How Toxic Habits Steal Your Productivity (and How to Take it Back)

This is the third post in our series on productivity thieves, those habits and distractions preventing you from achieving your full potential. Check out our previous posts on ‘fractured focus’ and ‘decision fatigue.

Have you ever gotten to work and not remembered how you got there? You must have brushed your teeth, taken a shower, and fought through traffic, but you don’t recall doing any of it. 

This can happen because your morning routine is a habit requiring barely any conscious thought—and it’s probably not the only one. 

What about the mid-morning cheese danish, the procrastination before a big project, or the hours of social media that beat out visits to the gym? If you consciously choose routines like these because they bring you fulfillment, then have at it! But if you do them without really thinking or when you’d rather do something else, ask yourself:

What if, instead, you could put the productive behaviors you want to adopt on autopilot? 

Today, we’re exploring how you can make productive habits more automatic and giving you four steps for creating better routines.

Note: If we had you at “productive” and you’re ready to dive into action, go right ahead.

How do we form habits?

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in conscious thought.” 

—Charles Duhigg

In his book “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg looks at the science of habit formation and describes it as a behavioral loop with three parts:

  1. A cue that triggers your brain to behave automatically
  2. A routine that consists of some kind of action
  3. A reward that reinforces the loop by giving you a good feeling 

So a cue might be an anxious feeling you get when an involved project lands on your desk. The anxiety causes a craving for relief that you satisfy with the routine of, say, eating a cheese danish. The danish gives you a reward—a feeling of pleasure that momentarily relieves the anxiety. 

The more you satisfy a given craving with the same routine, the more your brain relegates that habit loop to some of its more primitive regions, which are able to override your conscious (that is, better) judgment. 

Nicholas Carr, who we’ve referred to before in this series, points out that “…as we repeat an experience, the synaptic links between the neurons responsible for it grow stronger and more plentiful.” He adds that even though this repetition helps us gain new skills, “it can also entrench undesirable habits.” Charles Duhigg explains this entrenchment further, saying, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in conscious thought.” 

How do you break the habit loop?

The good news is that the habit loop is an ancient system that isn’t changing any time soon. That makes it predictable. And because it’s possible to make almost any routine an automatic behavior, the same ability to act unconsciously that can cause you to look at your phone for hours after you tell yourself to stop can also work for you. 

According to Charles Duhigg, “…to change an old habit, you must address an old craving. You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine.” (emphasis added)

With that in mind, here are four steps to change up your routines:

  1. Observe and record

    First, simply be aware of your routines. Notice when you take an unproductive action by force of habit. In that moment, ask yourself, What cued me to take that action? What reward is that action giving me?

    Then write it all down.

    Studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest that logging your behavior can significantly increase your chances of changing it. Researchers studying weight loss at the NIH found that when people kept a daily log of everything they ate, they lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t.

    For the logging itself, there’s an app for that.

  2. Win small

    You’re more likely to change an unproductive habit if you set your sights on one routine to reform. The new routine should be something specific that will present you with small wins—tiny but noticeable improvements.

    According to Charles Duhigg, small wins help you see results on a regular basis. This helps convince you that progress is possible. It also makes it more likely that the routine you’re about to reshape leads to other productive habit changes.

    For example, setting a routine like “make healthier choices” might not work so well. It’s too vague. A more specific routine like “take a walk every time a danish craving strikes” will be more likely to stick.

  3. Switch routines

    Now that you know what routine you want to change, you can substitute it into your habit loop. It’s important that you do the new routine in response to the old cue and that you receive the same reward.

    So let’s say your current habit loop is:

    • Cue: a feeling of anxiety when a major project lands on your desk.
    • Routine: eating a cheese danish.
    • Reward: a momentary feeling of relief. 
    Your new habit loop could be:

    • Cue: a feeling of anxiety when a major project lands on your desk.
    • Routine: going for a walk.
    • Reward: a momentary feeling of relief. 
    No, going for a walk won’t taste as good and it won’t give you a sugar rush, but it doesn’t have to. All it has to do is give you a small sense of relief.

  4. Make a chain

    Once you’ve started doing your new routine in response to an old cue, give yourself a visible way to acknowledge your success.

    Jerry Seinfeld famously placed a big red X on his calendar for every day he wrote new jokes. Soon the Xs formed a chain. “Just keep at it,” he says, “and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

    Think of ways to associate your new routine with objects that add up over time. For example, if your new routine is to journal every day, maybe you tear a corner off a journal page and tack it to the wall every time you do your daily writing.

    Whatever your chain might be, put it somewhere prominent, so it serves as a reminder of your achievements.

The power of habit is that it can turn challenging life changes into automatic behaviors. Major shifts won’t happen overnight, but small wins can. If you’re trying to adopt advice from previous posts in this series or wanting to embrace any new productive behavior, the steps above can help you make it happen without it feeling like an uphill battle.

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