COVID blasted my productivity routine into oblivion. Time for an upgrade.
Two years ago, I wrote a blog post on giving up our obsession with cramming more things onto our to-do lists and starting to commit more time to doing our most important work.
I was happily following that advice until COVID showed up and threw everything outta whack.
Confusing habits for routines.
I realised that as someone who likes having a structured day, it’s far easier for me to stick to a routine when things stay the same.
Any big changes require painful readjustments.
And COVID has been a painful readjustment.
Working from home with a 4-year-old, budget cuts, layoffs, and endless Teams meetings quickly saw me ditch my schedule for good.
In hindsight, I confused having a routine for a habit.
Why do humans have habits?
Much like biases, habits are efficient.
A habit is a response to an impulse to do something with little or no conscious effort.
And habits are built through what Charles Duhigg calls Habit Loops.
A Habit Loop has three parts:
- A routine, e.g. being at my desk with a cup of coffee at 9:15, ready to start my day.
- A trigger, e.g. wrapping up scheduled meetings by 1:30 pm and planting myself in a quiet meeting room for 90 minutes.
- A reward, e.g. checking an important task off the list.
It’s not a habit if you need to put effort into triggering a behaviour as I did.
That’s a routine.
“While a routine involves repeated behaviour, it’s not necessarily performed in response to an ingrained impulse, like a habit is.”
Make focused work a habit.
Having the ability to focus on your most important work, what Cal Newport calls Deep Work, needs to be a habit and not left to chance.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the exact same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Here’s my strategy for forming a deep work habit.
To learn a new habit, you need (1) a clear trigger, (2) a new behaviour (that’s not too challenging), and (3) to do it frequently.
Meaning: Focusing on meaningful work needs to happen both inside and outside working hours.
Strategy 1: Planning (Trigger).
Plan your day because dumb optimism is the enemy of focused attention.
We underestimate the time it will take to get something done knowing full well that it’s always taken longer than planned in the past.
It’s called Planning Fallacy, and we need a reliable system to avoid falling prey to it because we will. Repeatedly.
I do this by using a simple task planning technique.
Here’s how it works:
- Grab a piece of paper and write your goal or outcome right at the top.
- Write down a hard deadline for the task under it.
- Using a table like in the image above, write down your objectives.
- For each objective, write down the activities you need to perform.
- Write down a deadline for every objective and activity.
You might be wondering why you need to write objectives when you’ve already written down a goal?
Well, that’s because breaking a task down into smaller steps forces you to think about the time and effort required to do the job well.
The last column is where you leave notes for yourself (or your team). Leaving notes comes in handy if you have to leave a task in the middle to be picked up later or for keeping a log of changes to be compared to your original plan.
The activities and deadlines act as triggers to keep you focused and moving forward.
Strategy 2: Schedule distractions (Frequency).
Schedule time for distraction, e.g. checking LinkedIn or browsing Reddit outside of the 60- to 90-minute sessions for undistracted focus.
You tackle the activities and complete objectives in these undistracted sessions.
This strategy works well at work, but I’ve also extended it to home.
For example, I schedule 30–60-minute stretches for reading, researching, writing or editing during the day.
Then I schedule 10–20-minute stretches for browsing LinkedIn, TikTok or playing Brawl Star.
I no longer grab my phone outside of the scheduled distractions, even if I don’t have anything to really focus on.
Literally, any other activity where you can focus on the task instead, of letting yourself be distracted goes a long way in building for habit for focus.
Strategy 3: Batching (Behaviour).
Having dedicated slots allow you to focus deeper and get more valuable work done when you’re not distracted.
By batching similar tasks together, you can focus more deeply because you’re not trying to split your attention.
Focusing on a single task at a time also means that you’re free to dig deeper, absorb more and have the mental space to process your thinking.
“Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking. No one ever changed the world, created a new industry, or amassed a fortune due to their fast email response time.”
The ultimate productivity hack.
Building a habit for maintaining focus and avoiding distractions is the ultimate productivity hack.
It’s a little painful at first, I admit, but after a week or two, the improvements in your energy, ability to focus, and quality of work will more than make up for missing out on a few mildly entertaining distractions.
Originally published at https://aliyarhussain.com on July 2, 2021.