19 Productive Work Habits That Make All the Difference

Productive work habits are essential to success in the workplace—but how many of us are taught how to form productive habits?

Check out these 19 work habits that you can start implementing today to transform your productivity.

Productive Work Habits: Positive Work Habits

Most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time. Sometimes we do something new.

David J. Townsend and Thomas G. Bever, Sentence Comprehension: The Integration of Habits and Rules

If you’re reading this, I’m betting you’ve never been taught how to work.

Sure, you probably went to college to get an education and a degree. Career guidance was limited to applying for and interviewing for jobs.

But the day-to-day grind of managing your time? Dealing with emails? Communicating with superiors?

Like most workers, you were probably left to figure that stuff out on your own. And you probably made tons of mistakes. I know I did. My disastrous first run in corporate America taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t work at work—and incidentally shaped my thinking for years to come.

This article is about filling that gap. Maybe you developed some of these work habits on your own, through experimentation and experience. But I bet some of these productive habits will be new to you.

19 Good Work Habits for Productive People

1. Have a System, Any System

The single most important lesson I hope you take away from this article is that you need a system for work.

(See how I put it first?)

In The Up Side of Down, Megan McArdle says successful sales systems have these 4 common elements:

  1. Set specific goals for input, not output.
  2. Record your effort.
  3. Use a script.
  4. Surround yourself with other people who are going through the same thing.

We might not all be in sales, but the point still stands: The key is to have a system, any system. Especially when you’re facing constant rejection e.g. 90% of the time or more. And in the world of work, that’s pretty common.

There are going to be sucky days ahead in your work life. Even if you find your passion and discover your Hedgehog, there will be difficult setbacks and demoralizing days to come. You don’t get a free pass even if you attain your dream job.

And if you’re like most folks and what you do for a living is far from a “dream,” it’ll be even more difficult. So have a system. Any system.

Maybe it’s GTD or PEP. Maybe it’s Scrum or Lean Startup. Maybe it’s the Rule of 3 or the Pomodoro Technique. Or maybe it’s your own custom amalgam of all these things (guilty!). But have a system.

Otherwise, you might end up a burned out husk of a person. And no one wants that.

2. Build a Routine

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.

W.H. Auden, poet

Think of every working day of your life as a battle to conserve decision-making power. There’s a reason President Obama wears the same kind of suit every day, eats the same kind of food, and keeps the same schedule. Everything that fades into the background and becomes routine doesn’t require your precious brainpower working on it. As creators, engineers, and knowledge workers, our livelihood increasingly depends on mental and emotional labor. Don’t squander your willpower when you don’t have to.

3. Choose One Thing to Do Every Day

If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.

Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography

Whatever your profession, there’s one thing you do that most correlates with success. In my case, since I create written content, it’s producing new words. Even when I was an attorney drafting contracts for technology deals, the main product I produced was my words. In order to create a virtuous cycle and avoid Zero Days, set a laughably small goal to work on every single day. For me, it’s 250 publishable new words a day. That might not sound like much (and I regularly go over that number), but 250 words a day adds up. After a year, I will have produced the equivalent of a 300+ page book. What result should you be producing every day?

4. Set a Few Priorities and Stick to Them

Refusing to prioritize is the number one time-management drain happening in our organizations today. I use the Rule of 3 to set must-do priorities every day, week, month, quarter, and year. Accomplishing 3 things might seem small, but you’d be surprised how much nonsense work can muck up even the best-laid plans and estimates. Setting priorities (deciding what’s important and what’s not) and sticking to them is the foundation of truly productive habits.

5. Use the 80/20 Rule Ruthlessly

Most of what you do every day doesn’t move the ball forward, I’m sad to say. While some grunt-work is always going to be necessary, it’s important to recognize the 80/20 Rule at work: 20% of your activities will yield 80% of the results. Checking your email won’t change the world. I know you know that on some deeper, fundamental level of understanding. So figure out what aspect of your work contributes the most and do more of that, while minimizing the rest. If all of your job is meaningless busywork, then it’s probably high time to quit your job.

6. Work in Sprints

In the Agile software development framework known as Scrum, the basic unit of productivity is the sprint. Sprints are generally one to two weeks in length. During each sprint, you work on the priorities you set out until you’re “done” (achieve a result). At the end of the sprint, you look back on what worked and what didn’t. Then you set the goals for the next sprint. The key is to get to “done” each and every sprint—it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of working for weeks on end without ever delivering an end-product. If you can’t complete a project within a single sprint, then pick an intermediate milestone to finish. The goal is to make real, meaningful progress instead of appearing to be “busy” all the time.

7. Timebox Everything

Productive Work Habits: Timeboxing

Speaking of sprints, it makes a lot of sense to timebox everything you can. Set boundaries for how much time you want to spend on particular projects. Timeboxing creates urgency and helps you estimate and plan your time. The most famous personal productivity habit that uses timeboxing is probably the Pomodoro Technique. Developed by an Italian university student, Pomodoro divides working time into 25-minute chunks of focused work, followed by quick 5-minute breaks. Combining sprints with the Pomodoro Technique is easily the best work habit I’ve ever picked up.

8. Schedule Work Around Your Peak Productivity Times

A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.

W.H. Auden, poet

Learning to find and guard your peak productivity times from interruption is a revelation. Everyone works a little differently. Everyone has different energy peaks. Knowing and respecting that truth leads to a better work environment for everyone. Schedule head-down time for your most productive hours, and low-energy stuff (meetings, calls) around those blocks of time. Some of the greatest writers and artists of all time produced their great works by working only a few hours a day. But they worked during their peak productivity times, and that makes all the difference.

9. Only Handle Things Once

“Only handle it once” AKA the OHIO rule is a prohibition against circling around to the same task over and over again. Decide what to do with an item once, upfront, and stop wasting time and energy worrying about it. Email is a great example of this rule at work. Does it need a reply? If yes, do it now or schedule a time on your calendar to do it. If not, archive it or file it away in a folder. Get it out of your inbox so you don’t have to see it again. Done. Handling things once and only once frees you to actually execute when you need to execute.

10. Do It Now

Part and parcel with the OHIO rule is Do It Now. This rule says if you can do something now, do it now. David Allen in Getting Things Done has a version of this rule: If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Instead of procrastinating and anxiously torturing yourself with thoughts of work un-done, Do It Now. Of course, there are commonsense limits to this rule. For instance, if you’re working on something else (timeboxing) and you get a ding on your phone that a customer email has come in, you might not want to Do It Now depending on the importance of the first thing you were doing. But generally speaking, Do It Now and a bias towards action is the right impulse.

11. Get the First Version Out Quickly

Productive Work Habits: Versioning

Work in drafts. I can’t emphasize this enough. Even if the first version is utter garbage and never sees the light of day, it’s much easier to edit pre-existing work than it is to create new stuff out of whole cloth. Versioning your results lets you get over the hump of analysis paralysis and perfectionism. Commit to making version 2 better, of course, but get over yourself and create version 1 as soon as possible.

12. Embrace the Suck

Seth Godin calls it the Dip. The period midway or three-quarters of the way through a project when your motivation dips, your passion sags, and you want to do anything other than the thing you should be working on (”Time to reorganize my sock drawer!”). You have to embrace this period of suck if you want to create breakthrough work, because it happens to everybody. The difference between people who get through this period and the people who don’t is the difference between success and mediocrity. If you’ve come this far, you’re doing something right. So keep going.

13. Learn to Take Super-Quick Breaks

I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.

Carl Jung, psychotherapist

In the The Art of Learning, chess and tai chi champion Josh Waitzkin picked up a performance technique from athletic trainers: “in virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods. Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line.” Find 5 minutes every hour to take a break and re-center yourself before plowing on to the next thing on your to-do list.

14. Plan Your Procrastination

Procrastination has one (and probably only one) thing in common with cancer: It’s a condition you learn to manage, but never really eradicate. That’s why psychologist Piers Steel and philosopher John Perry suggest structuring your procrastination instead of fighting against the impulse all the time. Procrastinate on big projects by working on lower prioritiy side projects. When your batteries are recharged, return to the Very Important Tasks at the top of your list.

15. Drink Water Like It’s Your Job

When I first moved to Colorado (elevation: 5,000 feet), the best piece of advice that I got was to drink water like it’s my job. At higher elevation, you become dehydrated quickly, leading to headaches, mental fog, and low energy. But it’s true at sea level, too. Most of us are under-hydrated throughout the day, either because we don’t take enough breaks or drink too much coffee and not enough water. Keep a full 32 oz. bottle of water (Nalgene works well) by your desk and you won’t forget to stay hydrated. Remember, if you’re feeling thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.

16. Remember to Breathe

You’re spending a good chunk of time at your desk holding your breath. Don’t believe me? Set a timer for 90 minutes from now. When it goes off, check to see if you’re breathing. Chances are, you’re either holding your breath or taking very shallow breaths. We naturally go into fight-or-flight mode when we’re stressed, which leads to irregular breathing. Forcing yourself to take deep breaths can make you think clearer and avoid a state of chronic stress.

17. Embrace Continuous Self-Improvement

If you want to continue to command the heights, you need to keep on creating, and overturning. As Schumpeter understood, it’s as simple — and as unlikely and scary — as that. There’s no rest.

Tom Peters, The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations

The Japanese have a word, kaizen, that roughly translates to continuous improvement in English. For your work habits to rise to the level of an A+ performer, you’ll have to embrace personal kaizen or continuous self-improvement. All the habits, routines, and processes that make up your work-life can be improved. Incrementally, slowly but surely, but always getting better. That might sound daunting, but continually getting better at what you do is the difference between a life of meaningful progress and mediocre stagnation. Commit to the journey and it becomes its own reward.

18. Delegate Where You Can

In his book Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, Professor J. Keith Murnighan of the Kellogg School of Management says that the most successful leaders delegate virtually all of the operational work to their reports, thereby freeing their own time to orchestrate everyone else’s performance. “Most leaders do too much,” Murnighan says. “And when they do, they’re seen as micromanagers.” Murnighan’s insight applies to you too. Find ways to delegate to your co-workers, regardless of rank, and set yourself apart as managerial-minded. Delegating can be done subtly, with a bit of quid pro quo (”I’ll get you back next time”) or flattery (”You’re much better at this than me”). However you do it, finding and facilitating collaborators is a high-impact work habit to cultivate.

19. Automate Everything Else

At first blush, automation sounds like something only a corporation or a factory could take advantage of. But your personal and work life could benefit immensely from automation—in the form of web and mobile apps. As many of you already know, I use Mint to set a dead-simple budget every month and track household expenses. I use Feedly to keep current on all the websites I follow. And I use Buffer to automate my social media presence.

In fact, maximizing my productivity with webapps is such a big part of my time management strategy that I’ve created an App Guide resource just for my readers. The App Guide contains a brief walkthrough of the 7 apps I use every day to turbo-charge my personal productivity. Implementing and consistently using just one of these apps could literally save you hundreds of hours a year. And the amazing thing is that most of them are absolutely free!

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