On March 13th, 2020, my workplace closed down, and I started working from home.
The flexibility of my new work from home schedule and more free time from quarantine led me to forge one of my all-time favorite habits: Regular, long walks.
This small, new habit changed my life:
- I exercise more.
- I spend more time thinking.
- I read more books. (I often read while walking)
- I feel happier.
James Clear in his book Atomic Habits emphasizes the importance of small habits. He writes:
“A slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits — not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”
New habits, even small ones, can change the course of your life. But habits can be positive, or they can be negative. They can increase your productivity and fulfillment, or they can decrease both.
Nowadays, online bloggers and influencers tout dozens of different habits. All of these, they claim, lead to higher productivity.
But what does the research actually say?
This post looks at 10 habits that studies and science tell us lead to productivity gains.
Habit 1: Set goals regularly.
Goal setting increases productivity.
A 2015 study found that people who write down their goals are 33% more likely to accomplish them compared to people who don’t do so.
Create a regular habit of documenting your goals — both long-term and short-term goals. You could write down daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, and even five-year goals.
Find what works for you, and do it. However, I recommend documenting goals at least once a week or daily to establish a habit.
It takes 66 days to form a new pro-health habit, according to 2010 research (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle). If you don’t regularly, frequently write down your goals (or perform any other habit in this article), you’re unlikely to forge the new habit before you lose focus or forget about it.
For more guidance on how to set goals, check out this Ultimate Guide to Setting Professional Goals in 2023.
Habit 2: Create a to-do list daily.
Productivity influencers constantly recommend to-do lists, but do they increase productivity?
It turns out, yes.
A 2020 study in Psychology Today revealed that:
- Those who create to-do lists — even mental or casual to-do lists jotted down on a scrap of paper — procrastinate less.
- Those who create formal, organized, and structured written to-do lists procrastinate the least.
- Those who frequently use and refer back to their to-do list procrastinate less.
To-do lists work. But don’t stop at creating a to-do list.
Habit 3: Prioritize your to-do list.
The study we just referenced revealed that formal to-do lists decrease procrastination the most.
One way to make your to-do list more formal: Prioritize them.
McKinsey asked 1,500 business executives worldwide about their priorities. They found that only 9 percent were "very satisfied" with their time allocation. Only 52 percent said how they spent their workday aligned with their organization’s priorities.
Another study found that the average worker spends 80% of their workday on tasks with little to no value. They spend just 20% of their time on meaningful, important work.
Prioritization, clearly, is a massive issue in the workplace. Understandably so. Modern knowledge workers face constant distractions: meetings, emails, Slack messages, etc.
And generally, people do their easiest work first, because they can complete it quickly, giving them the satisfaction and dopamine of completing a task with little effort. Behavioral scientists call this tendency “completion bias.”
Understanding this, prioritizing work by importance, and completing it in order of importance (highest priority first) can help you avoid this bias.
Want to learn more about how to prioritize? This article shares three methods for effective prioritization — The Ivy Lee Method, The Eisenhower Matrix, and the GTD Method.
Habit 4: Time block (or time box) every day.
Time blocking is a productivity technique where you schedule specific tasks for specific blocks of time. People will often schedule time on their digital or physical calendars for each task.
For example, if you’re a content writer, your time-blocked schedule might look like this:
Time blocking helps you:
- Complete work in order of priority.
- Know exactly what you need to do next.
- Ensure you can realistically complete your work each day.
- Commit to specific outcomes/goals.
- Reduce unplanned or rapid context switching.
“A 40-hour time-blocked work week produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure,” says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work.
Yet, there’s one challenge: Manually time blocking your day is time consuming. Also, plans change — like when your boss throws a last-minute meeting on your calendar — and when your schedule must shift, you must redo all of your time blocks and schedule.
That’s where Motion comes in. It automatically builds your daily schedule and blocks your calendar with prioritized tasks, and it rebuilds your schedule when your priorities change, your boss schedules a last-minute meeting, or your day takes an unexpected turn.
Habit 5: Exercise regularly.
There is a clear link between regular exercise and productivity.
While your form of exercise could be a hardcore cardio, interval training, or lifting habit, it doesn’t need to be.
You could also walk.
A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports discovered that those who walk three times a week for just 30 minutes feel:
- less tense,
- more enthusiastic,
- and more relaxed.
While the study didn’t specifically examine productivity, the lead author of the study Cecilie Thogersen-Ntoumani says in a New York Times article, “There is now quite strong research evidence that feeling more positive and enthusiastic at work is very important to productivity. So we would expect that people who walked at lunchtime would be more productive.”
Habit 6: Keep a daily gratitude journal.
You might be skeptical of this one. I admit; it feels slightly like a cute, sentimental sham.
But research supports it.
A study found that gratitude can increase willpower and foster patience and long-term thinking.
While this study focused on long-term financial thinking, the author David DeSteno writes, “We see broad implications for these findings. We all recognize the fact that willpower can and does fail at times. Having an alternative source of patience – one that can come from something as simple as reflecting on an emotional memory – offers an important new tool for long-term success.”
A daily habit of keeping a gratitude journal doesn’t need to consume much time. You only need to set aside a few minutes a day where you write down what you’re grateful for. It’s a small commitment and worth testing to see if it impacts your productivity positively.
If not, stop doing it.
That’s what I’d recommend for any habit recommended in this post. People are unique. What works for one person might not help you.
Habit 7: Hydrate your body every day.
Again, this one is frequently overplayed recently. Everybody is recommending hydration as a panacea for every problem in the world.
While it’s not a panacea, studies do link dehydration to a decrease in cognitive performance, which can impact productivity.
One study found that decreases in “cognitive performance can occur when two percent or more of body weight is lost due to water restriction, heat, and/or physical exertion.”
To put that in perspective, if you usually weigh 150 pounds, three pounds is two percent of your body weight. If due to water weight loss, a three-pound decrease in weight could negatively impact your cognitive performance.
Establish a habit to drink water regularly.
How much water should you drink? The National Academy of Health shares this chart with daily recommendations for water consumption:
Habit 8: Eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Avoid foods that spike blood glucose
Our bodies convert food into energy, including mental energy. Good nutrition can increase productivity, and poor nutrition can hurt it.
A 2012 study found that employees with an unhealthy diet were 66 percent more likely to experience productivity losses than people who regularly ate whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
And Ron Friedman, PhD, explains in the Harvard Business Review how food impacts our productivity. “Food has a direct impact on our cognitive performance, which is why a poor decision at lunch can derail an entire afternoon,” he says.
Our bodies convert nearly everything we eat into glucose, which provides the energy for our brains to stay focused, alert, and productive. However, our bodies process different foods in different ways.
“Some foods, like pasta, bread, cereal and soda, release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump,” says Friedman.
The key is not to eat foods that drastically spike and then crash your blood glucose, as low blood glucose can hurt productivity. A study from Florida State University explains, “Blood glucose is one important part of the energy source of self-control. Acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain.”
People commonly blame carbohydrates and sugars for spikes in blood glucose, but there is a bit more to this. Not all carbs spike blood glucose in the same way. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, complex carbohydrates, which typically contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals, impact blood sugar less.
The glycemic index of foods can guide you in determining what foods will spike your blood glucose more than others. To give you an idea of the glycemic index of various foods, check out this article, which shares the glycemic index of 60+ foods.
Habit 9: Sleep 7 to 9 hours each day
Ambitious people might think they'll get more work done if they just work longer hours and sleep a little less.
This is likely not true for many people. Losing that sleep might make you less productive.
A study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine of 4,188 U.S. workers found that poor sleep hurts productivity.
The study explains, “insomnia and insufficient sleep syndrome groups had significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes.”
But how much sleep is enough?
Experts say adults should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. For people 65 and older, they recommend 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
Make a habit of getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
Habit 10: [Insert desirable action aligned with major goal] for [time duration] every day.
Good habits are often unique to the individual. For example, I write professionally and want to continue improving my writing skills throughout my life.
For me, a good habit might be: Write for 1 hour every day.
For you, this might be entirely different.
That’s why I’ve included this habit formula as the last point. Here’s how to use it:
- Choose a major goal of yours.
- Determine what you need to do repeatedly to reach that goal. What habit or habits do you need to form to meet this goal?
- Customize this formula to yourself: [Insert desirable action aligned with major goal] for [time duration] every day.
Form good, daily, small habits. Reach your goals.
You’ll notice that the formula above includes “every day” at the end. While you can decrease that frequency, I find (and most experts agree) the more you work towards a goal and mastering the skills associated with it, the quicker you reach it.
So I’d encourage you to create daily, small habits that help you get closer to your significant goals.
And if you’d like a tool that makes it easier to form any habit, try Motion.
Not only does it build a time-blocked, prioritized schedule for your day (habits 1, 2, and 3 done for you!), Motion also allows you to add custom, recurring tasks to your schedule (i.e., habits), so you get regular habit reminders. Plus, Motion sets aside time in your day for each habit.