They say there’s always room for improvement. And this is true. Humans are not fixed in stone, impervious to change. We may not always have control over every single element of life. But we do have control over our choices in how we respond and how we show up in the world. And though it may not always feel like it, we have control over the habits we build for ourselves.
And ultimately, our habits make up who we are.
It’s not always easy, however.
Making and breaking habits is the subject of many books, articles, and blog posts. There are systems, there are tricks, and there are programs people subscribe to in order to change their habits successfully. Throughout all of these, one common denominator is that in order to make a habit stick, you have to have good reason for making the change.
When it comes to work habits, there are plenty of good reasons to improve: better productivity, less time spent working, more time spent on the rest of life, higher pay, promotions to more preferred roles, better work reviews, more fulfillment, etc. The list could go on.
There are many solutions out there for how to improve your work habits.
The good news is that if one system doesn’t do the trick, there are plenty of other options.
Because people are different, you simply have to have an understanding of what does and doesn’t work for you. Which leads me to the core concept you need to get a grasp on before you move forward…
Know Thy Self
Tune in to your own personal habits and tendencies. You need to know a few basic things about YOU before you attempt to build new habits or break old ones.
It’s not always obvious unless you’re looking at your patterns under a microscope. But it will indeed help you in the long run.
Know the circumstances that lead you to success
When do you typically get the most done? What were the circumstances the last time you had a smoothly flowing day? Did you go for a run first thing? Were you feeling really rested after a relaxing weekend? Were you working with a group — or by yourself? Pay attention to the details of past successes.
Know what sidetracks you
Where do you waste the most time? What are the actions or behaviors you often engage in that aren’t productive work habits? What are your most common distractions? Get a good understanding of your weaknesses and temptations. This will help to be proactive in getting rid of them.
Know your goals
What equals success for you? What is your ideal work day? What are the things you expect to accomplish on any given day in order to feel a sense of accomplishment? You need to know this in order to set up the habits that will lead you there. There’s a popular quote that goes something like this: If you don’t know where you are going, you will never know when you’ve arrived.
Know your current habits — and why you do them
I read a great story once about a woman who cut a roast in half to bake it. She did this because her mom did it that way, and one day asked her mom why this step was essential to baking it. Her mom said, “That’s just the way my mom did it.” So the woman called up her grandma and asked her. The grandma laughed and said, “I only cut it in half because my oven was too small to cook it whole like it was supposed to be cooked!” What are the things you do on autopilot, and are those habits ones you have chosen because they create a desired result — or because it’s just the “way you’ve always done it”?
5 Steps to Improvement
Now that you have a baseline idea of YOU, it will be easier to make the adjustments you need to make to improve your habits and create more happiness and success in your life. Here are 5 simple tips that will help you on your journey to improvement.
1. Replace bad habits with good ones
When we are looking to make improvements, it often means we get rid of some of the habits that don’t serve us in a positive way. The problem with this is that when we delete a bad habit, we create a void. And that void feels empty. Something is now missing, and it feels as though something of value was taken from us.
So we have to fill the void with a good habit. If I’m trying to quit my afternoon coffee and sugary treat, but I replace it with nothing, then all I’m going to think about in the afternoon is how much I want that caffeine rush. But if I find a new “treat” to replace it with — say a cinnamon herbal tea that I really like and a single square of dark chocolate — then I kick the sugar and caffeine habit but still give myself something to look forward to. And I’m less likely to sink back into the old habit.
2. Set yourself up for success
All the little details make a big difference. If the temptations for bad habits are right in front of you, you are setting yourself up for failure — not success.
If you need to stop checking your phone so often, then stop leaving it at arm’s reach.
Move it across the room and/or actually power it off. Clean up the clutter in your office space to promote clarity of mind. Close out your email tab if you can’t stop checking your email every 5 minutes. Knock down the roadblocks. Create an environment that makes success easier.
3. Start small
A major overhaul in every single behavior you engage in will be nearly impossible to implement. But taking one small step towards one new habit will make success easier.
If you want to take a walk outside every day after lunch, then simply commit to walking out the front door every day at that time. If you want to spend the first hour of your work day on focused work, then have a “Do not disturb” sign that you hang on your door for that time period. What’s one small step you can take that will make implementing that new habit easier? Make success convenient. Increase the likelihood of your follow-through.
4. Remind yourself
Expect to forget to implement your new behaviors. Then act accordingly. Leave a written note taped to your computer. Set a reminder on your phone at the same time every day. Put it on your calendar. And keep track of your progress with a goal app or a diary of some kind so that you have a visual reward of sorts.
These things give you a little extra push and a sense of accountability. To take it one step further, find someone else to hold you accountable — a friend or coworker that you can check in with on a daily basis.
5. Anchor new habits
Whatever habit you are trying to improve, build it into your regular routine, and do it consistently. If you aim to add in 5 minutes of meditation, then attach that to something else you do regularly.
If you get a coffee refill every morning at 10:15 a.m., for example, then opt to do your meditation prior to the coffee. No coffee until you do the 5 minutes. Connecting a new pattern to something that’s already locked into your brain as a habit will be much easier to remember and much easier to take action on. And the daily consistency will help anchor it as well.
Enjoy the journey
If it feels like a punishment or you can’t see the inherent benefit of the changes, you won’t stick to it. So get excited about the new habits and all the positive results that will come from implementing them. Look forward to the journey of growth and development.
And I can’t stress it enough: Don’t expect perfection. If you expect perfectly smooth sailing, you set yourself up for failure. Because I know this to be true: You will probably have setbacks. You will probably forget to do the new behavior one day. Or you might sink into one of the old patterns. And if you are too strict with yourself, this will feel like defeat and you’ll give up. That’s clearly not what you want.
In life, we never arrive at a place where we are done. There is always more that can be learned and more ways to grow. That is the beauty of it. So as you work towards improving your work and life habits, don’t expect arrival. Expect progress and enhancement. And expect delight in the infinite journey.