Category Archives: creativity

3 Simple Steps to Build Habits that Stick

Following through on new year’s resolutions,  heading in the right direction, meeting goals, or making creative shifts requires the ability to build sustainable, congruent habits. While self-discipline, willpower and a growth mindset all play a role in making your dreams and wishes come true,  it’s habit formation that makes the process easier.

A habit is an automatic tendency, behavior or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.  It is formed through regular repetition and is a natural consequence of how the human brain works. Healthy habits keep you on the path of worthwhile pursuits, despite obstacles and setbacks.

Whether you seek to finish an innovative project, make time for daily exercise, develop an essential skill or just get more sleep,  you will benefit from building habits that trigger positive change and continuous progress.

Follow these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick: 

1. Start small. Having Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) can be highly motivating, but moving toward them often involves taking incremental steps. Likewise, to implement a new behavior that you want to become a habit, start with a small, doable action from which you can build momentum. As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”

Need to create a writing habit that will help you complete your sci-fi novel and become a published author? To start, you could commit to writing a page or for 15 minutes each morning. Then, after this becomes ingrained, add another page or an additional 15 minutes. Keep building on the practice until you’re up to a chapter or two-hour writing blocks a day (or whatever maximum you can handle).

Start with super small actions that you can expand upon as they become habitual or routinized. Your forcing yourself to write a chapter or for two hours, right off the bat, won’t work. Instead, you’ll likely find yourself checking emails, updating your social media posts, scrolling through online news feeds or giving in to other distractions to alleviate tension or boredom.

Depending on who you ask, it usually takes 21 days, 28 days or 30 days, to form a new habit. In one 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, a University College London research team found that it takes an average of 66 days until an action becomes automatic.

The researchers recruited  96 participants (a statistically insignificant number) who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15-minute run each day. Participants were then asked daily whether their behavior was “hard not to do”or could be done “without thinking.” The study found that on average, the “plateau of automaticity” was reached after 66 days.

Despite the research studies, there is no magic number of days to form a habit. Some behaviors are harder to adopt than others. It’s much easier to write an article than to finish a whole book. Eating a salad for lunch each day is less challenging than completing a daily, one-hour workout at the gym.

For most people – no matter how long it takes to form a habit – starting with a small action is more effective than going for bold changes at the outset. In Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Jon Acuff suggests you cut your goal in half or double the timeline to avoid the perfectionist, now-or-never mentality that stops follow-through.

To incorporate mindfulness meditation into my evening routine, I started with 15 minutes.  To implement a tai chi practice into my morning rituals, I began with just 10 minutes. Shooting for 30 minutes or 1 hour would have led to failure in making them into daily habits. A regular practice, even for a minimal amount of time, provides significant benefits that I would not otherwise get if I didn’t do it at all.

Lower the bar and reduce your expectations if you’re having trouble making consistent, lasting progress. Set yourself up for success by taking small actions you can readily accomplish and will give increase your sense of control.

2. State your “if-then” plans.  Positive thinking helps you learn from failures and recover from setbacks. But it’s not enough to get you where you want to be, as  Gabriele Oettingen, psychology professor and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking,  Inside the New Science of Motivation, points out.

Oettingen discusses a four-step process called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) to  think about potential obstacles, contrast them with your dreams and goals, and design a plan to overcome them to attain preferred outcomes.

In one research article, Oettingen and her colleague, Peter Gollwitzer, explain that making if-then statements is a powerful way to create a desired future behavior or outcome. They state, “While goal intentions (goals) have the structure ‘I intend to reach Z!’ with Z relating to a desired future behavior or outcome, implementation intentions have the structure ‘If situation X is encountered, then I will perform the goal-directed response Y!'”

Using an if-then format, you specify plans on where, when and how you want to act  in certain situations. Oettingen and Gollwitzer note, “For instance, a person with the goal to reduce alcohol consumption might form the following implementation intention: ‘And whenever a waiter suggests ordering a second drink, then I’ll ask for mineral water!'” This helps to close the gap between having goals and reaching them.

If-then statements establish patterns that prompt healthy behaviors and responses to specific situations. They are based on critical cues (opportunities or obstacles), such as your emotional state, the time, your location/environment, and the preceding action, which are linked to the goal-directed response.

When faced with the critical cue, you have a pre-planned, automatic (habitual) response to deal with it. For example, instead of telling yourself “I will get enough sleep everyday,” you could say, “If it’s 9:30 p.m., I’ll start winding down to go to bed by 10 p.m.” Rather than commit to “I will maintain a clutter-free home,” you could specify, “After dinner, I’ll clear out the junk mail.”

Oettingen has a related WOOP app designed to help you fulfill your wishes and change your habits with if-then plans. The process is based on environmental triggers and current routines you can use to build a new habit or to add to an existing one.

3. Suck at it.  Don’t be in a rush to become an expert or a master; embrace the beginner’s mind, in which there are many possibilities and nothing is all figured out. If you miss a day or two of taking an action that you want to become a daily habit, just get back to it.  No need to count this as a break in your streak.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg states, “Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t occur.”

Even when you fall short of your ideal behavior or preferred outcome, getting things right 5%, 20% or 50% of the time is overall better than 0%. By cutting yourself some slack, you get to continue your efforts rather than abandon them at the first slip-up.

Over time, and with sustained effort, you can make better informed decisions on whether to continue the action or habit. If it’s not truly purposeful or enjoyable, you can not only suck at it, but you can give it up altogether.

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If you have trouble fulfilling resolutions or achieving goals, try these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick and will help you make sustainable progress without beating yourself up.


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How digital distractions drain your productivity

Digital distractions can make you feel productive and responsive, when in fact you’re just engaging in mindless, insignificant tasks. While digital technology broadens your access to information, makes communication easier, and provides other advantages, it often pulls you away from your true priorities.

For the most part, productivity means getting the most important things done, efficiently and effectively, while feeling satisfied with your progress and cultivating personal freedom for yourself. With this in mind, here’s how digital distractions drain your productivity:

Weaken your focus muscle

Paying attention to the task at hand is required to start, tackle and complete it. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and 24/7 online access erodes your ability to fully attend to one thing, concentrate, and work through problems, especially when they’re complex and require deep thought.

In January 2017, the Pew Research Center released fact sheets showing about 77% of Americans own a smartphone; nearly 73% state they have broadband service at home; 69% of U.S. adults use social media; nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer; and about half own tablet computers.

With digital technology at your fingertips, quick answers and instant gratification are expected. Over time, without consistent training and regular exercise, your focus muscle weakens immensely. And when faced with a difficult problem or averse task that needs to get done, you’ll be more tempted to look to your digital devices for a quick fix.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex craves novelty. The dopamine high you get from checking emails, text messages, social media and other digital information creates a feedback loop that encourages you to lose focus and seek external stimulation. The effects are sub-par results, more mistakes, and a prioritization of low-value busy work over high-value intentional work.

Encourage the counterproductive practice of multitasking (switch tasking) 

Doing more than one thing at a time  – commonly known as multitasking – is often viewed as a strength and skill. Companies misguidedly expect their employees to prioritize multiple projects and manage two or four or six tasks at once.

Although technology allows different processes to occur simultaneously, the human brain processes only one thing at a time, sequentially. As a result, juggling two or more tasks at one time — especially when they each demand high focus — is counterproductive.

In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen point out the brain has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.

You can do multiple, related tasks toward one outcome, such as when you drive a car, make breakfast, or attend to other simple routines. You can also background task very well, such as watch a movie while you exercise on the treadmill or listen to classical music while you cook. But when it comes to high-attention tasks — such as replying to emails while participating in a conference call, or texting while listening to an audio book — the best you can do is switch between tasks at rapid speeds.

In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.

As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task.  You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.

Even if you consider yourself a super multitasker, you are still more productive when you attend to one thing, take a break, and then move to the next.

Reduce your brain power

Strong cognitive abilities allow you to be truly productive in creative projects or high-value assignments.  In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, molecular biologist John Medina explains how digital distractions bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for exercising willpower, goal-setting, decision-making, planning, making moral judgments, and carrying out other executive functions. He breaks down the process into four steps:

Step 1- shift alert. The prefrontal cortex acts a switchboard in alerting the brain to shift attention. Blood rushes to this region of the brain when you’re about to start working on task #1, such as writing a research paper.

Step 2 –  rule activation for task #1. This includes a two-part message. The first part is a search query to locate the neurons needed to carry out the task. The second part encodes a command to rouse the neurons, once found.

Step 3 – disengagement from task #1. While you’re working on task #1, there’s an interruption related to task #2, such as a text message from a friend. Because the rules for writing the research paper and replying to the text message are different, your brain has to disengage from task #1 before you can attend to task #2. Blood then rushes to the prefrontal cortex, alerting the brain to shift attention to the second task.

Step 4 – rule activation for task #2. The two-part message for rule activation to attend to task #2 is triggered. After the switch is completed, you may then address the second task.

Because these four steps have to occur in sequence each time you switch from one task to the next, your productivity dips when you give in to digital distractions.

Researchers found that persons who engage in heavier media-multitasking (i.e. toggle between many different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli) generally perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties. They tend to have less grey matter in certain parts of the brain, which serves to process information and is linked with intelligence, as well as thought and emotional control.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russel Poldrack, found that learning new information while being distracted causes the information to go the striatum (a region of the brain for storing new procedures and skills), but not to the hippocampus (a region of the brain for storing new facts and ideas, which makes information easier to recall or retrieve). In short, digital distractions negatively affect your memory.

Impair mental wellbeing

The constant stream of emails, instant messages, text messages, social media notifications, and online news produces information overload and mental fatigue. The fear of missing out (FOMO) keeps you hunched over your smartphone instead of attuned to the present.

Heavy media-multitasking, like switching from one app to the next, produces the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline.  One study found that smartphone overuse is linked to depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle discusses how technology affects your capacity for solitude and development of empathy, which are critical for forming and sustaining human relationships. But in this digital age, you’re more likely to use the train ride or bus commute to consume more information on your electronic device, rather than think or reflect quietly. Instead of enjoying a face-to-face conversation on your break, you clear out your email inbox and scroll through news feeds.

Expanding connections through social media is not the same as building deep relationships and honing real friendships, which help to reduce stress and anxiety.  When your mental wellbeing is compromised, it’s harder to commit to and work on challenging projects.

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Avoiding and minimizing online distractions are necessary to get the right things done, with better results and in the least amount of time. To gain control over your digital device usage and online media consumption,  read 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions.


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Photo by: Benedicto de Jesus

Alternatives to 3 Misused, Overused Productivity Hacks

Productivity hacks can help you focus on what really matters, use your time effectively, and make progress on big projects. But here are 3 popular techniques that don’t work for everyone or in every situation, and the alternatives you could try instead:

1. Become an early riser.  Waking up before sunrise is a habit for many successful go-getters. Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group), Tim Cook (Apple CEO), Oprah, and many top CEOs begin greeting the day before 6 am. The extraordinary Benjamin Franklin coined the adage, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” and was a prolific early riser.

Research suggests there are psychological and physical benefits to waking early. In his 2009 article, Proactive People are Morning People, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, biologist Christopher Randler notes that morning people are more proactive than evening types, i.e. they are more willing and able to take action to change a situation to one’s advantage. In a survey of 367 university students, Randler found that a higher percentage of early risers agreed with statements that indicate proactivity, such as “I spend time identifying long-range goals for myself” and “I feel in charge of making things happen.”

A 2008 study at the University of North Texas in Denton found that early birds tend to have GPAs that are an average of one point higher than their night owl peers’. The author Daniel J. Taylor theorized that early bird students are less likely to engage in activities that negatively affect their academic performance.

From a productivity standpoint, waking early has advantages. “Your most valuable hours are 5 a.m. – 8 a.m. They have the least interruptions,” says Robin Sharma, leadership expert and best-selling author of The Leader Who Had No Title. Productivity speaker Jeff Sanders also recommends you join the 5 a.m. Club to make maximum use of the morning hours, when your willpower, focus and energy are typically at their peak. His 5 AM Miracle podcast is “dedicated to dominating your day before breakfast.”

Early morning – before the rest of the world wakes up –  provides quiet, uninterrupted time for focused work. Being an early riser also fits with the regular, 9 to 5 schedule that applies to most of the workforce. When you tackle your tasks early or to-dos first thing in the morning, you generally feel more productive and less stressed throughout the day.

But membership in the 5 a.m. Club is not ideal for all and can be painful to maintain. When I shifted from a 7:30 to a 5 a.m. wake-up time for a few months, I loved the new schedule. I made the change gradually in 30-minute increments each week. The shift involved moving to 7 a.m. in week 1 and all the way to 5 a.m. in week 5. My desire to do focused work before my preschooler woke up was the driving factor.

Waking up before sunrise was not the problem, but going to bed earlier was. Whenever I got less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep, I would naturally feel groggy in the mornings and tired by afternoon. So I had to be asleep by 10 p.m. each night to be a full-fledged member of the 5 a.m. Club.  This meant preparing or having dinner earlier (and making changes in family/social time), compromising on evening rituals, and losing out on the creative insights and deep reflection that accompany being awake after 10 p.m. As a result, I now wake up between 6 and 7 a.m., which gives me an hour or two of quiet time in the mornings without needing to keep a super early bedtime.

Alternative:  You don’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to be super productive. Instead, keep a consistent sleep schedule that fits with your personal chronotype (biological clock  or circadian rhythm), the earth’s 24-hour cycle, and your individual circumstances.

When you wake up is not as important as how you feel and what you do during your waking hours. You first have to figure out the ideal amount of sleep you need to feel refreshed and alert during the day. (Most adults need at least 8 hours of sleep, although many get by with less by consuming artificial stimulants.) Set yourself up for high-quality, sufficient slumber by going to bed — preferably at an hour before 12 AM when you have the opportunity to get all the non-REM and REM sleep you need — and waking up after you have had enough shuteye.

Develop a morning ritual to prime yourself for the rest of your day.  No matter what time you wake up, create a solid plan for prioritizing your day and stick to it.

If you’re not an early riser but want to become one, you need to clarify the why behind this desire. You can’t expect to rewire your brain and sustain change by blindly following productivity advice. Make the shift incrementally (through habit formation) instead of overnight (through sheer willpower).

 2. Schedule your priorities.  Many productivity experts say you should schedule time on your calendar to work on your to-dos. Some believe that to ensure the thing gets done, it needs to be scheduled.

Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, recommends you nix the to-do list altogether and schedule everything. Michael Hyatt, author of Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You’ve Always Wanted, maps out his Ideal Week on a calendar. He schedules time for his most important tasks, weekly appointments, special projects and quarterly reviews. Both Kruse and Hyatt advocate scheduling non-negotiable me-time or buffer time for yourself.

While carving out time on your calendar can boost productivity, it’s not foolproof. Interruptions and distractions get in the way. Energy levels dip and attention spans dwindle. Over-scheduling can suck the joy and spontaneity out of life. Although a calendaring system helps you stay on task, it can sometimes create too much rigidity for when to accomplish your to-dos. If you didn’t perform the task as scheduled, you’ll use up time reworking your calendar and feeling dissatisfied over unfinished business.

Alternative:  Using both a to-do list and a calendaring system is an effective, combined approach to making progress on your important projects and fulfilling your commitments. The to-do list is for tasks that do not have to be done at a specific time. The calendar is for activities that must occur at an allotted time.

For example, I schedule only meetings and appointments on my calendar, and plug away at my one to three Most Important Tasks (MITs) (usually related to research, writing, and problem solving) during set time blocks (e.g. 8 to 10 am, 2 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m.)  I don’t give in to interruptions and distractions when I am engaged in focused work. The other hours are for ad-hoc activities and shallow work, like responding to emails and making telephone calls. This combined to-do/calendaring system provides structure without needing to schedule every single task on your calendar.

Adhering to a fixed schedule is less critical than doing your most difficult work when your mental clarity and focus level are at their highest. Consider the output you contribute, not the hours you put in. Pace yourself by taking necessary breaks. Work around your energy instead of force  your to-dos into a rigid schedule. Even with this more flexible approach, you can still keep a shutdown time – when you stop doing work and start winding down – to avoid burnout and impaired productivity.

3. Use a timer to focus on a task. The “Pomodoro Technique” is a time-management method that was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato. Cirillo adopted the name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used to manage his time as a college student.

The Pomodoro Technique involves several steps. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (traditionally 25 minutes).  Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off.  After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer.  If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four checkmarks, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again.

The technique helps you to set aside time and space to work on a single task and avoid procrastination. Having a timer adds a sense of urgency and importance to getting the task done. The breaks between tasks also allows you to preserve your energy and sustain your focus over long periods.

The technique, however, can also cut into your workflow and make it harder to develop the skill of doing real, deep work. The ability to concentrate on hard things for extensive periods takes practice to develop. If you’re constantly taking breaks (e.g. every 25 minutes), you don’t learn to sit with and push through temporary moments of discomfort or boredom.

Relying on a timer can also reduce your awareness of when it’s really time to call it quits. The technique can force you to work for sustained periods, when your mind is wandering off or your body is fatigued.

Working under time pressure can work for some people and for some situations. But when you get pulled into watching the timer instead of focusing on the task at hand, the Pomodoro Technique backfires.

Alternative: Single tasking and taking regular breaks — while nixing the timer or the 25-minute rule – provides the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique without the drawbacks.  If you find it difficult to focus on one task at a time, you can use Pomodoro to get you on track. You’re better off though when you eventually tailor the method to your personal preferences.

Experiment with the duration of your  work sessions. For certain low-value, administrative activities, like processing emails, you might want to stick with 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. And for high-value, deep concentration activities, you could work in a 90- to 120-minute cycle, which is the brain-body’s natural ultradian rhythm, before taking a 20-minute break.  Standing up and stretching for just a minute every 45 minutes can also help you avoid long periods of being desk bound or holding bad posture, which is detrimental to your health.

When you’re in the zone, you don’t have to break your workflow with a mandatory break. Pay attention to your energy level. Take breaks based on the state of your mind and body, rather than depend on a timer.  During your break, engage in activities that clear your mind (e.g. take a walk or meditate) and avoid activities that clutter it (e.g. surf the Internet or check social media).

Test out productivity hacks and use what works for you

There are many productivity hacks from which to choose, but only a few are ultimately right for you. Try the method or technique for at least 30 days before you give up on it because you are bound to experience resistance and setbacks initially.

Experiment, make use of the ones that fit, and drop the ones that create more stress. Develop a customized, personal productivity system that helps you focus on and accomplish what really matters. Sometimes a simple tweaking of existing systems is all you need to do.


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Photo by: Jussi Linkola