Whether you are a writer, the boss, a manager, an entrepreneur, or a parent, we all struggle with productivity and creating good habits.
Thanks to the pandemic giving me hours back from not having to drive and do things out in the world, I’ve had the most productive and lucrative year to date since I started blogging five years ago. Stuck inside and nowhere to go, I chose to seize the opportunity of gaining time to write and work on my blog.
Challenging times reveal who we are.
More than a few times, I wallowed in the fear overwhelming the ethos and hid on the couch, streaming Netflix, and eating carbs. But for the most part, I put my head down and got to work. After a few weeks stuck inside, I made the conscious decision to limit TV and social media scrolling for my Most Important Thing — writing.
Below is the most highlighted content of mine on habits and productivity that resonated with people this past year.
Setting goals vs. habits
We all know the feeling of setting goals and not making any progress. We don’t make progress because we haven’t designed the system to support the goal.
Your habits are what matters when achieving a goal — long or short-term.
Habits give you the framework to challenge yourself. This is why it is good to create patterns — habits that allow you to grow. Excellence, which is different from perfection — perfection does not exist — is an art won by training and habitualization.
If you have a system in place, it is more likely that you’ll follow through on the task.
It starts with a goal, but it happens with a system that supports action. When you envision what you want your life to be like one year from now, it is easier to see the value in taking action that produces long-term benefits.
Success in any area boils down to long-term vs. short-term thinking. If you can just adopt long-term thinking into your mindset, you will have a much simpler life.
Think about it this way, every habit produces multiple outcomes across time.
Hard choices, easy life.
Easy choices, hard life.
As James Clear writes so brilliantly in his book, Atomic Habits, “With our bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good.”
Focus on the long-term when thinking about what system to create to support what you want.
Process — Set a goal and then create a system
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. — James Clear
Let’s say you set a goal to get your writing into the publication of your dreams, like The Atlantic, and it happens. You get in.
But if you’re more focused on the goal, getting into The Atlantic, what is going to push you forward when you achieve the goal.
The goal is no longer there to motivate you. Instead, fall in love with the process of writing, and then you don’t have to wait to be happy — you’re happy in the process.
The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. — James Clear
You will be much happier with whatever purpose you’re pursuing if you focus on long-term thinking and purpose, and less on any single accomplishment.
If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. — James Clear, Atomic Habits
Decision making — think about the long-term goals
Before you make a decision, think about how it affects your long-term goals.
If you can find ways to fill your days with the things you enjoy right now that also have long-term benefits or lead to a long-term result that you actually want, life is easier.
Start analyzing your day through that lens constantly, and you’ll find that before long, it starts to become natural to make the long-term choice over the short-term instant fix.
If you don’t think about what you want in the future, five, ten, twenty years from now, you will keep making the same short-term decisions based on instant rewards.
But if you implement changes in everyday habits now to make your long-term goals a reality, life would be much easier. Incorporate long-term thinking throughout your day. And make a plan for your future self. When you make a plan and come up with a system to support that plan — to lose weight, write a book, travel abroad for a year — you are making plans for your future self.
Practice long-term thinking
You won’t just magically become a long-term thinker. You have to work at it.
Similar to creating any habit, like a daily writing habit, long-term thinking is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
When you give your habits time and space in your brain or through implementation, with enough repetition, you get the urge to do the right thing, even if you can’t say why.
That’s why tools like automatic withdrawals from your bank account each month into a 401K account are so powerful; you already made the decision, once, to invest in your future self.
You’re skipping the motivation part — because motivation is not reliable — and going directly to the habit part.
Focus on one thing at a time
When you focus on the things that matter — essential tasks, like writing — you feel more motivated, less stressed with increased energy and focus. I’ve experienced this first-hand.
We underestimate how much we can create if we concentrate on one goal for the first part of our day for a solid two to three hours. Carving out dedicated time to focus on your goal, every day, will get you results.
We underestimate the quality of distraction-free thinking, doing, writing, creating.
As Gary Keller says in his groundbreaking book, The One Thing,
“All great achievements are the result of sustained focus over time — all of them.”
What is the one thing you want to do to create the life you wish to have one year from now? What is the one thing you could do so that by doing it every day, you could accomplish your goal?
Do your one thing before noon and you’ll be surprised how much you accomplish with dedicated focus.
- If you want to be a writer, the one thing you can do before noon is — write.
- If you want to lose weight, the one thing you can do before noon is — exercise.
- If you want to be closer to your partner, the one thing you can do before noon is — ask him/her how their day is going and kiss and hug them.
- If you want to get out of debt, the one thing you can do before noon is — make a debt repayment plan.
Create a long-term plan
One way to become more of a long-term thinker is to make concrete and detailed long-term plans for the future and write them down.
If you don’t think about what you want in the future, you will keep making the same short-term decisions based on instant rewards. Most people spend all day chasing quick hits of instant gratification: red dots, likes, too much caffeine, alcohol, a high-calorie treat.
Incorporate long-term thinking throughout your day. And make a plan for your future self. Start by writing your plan down out on paper.
Action vs. Motion
James Clear refers to this difference between being in motion and taking action as significant. When you strategize and plan, you are in motion. Strategizing and planning are good things and are sometimes required, but they are not an action; they don’t produce a result.
Sometimes motion is useful and helpful, but it will never produce an outcome by itself.
Action delivers outcomes.
When we stay in motion, like going to an “Influencer Conference” or taking a “How to Master Writing” course, it allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure. When we stay in motion, it tricks us into thinking we’re making a move toward a goal, but instead, it leaves us treading — not taking chances at all.
We stay in motion to avoid criticism and failure.
Humans are adept at avoiding rejection and the feeling of loss — the reason a lot of us stay in motion without taking action — we fear and are trying hard to avoid the risk of rejection or the feeling I’m not good enough.
Taking a chance is uploading your imperfect video to YouTube or publishing a post to a writing website, or submitting it to a magazine for publication.
The more you practice, the more ingrained these habits become, making them easier to do.
"The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity." — James Clear, Atomic Habits