How To Be More Productive By Focusing On One Habit And Just Observing The Rest
Imagine you had a fixed set of daily habits you could rely on to just work. You’d be more productive and feel less stressed. In this post, I’d like to show you how to develop such a habit stack by focusing on just one.
My life runs on 18 daily habits. Every complex task I complete can be credited to this autopilot sequence, running in the background, ensuring I function to the best of my ability.
Here’s the list:
1. Wake up at 6 AM.
2. Drink a glass of water.
3. Open the blinds and window.
4. Read a page in The Daily Stoic.
5. Get up and stretch my arms.
6. Do 1–3 sets of 1–3 different body weight exercises.
7. Brush my teeth.
9. Get dressed, make hair, two splashes of cologne.
10. Walk to the subway.
11. Buy breakfast at the final stop kiosk.
12. Walk to the study room. Take the same seat as always.
13. Have breakfast and read.
15. Curate content for Medium.
16. Check email and Slack once at 11 AM.
17. Lunch between 12–1 PM.
18. Second coffee after lunch.
The rest of my day is pretty flexible and how I spend my time depends heavily on what else is on my plate. However, by completely automating the first half of my day, the ‘program’ just keeps on running after lunch.
I do whatever I have to do. Until the work is done. It’s brilliant. There are three major benefits to my daily habit stack:
- The first half of my day is almost always very productive.
- The likelihood of the second half of my day also being very productive increases significantly.
- At the same time, my life stays really simple.
That’s my three-line pitch for developing your own, daily habit stack. If you want to give it a go, here’s how.
1. Forget the stack.
I’m serious. I never made a list when I began. Because it wouldn’t have lasted a day. The moment you make a list, you start trying to check off the items on it. You’ll dream up a big set of habits, try to adopt them all in a day and fail.
Instead, see this idea as a process of optimization. Don’t pressure yourself to get it right the first time. Think of yourself as putting one foot in front of the other and improving along the way.
This way, you’ll focus on learning and getting better, rather than comparing and getting frustrated.
2. Figure out the earliest habit in your day that warrants attention.
As a college student, there is no set start to my day. In theory, I could wake up at 1 PM. This makes wake-up time an issue worth addressing for me.
Luckily, I like waking up early. I’m a morning person. I’ve gone down all the way to 5 AM, which I found hard to make work. 6 AM I pulled off consistently in high school, so that became my entry point.
Only you know what your day is like. Maybe for you, wake-up time isn’t an issue. Maybe you get hung up on getting dressed. Or breakfast. Or getting to work.
The habit you should initially focus on is the first habit in your day with a lot of potential to go sideways. It’s usually easy to identify if you just think about your usual progression of mornings for a few minutes. The habit you’re looking for marks a turning point in your day. What happens before tends to work, what comes after often doesn’t.
The reason you’re choosing this habit is there’s no need to further optimize prior sequences of your autopilot that already work. There is also no need to try and change anything further down the line, as you might never get to it if you don’t fix the chain where it’s most likely to break.
One thing worth noting about my line of argument in choosing my wake-up time is that I’m trying to make it a home match. I want to play where I know I can win. If there’s an angle to your faulty habit you can choose to make it easier, by all means, do it.
- What habit screws up your mornings?
- Can you replace it?
- How could you improve it?
- Is there a way to change it so it plays into your hands?
- What past learnings about it can you draw on?
These are the questions you should ask to find your entry point.
3. Direct all your energy towards the first habit.
I moved to Munich on September 29th, 2016. For the first three nights, my room looked like this:
I did not have a proper bed. But my alarm was set to 6 AM.
When trying to change a bigger, more ingrained habit, a drastic environment change can come in handy. The basic idea is that it’s easier for your brain to pair a new habit to new surroundings. Of course you don’t have to move. You could sleep in another room or turn your bed around.
In chemistry, there is a concept called activation energy. Once you apply enough energy to a system of elements, you set off a reaction — and it’s all smooth sailing from there.
Going to not extreme, but notable lengths to connect your desired habit to a new environment fits this quite well. Placing your bed at the opposite end of your room is both a visual and physical proof of energy exerted. It just might be enough to get you to stop hitting snooze.
Helpful questions to spark your creativity here are:
- How can I make this different without making it inconvenient?
- What’s the minimum change I’d notice on a daily basis?
- Is there a way to do this with less decision-making required?
4. Notice other habits along the way.
In the beginning, each day when I actually got out of bed at 6 AM was a win. I did not seek to change any other habits, but I observed which ones automatically followed waking up early. I assembled my stack along the way.
For example, once I had an idea of how much I walked to and from school each day, I began to see right-after-waking-up as a good time to add some strength training. After trying several ways of having breakfast, I found my optimum in the kiosk close to school, etc.
You’re running on habits anyway. While focusing on changing the toughest one, pay attention to which other ones are already working.
Look at the remaining common behaviors in the first half of your day.
- How many are there?
- Which ones transition perfectly?
- Where do they create friction?
- Are there any unplanned ones that keep creeping in?
If it helps you, now’s a much better time to make that list. Track the stack you naturally follow to find out what needs changing. This allows you to work with what you’ve got — which is quite a lot, as you’ll see — rather than rebuild every habit from scratch.
I struggled for a while to find a good breakfast routine. Eating at home took time I didn’t want to spend, money was a factor and eating mindlessly while watching videos also wasn’t an option. Eventually, I found I’m okay with chewing on a pretzel while reading.
To create a successful habit stack, be flexible first, patient second and optimize third. There will always be some volatility. What doesn’t work today can always work tomorrow. It’s about learning to be okay with fluctuations while doing your best to reduce them a little each day.
Once you get a good grasp on your routine behaviors, you can start labeling them:
- Which ones are useful? How well do you perform them?
- Which ones aren’t useful? How can you remove or replace them?
- Which ones are necessary, but feel like a drag? How can you make them easier to do?
- Which ones are easy to fix and which ones will require your full attention?
Tweak the easier ones on the fly until they work and put a pin in those that’ll require a more concerted effort. For the latter, you can jump back to step 3 once you do well with your initial habit. Then, repeat the whole process until you’re happy with the overall result.
My list will hardly work for anyone but me. It took me about a month to arrive at a place where I felt comfortable with my stack and I’ve been updating it constantly.
The process I gave you should help find your own. Use it as a guideline to figure yourself out over time. I fully expect you’ll add some habits, ditch others and iterate a lot.
This may not be the step-by-step, hand-held approach you were hoping for, but the truth is there is none. Up to half of your daily actions are habitual and they’re linked to you and only you. Therefore, no one but you can figure out the exact steps it takes to change them.
The upside is if you approach crafting your set of habits like a series of experiments, there is no room to fail — only room to learn.
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh