When you’re working on a serious learning project, especially if you’re applying deliberate practice techniques, it’s essential to have a set of core habits that you can rely on. Deliberate practice is intended to be a demanding process (see elements #4 and #5 from the linked post). This is good because it makes you push against your limits, but it can also make it difficult to maintain a schedule if you’re just using an ad-hoc process. Experimenting with habits and selecting a few that work for you makes it more likely that you’ll be able to continue working on your project for as long as it takes to complete it.
A productivity habit is something you do on a regular basis (often daily) to help you be more productive. Although the habit may have some value on its own, what’s more important is the effect it has on your work. For example, I find it useful to keep track of how long it takes to complete various tasks. Analyzing this data over time can uncover some interesting trends. But it’s even more powerful to use time tracking for setting time goals, like the number of hours per day that I commit to spending on a project.
Here are the habits that I have found to be the most useful as I work on Project 462.
Sometimes the main barrier to creating a habit is just remembering to do it for long enough that it becomes a routine. There are useful habits that nevertheless are fairly easy to do. You just need a reminder to get them going. Flossing your teeth falls into this category. It only takes a couple of minutes, doesn’t require much effort, and provides real benefits. So how do you remember to do it when you’re just getting started? My preferred approach is a todo list with recurring tasks. I use Remember The Milk because I like its support for textual commands and keyboard shortcuts, but any similar program that you use regularly will work. HabitRPG is a fun option if you like games. It offers a small amount of gamification (not so much that it becomes another distraction) around a task tracker.
As you build a list of useful habits, whether daily or on some other schedule, each one should become a recurring task in your list. The meta-habit is the habit of checking your list, at least at the beginning and end of each day. You’ll have to find some other way to remind yourself to do that, like a sticky note attached to your monitor. But once you get in the habit of checking your list each day, you can use it to create habits. The rule I use with my list is that regular tasks can be postponed, but tasks than I’m trying to turn into habits must be completed by their due dates. An example of the former might be “clean my desk.” An example of the latter might be “complete my weekly blog post.” Or these could be reversed if I was working on an organization habit rather than a blogging habit. Remembering the difference between errands and real work is another way to decide which tasks can be postponed and which cannot.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a well-known method to help you focus on a single task. At its most basic, the idea is that you focus for 25 minutes without any distractions (email, people interrupting you, etc.) and then take a 5-minute break. You can use Pomodori to organize your entire week. But if you’re just getting started, or want to keep it simple, try this approach:
- Create a recurring task in your task list: “Complete one Pomodoro per day on a task related to [your project name].”
- Once you have that habit down, gradually add more daily Pomodori until you have a number that you can definitely complete every day.
For example, you could have a daily habit to complete three Pomodori (a total of 90 minutes or so) on your project work. I find it helpful to use a spreadsheet to keep track of how many I complete per day, so that I can review historical data to decide whether I want to bump the number up or down.
If you’re using the Pomodoro Technique strictly, you won’t be able to cram your day full of back-to-back Pomodori. In an eight-hour day, you might only do eight Pomodori, rather than sixteen. That’s a good thing. Because Pomodori include only focused time, they are a more consistent way to measure your productivity than just subtracting your work start time from your work end time.
Because the Pomodoro Technique is so popular, there are plenty of Pomodoro timers out there, so you can find a good one for whatever platform you’re on. There’s even a gamified version. (Of course there is). But if you’re a programmer, it’s also an easy project to build on your own, as a way to learn a new language or platform. This way you also get exactly the features that you want. For example, I built a simple one that keeps track of daily and historical totals.
The best way to get important work done is by focusing on a single task at a time using the Pomodoro Technique or a similar approach. But on some days, that just doesn’t work out. For one reason or another, you get interrupted a lot. That doesn’t mean you have to write off the day. To keep track of all the time you spend on your projects, both with and without Pomodori, it’s helpful to use a project timer.
Besides billing clients, what’s the point of keeping track of your work time? There are at least two good reasons. One reason is that it’s interesting to see how long things take. When I was in college and grad school, I tracked all of the time I spent on classes. When I finished a class, I added it to a spreadsheet so I could compare how much time it required compared to other classes. I could even look at things like which days of the week or hours of the day were the most productive. A more practical use for this data is for planning purposes. In the class example, I eventually had enough data that I could predict how much time I would need to allocate in a quarter to finish a particular class. This was useful when planning other activities that had to take place concurrently. After college, I have continued to measure time for many types of work. After a few months of writing blog posts, I have a reasonable idea of how long it takes to write and edit one (6 to 8 hours over 3 days). The time required to finish a programming puzzle is still unpredictable, though I’m gathering data on that as well. If you’re on Windows, the best software I have found for this type of time tracking is Grindstone.
As interesting as it is to mine your timing data for trends and planning, it’s even more useful to leverage timing for habit purposes. Productivity habits work better when you have more control over success or failure. Consider a habit of working for two hours per day on a side project. This number is small enough that you should be able to squeeze it in even on a busy day (unless you have a really crazy day job). But it’s large enough that you can make progress on a project. Because your goal is only related to your own work hours, you have a large degree of control over it.
As with Pomodori, it’s useful to record project hours in a spreadsheet so you can keep track of them and slice and dice the results. A spreadsheet also allows you to make your system more complex without introducing a lot of tracking overhead. Consider the example of two hours of project work per day. Eventually a day may come around when you have other priorities. Maybe you’re going out with friends in the evening, and you can’t make up the time elsewhere in the day. Rather than stressing about it when those days come up, I have set up my spreadsheet with an “hour bank.” For each hour I work above my target, I put 30 minutes into the bank. If I can’t hit my target one day, I just withdraw from my hours fund. This sounds like a pain to keep track of, but it’s actually all automatic thanks to the magic of spreadsheet formulas. And it allows me to hit my daily target consistently (which is useful for habit-building), while providing an incentive to put in extra time when I can.
There are a lot of advantages to building habits based on work time. But it sometimes makes sense to create a habit of completing specific deliverables. For example, I publish one blog post per week. Some writers write a particular number of words per day. For coding practice, lines of code per day might be a useful goal, even though it’s not a good general developer productivity measure. Having a few deliverable-oriented habits helps ensure that you’re actually producing what you want to produce.
When I was in college, streaking was a popular pastime on the night of the first snowfall, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Streak habits are just the logical extension of deliverable or project hour habits. If you’re already meeting a goal every day, why not make a goal out of not missing a day? This adds another level of structure to your daily habit routine.
Long ago (in Internet years), Lifehacker published an article about “Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret.” According to the article, Seinfeld decided that he wanted to write every day. To keep track of this goal, he put up a wall calendar and marked X’s on the days that he completed his writing task. If he managed to do this for a few days, he would have a streak of X’s, and was motivated not to “break the chain.” Although Seinfeld didn’t originate this idea, it is often referred to as the Seinfeld Technique. This idea is effective enough that a number of web sites employ it to keep their users coming back. For example:
Khan Academy has several badges for participating in the site for consecutive days, culminating in the 10,000 Year Clock badge for 100 consecutive days of participation.
Codecademy awards a badge for every five consecutive days of submitting a solution.
GitHub tracks contribution streaks and displays a visual representation of contributions over time.
HabitRPG tracks streaks for tasks that are identified as dailies.
Any way you decide to track them, streaks can be useful to get you beyond the first few days of a habit. And the longer your streak goes, the more motivation you have to keep it going, so you don’t have to start back at zero.
The metaphor of the elephant and the rider describes the rational (rider) and irrational (elephant) minds that all human beings have. Habits are a way for the rider to get the elephant to go in the right direction without resorting to brute force (which isn’t a reliable approach). For example, there isn’t necessarily a logical reason why you should do something on Day 100 just because you did it on Day 1 through Day 99. But there’s an emotional power to a string of X’s that appeals to the elephant in you. To some extent, productivity habits are about successfully tricking yourself in order to reach a larger goal.
The Web is full of ideas for becoming more productive. To make productivity habits work for you, start slowly with one. Then gradually add a new habit at a time. Eventually you’ll have a personalized set of habits that work together to help you finish your projects.
(Image credit: Andi Gentsch)