In his New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg demonstrated how good habits powered the success of business leaders and Olympic champions and how easy it can be to change bad patterns.
Yet every day, millions of professionals around the world engage in the same repeated bad habits, including unnecessary meetings, overwhelming inboxes and ineffective collaboration.
Duhigg identifies a powerful psychological pattern called the habit loop as the driving force behind this behavior. The habit loop is a three-part process -- a cue, which triggers an automatic behavior; the routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward that tells our brain to continue with this pattern of behavior.
Once you know it exists, you start seeing the habit loop everywhere, especially on creative projects. The cue might be the ping of a new email featuring feedback on your work. The routine is reading and responding to the feedback, and the reward is the feeling of having done something.
But this kind of reactive habit isn’t efficient for creative work, which demands a more proactive and focused approach that takes into account the context and goals of the project. And what happens if more feedback arrives later? You’ll spend more time reassessing or reaffirming your first response.
So how do you break out of the bad habit loop? We look at four common bad habits that affect your productivity and offer some practical tips on how to break them.
1. Think outside the inbox.
In a recent survey, 66 percent of respondents said that their creative projects are managed primarily within email, despite the fact that 70 percent admitted email is an ineffective tool for managing projects of this kind. What’s more, independent data estimates that more than $600 billion was lost in 2016 due to email inefficiencies, such as the context switching that typically happens when you’re reacting to an always updating inbox. Each time you’re distracted by an incoming message, it takes 25 minutes to get back on track.
If this sounds familiar, you may need to start identifying ways to take certain types of communication out of email. Is it more efficient to simply call someone? Can you use collaboration software to get updates on a project or to provide feedback on creative work when you’re ready to focus on that type of work?
Working in a different collaborative space can also offer a refreshing change of scene as well as helping to solve some of the inefficiencies built into email communication -- like constant distractions, dealing with unwieldy attachments and worrying about version control.
2. Learn to say no.
There are many reasons why people get into the habit of saying yes to things at work, even when that’s a really bad idea. If you’re the boss, you may struggle with delegation or, if you’re not, you may be eager to impress. Mostly, it’s just easier to say yes than no -- even if you know you’re over-committing yourself.
Yet the more we take on, the less likely we are to focus on the right work and to give it the attention it needs. It’s easy for bottlenecks to appear, with projects getting held up because people are too busy to give timely approval or feedback.
There are a number of ways to break the "yes" habit. Be honest about what you can take on, hire people you trust so you can delegate with confidence, or simply put your headphones on so people know to leave you alone. If none of these work, then the problem could be your process. Are there ways you can simplify and speed up how feedback and approvals are provided so you'll have more opportunities to say yes?
3. Be militant about meetings.
In 2015, more than 25 million meetings took place every day in the United States, yet meetings are perhaps the biggest drain on time and productivity in the workplace. According to a Harvard Business Review report, 67 percent of meetings are considered unproductive by executives, while another study found that last year, meetings cost companies $37 billion in lost productivity.
So how can you cut unnecessary meetings out of your day? Speak to people individually rather than gathering a group in a room. You’ll get better attention that way -- plus better answers. This has the added advantage of helping you make deeper connections with colleagues, which can be another good way to cut down on meetings.
Software can also help. An instant message can get you an answer in seconds while collaboration tools offer an asynchronous approach to reviewing creative work that provides efficiency with context without the inefficient logistics of trying to get everyone together at the same time.
4. Document your project plans.
If you hired an external agency to create a marketing campaign, you’d probably be appalled if they didn’t come back to you with a detailed plan for how they envision the project will run. Yet all too often, internal projects lack rigorous documentation and instead rely on the trust and closeness of the team involved.
But even if you have a team that runs like the Harlem Globetrotters in full-on showboating mode, it’s still worth taking the time to lay out your strategy and tactics. This will help stakeholders from outside your immediate team better understand your project and at which milestones they may expect to be involved. It also facilitates accountability if decisions are made to move away from the project’s original goals or plan. A documented plan ensures that these are conscious choices, rather than a vague drift in direction.
Having a centralized system of record for all the files, conversations and approvals around your project is an essential part of documenting your process effectively.
In the conclusion of Power of Habits, Duhigg writes that “once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom -- and the responsibility -- to remake them.”