daily review every night before bed (six questions).

It seems like a lot when I write it out like that, but I don’t find it particularly difficult to maintain all these. Everyone maintains many habits. It’s just that the habits of most people haven’t been formed consciously. Most of us never examine our existing habits and decide to replace those that aren’t serving our best interests with alternatives that will.

Many people might have a habit of watching TV for an hour a day. I decided that such a habit wasn’t going to help me live the life I want to live, so I dropped it and filled that hour with better habits, like reading and exercise.

Yes, forming a positive habit or dropping a negative one can be tough. I’ll give you a few tips below to help with that. But right now I want to say this: Once you have a foundation of good habits instilled and running on auto-pilot, you can’t help but improve yourself every day.

Lately I’ve been feeling amazingly good about myself and getting a lot of shit done. Not just ho-hum shit either; I’ve been taking regular action and making big strides on several projects that are important to me. And I credit it all to these habits I’ve formed. They’re working for me. I don’t even have to think about many of them any more. I just let them run, safe in the knowledge that they’re helping me become better, faster, stronger, smarter.

One key habit

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of forming good habits, a question for you:

What one thing could you do every day, that would result in your life being tremendously better one year from now?

Think about it and come up with something before you read on. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t take more than an hour each day, and preferably only twenty minutes or so. But if you did this one thing every day, you’re confident it would transform your life in a hugely positive way within a year. Success would be inevitable.

Might be something you start doing, like exercise or writing. Or it might be something you stop doing, like smoking or watching TV.

I came up with an answer to this question myself: Reach out to one person every day to either offer my help, or thank them for some positive impact they’ve had on my life.

I suspect that if I did that every day for a year, I’d make many people feel valued and appreciated, build an immense amount of goodwill, and form dozens of mutually-beneficial connections.

A dozen thoughts and ideas on forming strong habits

I’m not going to give you a five-step formula or anything like that. Instead I’m going to throw out a bunch of different thoughts and ideas on forming strong habits, in no particular order. Go down through them and pick out the ones that you think will help you the most, then try implement them. Some will work better for you than others.

1) Start small

Leo Babauta recently wrote about how to form the flossing habit. His advice: Start by flossing just one tooth each night. Sounds ridiculous, right? But it works. If you just have to floss one tooth, it doesn’t sound like a big deal; you’re more likely to stick with it because it’s so quick and easy. Once you’ve made a habit of flossing one tooth, then you start flossing two, then three, and so on. Before you know it, you’re habitually flossing your entire cake hole each night.

You can apply this to any habit. Instead of launching into a daily, 30-minute exercise routine, commit to just five minutes per day in the beginning. Once you’ve stuck with that for a few weeks, then increase it to ten minutes. Keep building like that.

2) Stack

I had a hard time forming the meditation habit, even if I was only trying to do five minutes per day. What eventually worked for me was to stack it on top of another habit I’d already formed. So now, every morning before I free write 1000 words, I sit down and meditate for five minutes. One habit acts as a trigger for another.

3) Change your environment

This is another way to remind yourself to do something until it becomes a habit. Sebastian Marshall would unplug his laptop and turn it upside down at night, so in the morning he’d be reminded to plan out his day in a notebook before jumping online and mindlessly checking email/facebook/whatever.

Another implementation of this idea would be to lay out your gym gear before bed so you can’t help but see it in the morning. If instead you have to go through your wardrobe and find some gym shorts and gym shoes, you’re less likely to go to the gym.

What we’re talking about here are barriers. They can work for you or against you. Build barriers that encourage the behaviors you want to habitualize. Destroy barriers that discourage them.

4) Practice doing things even when you don’t want to do them

Tynan wrote a great article about this a couple of months back. As he puts it…

The most important time to do something is when you don’t want to do it. That’s the mark of a champion– someone who knows what he has to do, doesn’t want to do it, but does it anyway. Anyone can write when they want to write. That’s easy. The hard part is when you’re not motivated, uninspired, and distracted.

The point of writing this post wasn’t to get another post on the blog. The point was to reinforce the habit of taking that “I don’t want to do this” stimulus and using it as a trigger for immediate action. I’m always trying to rewire that connection in my brian. Should do this, but don’t want to -> DO IT WITHOUT THINKING.

With any habit worth instilling, you’ll go through periods where you just won’t want to do what it takes. Most people will quit and fail at this point. Dig deep and do it anyway. You’ll be building two habits in one.

5) Key habit for today

Another tip I picked up from Sebastian, and this has been working phenomenonly well for me. Simply start each day by writing out what habit you want to work on. It might be something specific, or it might be more general.

For example, some key habits I’ve written out in recent days:

  • Write! Get Habits post finished, and about half of Population post
  • Get things done, avoid laziness and procrastination
  • Work on Project Gonzo
  • Strike up conversations with at least five strangers
  • Make every meal healthy today

Writing it out makes it way more tangible. But I also recommend combining this tip with the next to really get your ass in gear.

6) Daily review

I’ve only started doing this in recent weeks, and I’ve started small. My daily review consists of these six questions:

  • Did I achieve my key habit for today? ….. Y/N
  • Approx hours of sleep last night + naps today …..
  • Did I exercise today (stretch/run/gym/sport/long walk) ….. Y/N
  • How healthy was the food I ate today (scale 1-10) …..
  • Average energy level today (scale 1-10) …..
  • General productivity today (scale 1-10) …..

Takes about a minute to fill that out, and then I can look back over time and track my progress, see where I need to improve. The best part though is that it holds me accountable. I can’t just write out some big goal for my key habit in the morning and then forget about it. I know I’ll have to report back later, even if it’s only to myself.

7) Accountability and consequence

If you struggle to hold yourself accountable, then rope in someone else to help. Pick five people in your life that you really hate to disappoint, and tell them all that you’re going to have the first manuscript of your book sent to their inbox two months from today. Add some kind of monetary penalty if you think it will help (e.g. should you fail to deliver, you have to donate to a political candidate you despise).

I’ve used public accountability many times to help me form habits and reach goals. I simply write a blog post about what I want to achieve and as a result I end up pushing myself harder to succeed. I don’t want to have to report back that I got lazy and didn’t follow through.

The added benefit of letting other people know about what you’re trying to do is that they often pitch in with encouragement or helpful suggestions.

All that said, some people fare better by keeping their intentions to themselves. Test for you.

8) One habit at a time

Don’t try to form several habits at once. One per month is a good pace. If you can stick to that, you’ll be forming a dozen strong habits each year, enough that you’ll be leveling up your life significantly every twelve months.

9) Surround yourself with positive role models

Say you want to build a habit of doing yoga 3-4 times per week, but all your friends are party animals who go out drinking most nights. Plain and simple: Hanging out with those friends isn’t going to do your yoga habit any favors. You’d be much better off making new friends who are into yoga and letting go of those old friendships that don’t serve you anymore.

Many people get upset with me when I talk about leaving old friends behind. They think it’s selfish.

Here’s how it works though: Many people in your life won’t like it if you start changing, and some will actively resist or belittle your efforts. But you have to change in order to grow and learn and improve. So either stay the same, try to please everyone, and never become the person you really want to be, or willingly let go of relationships that aren’t mutually-beneficial so you can become that person.

Ultimately, you’ll be able to help more people and be a more positive influence in the world if you prioritize working on yourself and building good habits. So no, letting go of those so-called friends who hold you back isn’t at all selfish.

10) Don’t beat yourself up about failures

Every now and then, you’ll fail. You won’t go running when you were supposed to, you’ll go a whole week without writing anything, you’ll forget to do your daily review.

Happens to the best of us. The important thing is to not let that one-time failure turn into its own habit. And the best way to prevent that is to not get down on yourself.

The day before I finished this post, I didn’t achieve my key habit for the day. But instead of beating myself up about it, I resolved to get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed the next day, and rip through my to-do list like a man on fire. And that’s precisely what I did.

Besides, if you’re not failing occasionally, you’re not setting the bar high enough. Keep close to that edge.

11) Commit for 30 days

30-day trials are powerful. Try commit to doing something (or not doing something) every day for thirty days, and promise yourself afterwards that you can quit if you want to, or give yourself some kind of reward.

Usually what happens with 30-day trials is that it sucks for the first two weeks or so, but then you get into the rhythm of your new routine and start to habitualize the new behavior. Once the thirty days are up, you find that it’s really no big deal to keep going, so you do.

My vegetarian diet started as a 30-day trial. I used a similar approach to quit pornography. Later this year I intend to do 30-day trials of yoga and blog posting.

12) Use reminders

I’ve mentioned triggers already, and making changes to your environment. These can be effective ways to remind yourself to do something or avoid doing something until the behavior becomes automatic.

Mostly what I use though is my to-do list (I use Things for Mac). I set recurring to-dos in there for all the habits I want to build, and even those I’ve already instilled and wish to maintain. Feels good to check them all off, one-by-one as I go through the day.

You might prefer to use a pen-and-paper to-do list, or a calendar, or post-it notes all around your house. Experiment and figure out what works best for you.

If you ever catch yourself forgetting about a habit you’re trying to build (accidentally skipping a day or week or whatever), then your reminders simply aren’t strong enough.

UPDATE: I’ve added four more important productivity tips here, plus some important ideas to avoid burnout in this post.

Two things and we’re done…

First: That habit I asked you to think about? That one thing you could do every day that would transform your life in twelve months? Yeah, start doing that. Start yesterday if you can. Failing that, today will do. You have a dozen tools above to help you. No excuses.

Second: What am I missing above? Anything else that’s helped you build strong habits over the years?

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42 Comments

  1. Thanks Niall. This is a great list. I’m going to write down a key habit each day plus I commit to the daily review.

  2. Damn you Niall! Here I am, making excuses so I don’t have to write some of my novel tonight, and you have to bring up #4!

    For the record, I love this post. It’s kind of a kick in the ass for me to reevaluate the habits I have, and how I tend to let things slide after a week or so.

    Yay for you for still being thought-provoking, inspiring, and making me laugh after all this time I’ve spent following your blog! Keep it up!

  3. Interesting blog about positive habits and leaving behind friends that lead to an unhealthy lifestyle or make it harder to change to more positive behaviour. Just want to say here that twice when I have been going though a particularly hard time (once about 11 years ago and once last year) a person has come into my life, become my best friend for (the first one) several months or (the second one) several weeks, then just disappearing. I noticed they disappeared exactly when I was feeling better about my situation, no longer felt like the world was ending etc. And when I say disappeared I mean….email doesnt work, no FB contact nothing. Just gone POW!

  4. Wow…very inspiring post! Thanks Niall! Do you have any other methods of tracking your habits or similar stuff?

    I thought that the idea with the six questions at the end of each day was brilliant. If you have a grade from 1 to 10 for each one, then you can easily insert the data into a graph in google docs and see the overall evolution of your habits.

    You could easily notice trends this way.

    I’m planning to follow my coffee intake and sleep quality to see how one affects the other.

    Cheers!
    Radu

    • Yeah, that’s the really beauty of the daily review, being able to use the data to expose trends and see where you might be dragging.

      Any other methods for tracking? I use the free version of RescueTime to track how many hours I spend in front of my laptop each week.

      And I use my iPhone timer to track all the time I spend on individual projects I’m working on. Good way to figure out how much you’re really getting paid for the time you invest.

  5. Imagine. Motivate you through imagination. Why do (not) I want this habit in the first place? How would be my like with/without this habit say in 1 month from now, 6 months, 1 year. Imagine that you’ve already mastered the habit, imagine how good that feels. Remember those great feelings when you’re one day particularly down, when you don’t want to do the stuff. Remember why it’s worth the pain. Feel it.

    • Good advice. This was important for me with touch typing. I imagined how much time it would save me if I didn’t have to look at the keyboard and if I used all my fingers to type. I’m much faster now than I was six months ago, and still improving steadily. Keeping my 80wpm target in mind is what keeps me practicing for 20 minutes a day.

      • Yeah, that brings another important thing that I would have stressed in the list. Measure! Progress must be measurable. You actually do it very well.

        • What I mean is that it’s important to link habits to numbers: 80wpm target, 5 minutes meditation, 1 pound less every week, etc.

  6. I love this one! In fact I think I love it so much, I’m gonna print it and underline some lines with my yellow highlighter and hang it on the wall in front of my computer, which I turn on first thing in the morning even before I open my eyes… yeah, I know…

    Niall, thanks sooo much for this post! :)

  7. Thank you for the positive impact you have on my life! ;)

    Are there any “cheat days” where you would skip a habit for something more directly enjoyable?

    Do you believe a character is something that can be changed, as the first quote says?

    • Thanks for the comment, JB.

      Cheat days: Yeah, sometimes. But I only let myself off the hook if a) I think I’m approaching burnout and need the downtime, or b) If some big adventurous opportunity comes along that will prevent me from maintaining some habits, like a spontaneous road trip or something like that.

      With both of those scenarios though, I still try to force myself to prioritize and knock at least the top two or three things off my list each day.

      Can character can be changed? Yes, I believe so, absolutely. If you agree that a person’s character consists of such things as honesty, courage, integrity, self-discipline, confidence, etc., and that you can improve in each of those areas, then yes, your character can change. For example, I believe I have a much different character now than I did five years ago.

  8. I absolutely love the “One Key Habit” idea. I’ve really been having some struggles with my overall productivity, and I’m working on creating a “weekly attack plan”. Good article about it here:

    http://artofmanliness.com/2012/08/05/weekly-plan/

    I’m gonna apply that One Key Habit idea. The one task that will really propel me forward.

    Another habit, similar to the One Key Habit, is my Fear Crusher. Every night, before I go to bed, I write down a fear crusher to do the next day. It could be to call a certain person, do a certain activity, write on a certain topic. Something that I fear, and that I know will make me feel empowered once I do it.

    After a year of fear crushers, it’s insane where you’ll be.

    Finally,

    “And the best way to prevent that is to not get down on yourself.”

    Niall, I think that mental defilement you have is contagious. I read it as “to not go down on yourself”. Oh my. And here I am not taking personal responsibility for my own defilement, and projecting it onto you :)

    • I actually met a Dutch guy the other day who said he could go down on himself. I took his word for it.

      Haha, anyways…

      I like the Fear Crusher idea. I’m trying to get more in the habit of being social when I’m walking around, just making small talk with everyone. Benjamin Jenks of Adventure Sauce just released a free guide called Shoot The Breeze that helps with that.

      The best thing I find about the One Key Habit idea is that you can be as specific or as general as you like. Today for example, I have a ton of stuff to do but no one big thing, so my key habit is, “Stay productive, be proactive, avoid laziness and procrastination (including social).”

      Gonna check out that weekly attack plan now. Thanks for the link!

  9. I’m going to try http://todoist.com and a physical notebook and see what happens.

    Many of your habits are the same I would like to pick up (I’ve wanted to improve my handstands for years – honest!).

    My problem is usually that I try to add too many new habits at once. I get really excited about all of them but then they don’t always stick. Right now I should be writing my dissertation and finding a job. Of course I want to do a million other things as well…

  10. Great comprehensive post Niall. Coincidentally your daily habits are very similar to mine. I have done most of the things you suggest to get here – I am a great believer in little and often and I will try the daily review: that sounds like a great habit to get into.

  11. So glad I found this blog. This is the only blog that has helped me find the one habit that I will focus on. It is writing every day and I have also started a touch typing online course. Great idea,as is the free write for 20 mins idea. many thanks for the inspiration.
    Sue

  12. read this just blogpost when I needed it, “fate?” decided to quit drinking yesterday. I’m not a completely self destructive alcy but I have fallen into a habit of drinking a bottle of wine and watching a movie just to unwind in the evening. Thanks for some great advice, I’m going to replace the habit with reading more in the evenings

  13. It may seem banal, but I’m glad you touch base with your mom.
    A lot of the minimalist guys seem so obsessed with their independence, ‘untethering’ and not missing anything that they seem to forget that relationships are the essence of life, particularly those with family.
    As I watch my own girls go out into the world I am glad we are friends, too, and keep in touch because we want to and not just because of duty. We are 5 generations living that all get on famously ;)
    Also I see my son-in-law’s mom’s anxiety as her eldest son goes into the world proper, and know she is also glad he is happy to keep in touch with his family. Win-win.

    • Thanks, Mel. Texting my mother every day is one of those things that only takes two minutes, but means a lot to her. Small investment, big payoff. I’d be an ass not to do it!

  14. Niall, you’re such a…

    Dammit, I’m too polite to say it in mixed company (I think there’s some PC users here on the list). But I read your blog and got more and more depressed. My own habits seemed to be far more in disarray and less set, not to mention less grand and romantic as yours. In fact, buddy, I found myself resenting you a bit the more I read, simply because of the comparisons I was making.

    Of course that’s all on me, not on you, and in fact in inspired me to angrily find the one practice I have managed to keep doing and mastering throughout years of the struggle: the ability to keep trying. That even when I have days like this – when I feel like such a putz for not being able to keep up 73 goals while traveling the world speaking with a romantic accent – I am still doing what I can to improve things.

    And as a result, I got a blog entry out of it. As it happens, about 1000 words, too!

    And I plan on flossing tonight, too. So thanks, Niall!

  15. I would recommend checking out http://www.Gtdagenda.com for an online productivity tool.

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

  16. Niall,

    Loving this post! You’ve really got this habits thing down, hot damn. I’ve been working on my rituals/habits creation system for the last two months, and everything you’ve mentioned is such great advice. The more I read about success, the more I discover things that lead back to creating habits. My life has gone from complete disarray to measurably successful, and I’m so much happier and clear-headed these days. I know my habits will lead me in the right direction over time.

    I would add in an extra emphasis on celebration and rewards. Not just rewards at the end of the 30 days, but even the small victories along the way. For example, I don’t make breakfast (reward) until I’ve completed my morning ritual. And when I sit down to eat, I acknowledge that I’m continuing to kick ass and then I really appreciate the meal. Just a small little hack that’s been effective to me.

    P.S. Checkout BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits” program. He does a free 5-day follow-along “workshop” every week. Found it through Leo’s blog. There’s some great ideas in there. I like his “triggers” idea of picking something you already do every day and firing off a new habit when you come across that trigger. Similar to anchoring.

    P.P.S. Thanks for the mom texting idea, definitely stealing that one.

  17. thxs for the blog, alot of useful information. I think what I got from reading this, is that I have to examine myself, and write down the progress that i am making or, i’ll just keep making the same mistakes without know the cause of my failures.

  18. I can tell that you’re still maintaining over 90% of these habits after 4 months, which is quite some proof that your tips in this article do work!

    One thing I’ve been doing lately to keep me motivated is I write motivational quotes on pieces of paper, and I store them in my wardrobe.

    Every morning when I get up, I pick one random quote from that place and I keep it with myself the whole day. Whenever I feel down, I try to make myself remember the quote and get pumped up to do something useful with my time.

    Great tips for staying motivated Niall, my next 30-day mission is definitely sticking to writing the “key habit for today” and seeing how that works out!