Foundations of Personal Productivity: 3 Habits That Make The Difference

Habits guide 40% of behavior according to a 2014 report from Science Daily. That means almost half of our daily activity happens without you giving much thought to what you’re doing.

Habits are like fire: they can make life better and harm you. For example, you may have a good habit of saying “good morning” to everyone in your department in the morning. On the other hand, you might have a bad habit of staying up late every night, again and again.  In this article, you will learn about the foundation habits that can enhance your productivity quickly (no software needed).

I was inspired to write this article because I recently read “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives” by Gretchen Rubin (in fact, I met Rubin for a book signing when she came to Toronto!). It was an excellent book and it got me thinking about ways to improve our productivity using habits.

As project managers who are constantly coping with change and challenges, we need all the mental horsepower (or “mental RAM” if you prefer a computer analogy) we can get. Here are just some of the problems that project managers handle on a regular basis:

  • The customer is angry because deliverables are not ready for inspection.
  • You are upset because you have to work long hours to analyze a proposed change request that could significantly impact the project.
  •  One of your team members keeps showing up five minutes late to meetings which causes everyone to repeat themselves.

As with many areas of life and performance, it is helpful to review and affirm the first principles. From Rubin’s book, she suggests that there are certain “foundation habits” that shape almost everything else we do. At first glance, these habits may not appear directly related to our work. Keep in mind that we bring ourselves to our work. If we are “running on empty”, the quality of our work will soon decline.

1. Getting enough sleep

Effective sleep habits have been an area of struggle for me in the past. However, it is a key habit that is worth attention and effort to improve. When you cut sleep, your performance declines. Even worse, research indicates that you will not even be aware of the fact.

By the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk. (source: 4 Things Astronauts Can Teach You About A Good Night’s Sleep)

If you are having trouble working through complex project management problems, improving your sleep habits (quantity and quality) may make the difference. I also find that proper sleep improves my self-control capabilities, a key input for staying professional in stressful conditions.

2. Getting some exercise

As professionals, we are used to working with our minds. Most days, I am busy reading, writing and working with data (e.g. databases, spreadsheets and so forth). It is easy to fall into the trap that our productivity and results are purely mental. That’s a huge mistake.

Consider a recent study about the long term benefits of exercise reported in Psychology Today:

People who had smaller decreases in the time it took to complete the treadmill test 20 years later were more likely to perform better on the executive function test than those who had larger decreases. Across the board, the researchers found better verbal memory, faster psychomotor speeds, and improved executive function at 43 to 55 years of age to be clearly associated with better cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) 25 years earlier.

That’s compelling research. However, you may not be motivated by that type of long term benefits. In my personal experience, starting the day with exercise puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day. I’ve done cardio and strength training work outs for years but there was something missing: flexibility. That’s why I started researching yoga techniques and how to get better at yoga. When you are working on challenging projects, starting your day with yoga or another kind of exercise will put you in good spirits for the rest of the day.

3. Creating external order

Out of the foundation habits, project managers tend to be outstanding on creating and maintaining external order. After all, a great deal of project management training, software and resources exist to keep us in order. Even if we assume that your project and work tasks are in excellent condition, there are other areas to consider such as your office, home office (if applicable) and car.

I find this point about clutter and order particularly compelling since it aligns with the organization ideas of David Allen’s excellent productivity book “Getting Things Done.” The single best way to maintain external order, especially papers and digital materials, is the Weekly Review process that Allen recommends.

Oh, there is one more foundation habit – eating and drinking well – but I am omitting that. After all, you need a few good reasons to read the book.

In looking at your own habits, what basic habits keep you productive day after day?

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