Lydia – a CFA Level 2 candidate reader – wrote to us about the difficulty of living in isolation for 6+ months during the pandemic, especially when it comes to forming good habits and getting motivated again to restart her CFA journey. Her struggles resonated with me, as we all get stuck in a rut now and then, but I can only imagine how much harder it is to get out of it during a pandemic!
So I’m sharing my simple 7-step plan to build productive habits which I’ve tweaked over the past year – my productivity increased 8x since then!
I hope this builds a path towards more happiness, motivation and productivity in your life to achieve your goals.
Let’s dive in!
- Habits vs. routines – Is there a difference?
- It’s all about the compound effect
- 1) Audit your habits & routines
- 2) Prioritize using the 80/20 rule
- 3) Use calendars for scheduling, instead of to-do lists
- 4) Block off time for zero-interruption work
- 5) Create your own morning routine
- 6) Get it right first time, every time
- 7) Track, review & improve your routines
Habits vs. routines – Is there a difference?
When we talk about productivity, habits and routines are often incorrectly used interchangeably.
In order to build lasting, productive behaviors, there is a crucial difference between habits and routines that we need to first understand:
- A habit is an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought. Not doing a habit makes you feel uncomfortable: not brushing your teeth before bed is a good example.
- On the other hand, a routine is a frequently repeated behavior which requires more deliberate effort and concentration. It feels easy to skip a routine: for example cleaning your house or going for a workout.
In essence, habits are a type of routine, but unfortunately not all routines can become habits.
Understanding this point is key, because it avoids the frustration and disappointment that comes with trying to turn hard-to-do behaviors into habits – some things just can’t be effortless.
Being aware and accepting this allows you to form solid routines for the longer term, not give up easily, while increasing the chances of some routines successfully turning into life-long habits.
It’s all about the compound effect
By breaking the big life goals into smaller parts for your everyday routine, the whole change process instantly becomes more approachable and sustainable, setting you up for higher probability of success.
Most of all, executing these small changes consistently will yield amazing results over time – that’s the power of the compounding effect. This concept is central to any life goals you have, whether it is to learn a new skill, lose weight or study for the CFA exams, any meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight.
However, the flip side is also true – the compounding effect also works in amplifying seemingly trivial ‘bad’ decisions. For example, if you choose to have an extra dessert every day, that habit would likely result in a big weight gain after a year.
Every (small) decision you make matters. Because you are either working towards your goal, or you aren’t.
Now that these 2 concepts are clear, let’s see how this 7-step productivity system works. I’ve included what I found most effective so far when learning how to form sticky habits for self improvement. Let’s check it out!
1) Audit your habits & routines
When approaching change, what I’ve personally found really helpful and eye-opening is to start from scratch and do a habit audit.
All you need is a pen and some paper. Then jot down a list of all your habits and routines chronologically in a typical day – yes, that includes brushing teeth.
This is an interesting exercise, as it immediately gives you a snapshot of what is going on, showing what behaviours are aligned with your life goals, and those that are not. Once that’s done, you rate each behavior’s effectiveness as “High”, “Medium” or “Low”.
OK, so now you have a basic roadmap of behaviors you would like to keep – as well as remove – to help you achieve your goals. Good stuff, let’s put these papers aside for now and we will get back to it later during the discussion of forming new routines and habits (see #6).
2) Prioritize using the 80/20 rule
We all equally have 24 hours a day. So why are some people so much more productive that others?
The answer seems to lie in the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.
Highly productive people identify and focus on the most important 20% of their work that delivers 80% of the results. They recognize that they cannot get everything done, nor do they want to.
To resolve the remaining 80% of their tasks, they delegate, say no or simply let them go. The extra time gained can be ploughed back to be used for more high impact work, family time or personal growth.
By mindfully practicing prioritization as a productivity habit, we all can achieve more in the same given time too.
3) Use calendars for scheduling, instead of to-do lists
So how do we go about prioritizing and methodically organizing our days to achieve more?
A lot of us use to-do lists.
However, if I were to recommend one thing you learn from this article, it is to use calendars to organize your time zealously – it is way more effective than to-do lists.
This is because organizing your days using a calendar has a built-in prioritization factor, and we naturally refer to it throughout the day. It is a relatively simple routine change that can easily transform into a lifelong habit.
In contrast, to-do lists tend not to have any prioritization, which over time grows into a giant task list that never seems to get done. This creates stress, demotivation and a huge incentive not to look at the to-do list – which may be a reason why it has grown to a long list in the first place.
When I first shifted to using calendar as a time management tool, I noticed that my weekly priorities became clear when I block out specific times for them. Using a calendar also serves as a good sense check to see if I have reserved time for the small changes during the week that are aligned with my long term goals. The golden rule here is to schedule in things that are important to you.
That said, we need to be careful to not over-schedule ourselves and end up feeling overwhelmed. Make sure you block out time for “nothing” as well to look after yourself: sleeping, eating, exercising, showering, walking the dog, reading etc are all part of a self-care routine to recharge and keep your energy levels up.
The game of life is a marathon rather than a race, so we need to pace ourselves sustainably and not burn out in the blind pursuit of being more “productive” in the short term.
4) Block off time for zero-interruption work
Now that you’re using calendars to organize your daily routines, don’t forget to block off chunks of time for high-impact work where you can focus with no distractions.
If possible, set up a ‘zero interruption zone’ for this type of work. Here are a few suggestions to improve focus and achieve flow:
- Work in a room where you can close the door
- Keep your phone on silent or switched off
- No social media or news sites allowed
- If you find your mind wandering, keep a ‘distraction list’ for jotting down important but non-urgent tasks to deal with later.
- No reading (or responding to) emails during this time, instead allocate some time in the afternoon for email correspondence to maximize your morning productivity
5) Create your own morning routine
I’ve personally found sleeping and waking up earlier than usual (5am or 6am) has been instrumental in maximizing my focus to achieve a state of flow.
The absence of the usual hustle and bustle, coupled with a fresh state of mind seems to create a sense of calm and stillness that allowed me to get the most important tasks done in less time. By tackling the difficult tasks earlier on in the day during my peak hours, I felt that I started the day on a positive note having achieved a few things before the world (and my family) wakes up.
If you’re not a morning person, it does take a week or two to get used to it, but for this to work you must ensure you have sufficient sleep of 6-8 hours.
For those who frequently snooze their alarm clocks, try placing the clock/phone further away from the bed (ideally closer to the toilet where you need to go to next) with a louder volume to get out of bed faster. You’ll feel more awake after a shower or face wash, I promise!
Your early morning routine is precious – don’t waste that 1-2 hours you have to yourself with work emails, news or social media. Instead, do what is important to your long term goals, whether it is exercising, yoga, meditation, reading, learning a new language, studying or work.
Experiment a little to see what works for you, but I found that creating a consistent morning routine every day makes it easier to stick to, saves time and increases the chances of it being a more effortless habit over time.
Oh, and you’ll feel a great sense of achievement by 7am – an epic way to start the day!
6) Get it right first time, every time
OK, it’s time to refer to your habit audit papers again which you previously set aside in Step #1.
Having learned about using calendars and creating a morning routine, have a go at populating your weekly calendar now, keeping in mind of the habits/routines you want to keep or remove.
Don’t forget to block out some “me time” as well (see #3). You will start to notice that you’re prioritizing your time slots for what is most important to you, and having to make some choices. There will be many iterations of the calendar schedule before you find an ideal initial set up to start the week with.
I usually find that I can pretty much handle at most 3 new routines at a time, whilst juggling all the other work and life priorities. So it’s best to start a new routine gradually, to ensure that you got it on the right path and fully optimized, before you add on a new one – quality, not quantity matters here.
If you are starting a new routine, it is crucial to get it right the first time, so you’ll waste less time correcting mistakes. Once a routine is done correctly each time, it increases its stickiness in the future, potentially transforming into a habit.
In fact, Right First Time (RFT) is a quality assurance principle in the manufacturing sector, which involves making sure that all activities are done correctly in the first go each time.
This helps maximize yield and minimize waste and time to rework.
The same applies for doing a routine: getting each step of the process right in the first go in the short term helps productivity in the long run.
Here are a couple more tips I found useful to help form longer lasting habits and routines:
- Habits are most often triggered by time and location. Be specific with when and where you plan to carry out the new habit, and you’re more likely to complete it. Schedule it in your calendar too for an extra reminder!
- Join like-minded people who have the same routine to achieve a goal. For example, going to a regular spin class with a friend to keep each other accountable and motivated.
- To break bad habits, we must analyze and identify the cue(s) that trigger it in the first place. Once we know them, we have a better chance of succeeding if we remove those signals from our surroundings. For example, if you want to break a smoking habit, don’t buy cigarettes in the first place, and get rid of the smoke smell from your car, clothes, room etc. Moreover, you have to remove items associated with it (ashtrays, lighters etc) and avoid the activities commonly associated with it (such as coffee break). It is easier to avoid temptation than to resist it, so manage your environment to avoid bad habit triggers.
- When starting a new routine, linking it to another existing habit can be quite powerful, especially if the flow of action makes sense, or if the existing habit is something you’re keen to do. For example, if you love having your morning coffee, try inserting your new routine before it to ensure better compliance, i.e. I’ll do my yoga session first, then have my morning coffee.
7) Track, review & improve your routines
Finally, we cannot begin the process of self-improvement if we don’t measure our progress. And we measure our progress by tracking how well we have adhered to our new routines.
I recommend implementing a maximum of 3 new routines at one time to make things easier to track and manage. Wait for a routine to be successfully adopted regularly (say 3-4 weeks consecutively), before consider adding a new one.
My simple method of tracking progress is by using a large calendar on my wall. Every day, I put a tick for each routine that I correctly incorporated that day, and crosses for those that I missed. You can also easily do this digitally on your smartphone or a spreadsheet if preferred. There are also plenty of habit trackers on iOS and Android that can help with this, although you need to be mindful to choose a simple one to not distract you from the bigger goal here.
However, what you need to watch out for here is for those routines that you’ve missed. It’s important to not be missing things consecutively, because that too is a start of a new, undesirable behavior. While it is OK to have a bad day, we need to rebound and recover quickly before it spirals into a bad habit.
So just from a quick glance at the calendar, I can see how I’m progressing throughout the month, which can be super motivating. I’ve also blocked out 15 minutes daily for my “review and reflect” routine – yes, this counts as a new routine too!
During this review session, I don’t just tick my calendar for what I’ve done for the day, but also think about whether there is any room for improvement to my existing routine.
I keep a notebook (you can use a spreadsheet too) to jot down some ideas for future routines I would like to adopt, as well as tweaking the schedule to improve existing routine to try tomorrow.
It is this constant feedback loop that will help you stay on track, and speed up your adoption of good routines to compound your positive changes over time.
I hope you’ve found the 7-step plan above useful in forming new routines. Do you have any other useful productive habits to share? Would love to hear it, let me know in the comments below!
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