Are you addicted to productivity advice?
I was, for a long time. I bought every system, book, and blueprint out there.
I had a very spiffy David Allen-inspired GTD process that was only 642 steps long and took a mere 3 hours a day to implement (during which time I wasn’t actually, you know, getting anything done).
That wasn’t David Allen’s fault, by the way, it was mine. But I don’t think I was alone.
Every person who has a long to-do list also has a desire to do more.
And most of us are quite good at doing certain things. We don’t have a problem getting out of bed every day (even if we grumble), brushing our teeth, driving to work, or finding some lunch. As Seth Godin likes to say, “No one ever gets Talker’s Block.”
Why? Because those things are just ingrained habits. We don’t think about doing them, or need to find motivation to do them … we just do them.
Where we do tend to procrastinate and stumble is on the activities that we feel resistance around. Anything creative is a major one. Writing, in particular, is one of the few forms of procrastination that has its own name: Writer’s Block.
You might have made a million resolutions to write every day, or publish two blog posts a week, or finally get your damned autoresponder up and running. And a million times, you might have failed.
Today, I’d like to let you know what works for me. Because I believe it will work for you, too.
First things first.
Big resolutions don’t work
We all know it, and I don’t know why we keep doing it. Resolutions for massive, sweeping habit change just don’t work.
(They probably work for a few people. But those people aren’t reading this post, because they’re too busy climbing Everest while writing their best-selling memoir and running their four-hour-workweek business. Bless their hearts.)
Everyone I know who believes that sugar is a deadly poison is also stuffing donuts into their face every time I see them.
Everyone I know who absolutely, positively is going to have their novel done in 30 days has been working on that novel for 25 years.
Big change is scary, and we avoid it. With all the creativity and energy we can muster.
Maybe I just know more than my share of flakes, but I don’t think so. I think that massive change sounds like a good idea while we’re making those impassioned vows to ourselves. But once the real world hits, the part of our brains that actually does things wants nothing to do with it.
What works better
There’s an intriguing (and increasing) body of work that suggests that instead, itsy bitsy habit change is the thing that works.
There’s Robert Maurer’s excellent book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, which everyone should go read right now.
There’s Stephen Guise’s book on Mini Habits, which lays out a stupidly easy plan to develop these stupidly easy small habit tweaks. You should go read that one right now if you’re not picking up the Maurer, or even if you are.
So if you want to get your book written? Commit to a ridiculously tiny habit of writing 50 words on it a day. Once the micro habit is in place, it’s funny how often you find yourself sticking around for a lot more than those 50 words. And on the days that you only do 50 — you still win.
Getting started on anything new or uncomfortable — writing, working out, improving your website — is always the hardest part. But once you’re in motion, you’ll tend to stay in motion. And once you have a solid habit formed, you’ll think of yourself as “the kind of person who” does that thing. You’ll be surprised at how much productivity that will spur.
Here are a few of my thoughts on how to get a micro habit started, how to best benefit from it, and some ideas about productive micro habits you might want to get rolling for yourself.
I’ve read a few books on this (apparently I’m still addicted to productivity advice), and Stephen Guise’s Mini Habits is the best one I’ve found to just get you going. It’s a quick, easy read that lays out the process, as well as the benefits, succinctly.
Or if you’d rather start right now (an excellent idea), just pick one of the habits I’ve listed in this post. Do it every day. If you aren’t doing it every day, try my advice below.
One nice thing about these teeny habit changes is that you can do more than one at a time, if you like. I’m currently doing four, and will add a fifth in the next day or two. But start with just one for at least a week, to get yourself used to the new plan.
Plan for your crazy days
Your micro habit needs to work on your absolutely most insane days.
Think about your nuttiest day of the week — when you work late, your dog has swim practice, and your kid has obedience lessons. Or think about what your day looks like when you’re traveling for business. Or family. Or anything else that tends to be disruptive.
These little habits need to be so little that they’ll fit into your day, even when things are a zoo. Don’t be tempted to skip your micro habits on zoo days — that’s just when you most need them.
(If you or a loved person goes to the hospital for something serious, you have my permission to slack off. Anything short of that, the habit should be small enough to fit.)
The right timing
When I can, I like to time my little habits so that I have some free time after.
Why? Because that’s how 50 words on a key project turns into 2,000 words. That’s how completing your warm-up turns into a 40-minute workout.
Important, though: If you can’t time your teeny habit for that kind of time slot, do it anyway. If you have four habits and you do all of them right before bed, you still win.
Don’t unconsciously make your “real” habit Write 2,000 Words and start putting it off because you don’t have that much time or energy. Your habit is 50 words. If you do that, you win.
The value of fanatic consistency
Guise makes an excellent point about the need for rigid consistency with your micro habits.
“Self-efficacy,” or the belief in your ability to influence an outcome, plays a big part in mustering the willpower to do things. Getting a truly daily habit in place, even a tiny one, skyrockets your confidence in that ability to beat procrastination and do the things you want to do. It trains your willpower “muscle.”
… a problem many people develop is an expectation of failing to reach their goals. Over time, this crushes their self-efficacy because it’s hard to believe that next time will be different (especially if you’re using the same strategy that failed last time). ~ Stephen Guise
A little tiny habit is a surprisingly easy way to retrain your brain — but only if you do it daily.
If it’s not working
If it’s not working, your habit is probably a little too big. “Write one page” is small, but it’s not small enough to be tiny — it’s too much to handle on a day that’s crazy, or a travel day.
Trim them down until they are stupidly easy and quick to complete.
Reminding yourself how embarrassingly easy and quick they are is also a good tool if you’re tempted to skip a day.
Some habit ideas you can swipe
Here are some ideas you can steal for micro habits of your own to develop. I like to have a mix of professional and personal — two for my business, and two for my personal life. (If you want to know what my habits are, swing by the Google+ conversation and I’ll let you know.)
Try one of these, or make up your own. Remember, start with one for the first week, and if you want to, you can add a few more later.
- Meditate for five minutes (or two minutes, if you find resistance to five)
- Read or re-read two pages of a classic copywriting resource
- Write 50 words on your Big Project
- Do the warm-up for that workout you’ve been trying to do more often
- Write three headlines for content you might write some day
- Hand-copy out a paragraph of writing you admire
- Walk for ten minutes (or less, if this feels too big)
- Outline a post idea (it’s okay if these are very silly — they’re not to publish, just to warm up your writing brain)
- Participate in your favorite online writing or business group (Only do this one if you don’t have this habit already)
- Read two pages on a topic that has nothing to do with writing or your business
Got more? Join us over on Google+ with your suggestions — we’d love to hear them!
And I’ll leave you with one final quote from Guise, to push you over into trying this out for yourself. I think you’ll be happy when you see the results.
We’re quick to blame ourselves for lack of progress, but slow to blame our strategies. Then we repeat them over and over again, trying to make them work. But here’s the thing — if you fail using a strategy more than a few times, you need to try another one. ~ Stephen Guise
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Alexander C. Kafka.