The (Super) Power of Habits and Routines

Here's why habits and routines are important for productivity (especially at work) and how to create them!

Routines and habits ought to be a part of everyone’s lifestyle.

How often have you thought ‘if only I could stop time’ or ‘if only I had another hour in the day’? Basically, you want superpowers. Crafting and utilizing habits and routines in your life IS that superpower! You can, effectively, time travel!

I get a lot of stuff done, because the bulk of my days are structured in habits and routines.

Without routines, it’s easy to succumb to what is ‘urgent’ rather than important or valuable. You become busy with ‘keeping busy’ instead of identifying those tasks and activities that will achieve the most value and get the best results.

Routines and habits allow you to build environments to do everything with high efficiency.

And when habits and routines are defined by a specific goal, that focus guides the prioritization of other daily choices, which in turn affects those habits and routines. At its best, the system of crafting habits and routines is cyclical, and the trajectory of one’s successes is exponential.

How choice plays into our day

We humans make lots of decisions. Little ones — like whether I’m “allowed” to wear brown shoes with a black belt (apparently no). And big ones — like whether my wife should be my permabuddy (definitely yes).

All choices and decisions require some amount of mental energy, which is finite during the day and susceptible to fatigue. This is why it’s easier to turn down office donuts at 8 a.m. than it is at 3 p.m.

One huge benefit of routines (and virtuous habits) is that you don’t have to choose to do it — you just do it. Through morning routines, workout routines, day-planning routines, and others, I preserve my willpower for more important decisions.

For example, I don’t have to make the choice to get up to my alarm at 5 a.m., because my past self, who created that routine for a defined purpose, already made that decision. Like Ivan Pavlov’s pups, I simply respond to that stimulus without any choice in the matter.

Because my routines make the bulk of unnecessary decisions for me, I’m also more clear-headed, so I don’t have to make decisions when they’re tough or when distractions are present. Having habits and routines makes things “computationally kind” (see Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’s Algorithms To Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions on critical thinking and decision-making).

It’s cumbersome to have tough equations (read: decisions); make things easy when you can, so you keep it 💯.

Grounding routines and habits with a goal

There’s no point to having routines if you don’t have an end goal.

For example, as an attorney, I usually bill clients by the hour (which I track to 0.1 hours using hr.app). And my compensation is based in part on hours billed throughout the year. So, I’ve established a habit of good timekeeping. But timekeeping for the sake of timekeeping misses the point: the two purposes of timekeeping is to 1) meet my annual hours goal and 2) accurately bill clients for work performed.

But my ‘ultimate concern’ regarding legal work — superior to meeting my annual billable goal — is to deliver elite-level work product to my clients while becoming an expert in real estate law. As such, I’ve spent a good deal of time reflecting on my work habits and creating routines and rituals to support it.

When I’m my best self, I buck the impulse to immediately open something billable and get busy. Instead, I take a moment to think. I take a moment to reflect.

My first priority when I get to work is to sit down and plan what I’m doing that day, and because I’m in that routine of prioritizing — by having made it a habit and the foundation of my routines — I have my goals front of mind and can then accomplish tasks that further those goals and accomplish more than the average person because I have my priorities straight.

Choosing important tasks over urgent tasks

Some days start like a shotgun — the second I’m in the office, all of the partners for whom I’d recently delivered work product stop in to discuss the work or to provide feedback, suggested revisions, or next steps. As soon as I get jammin’ on one matter, another is back on my desk, more urgent that the first.

It can be easy to let the hours slip (race) by when I let urgency dictate my workflow. But this is a costly practice, gobbling up my resources of time, attention, and energy (see Chris Bailey’s Productivity Project on these resources and productivity practices generally).

At the end of the day, reflection on that day’s worth of checking off urgent tasks doesn’t bring that satisfying feeling of accomplishment; rather I notice feelings of regret for having made busyness my business (see Russ Harris’s The Confidence Gap on noticing feelings and acceptance and commitment therapy [ACT]).

The 3 x 7 piece of paper pictured below is the only thing that I ever write by hand. This is part of my morning work ritual. It’s comprised of a few practices from authors on work and productivity (Chris Bailey, Gary Keller, Brian Tracy, Morten Hansen, Cal Newport, Peter Bregman, and Stephen Covey).
Habits are important because they can get us closer to a goal. Use these tips to establish well-serving habits.

I ask myself:

  • What are three things that, if accomplished today, would make me satisfied with today’s work?
  • What is a missed opportunity from yesterday — something I identified as being important, but did not accomplish for one reason or another?
  • What is the one thing that I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
  • If all my tasks are things I need to eat, which is ‘the frog’ (i.e., the one I don’t want to eat); or, which of my important tasks am I most likely to procrastinate doing?
  • Then, at the bottom, I brain dump all the things I have to do, important or not, urgent or not, work related or not.

Also, I have Covey’s time-management quadrant depicted in the upper right corner to help me remember that some things, though urgent, are not important. And other things, though important, may not be urgent (and thus are easy to not do).

And the really nice thing is that this pen-to-paper practice is becoming more and more routinized; it’s become easier for me to begin with this practice of identifying the “ONE Thing” (by Gary Keller) that adds the most value to my clients and the firm.

But what I would argue is more important than just the routine is that I accomplish the more important, value-add tasks.

How to establish habits and routines

Routines are sequences of regularly followed actions. Specific routines, for example a morning routine, is also time-bound.

Habits are actions that may take place at different times during your day but are always carried out. An aspect of a routine can be a habit — but not all habits are defined within a routine (kinda like all squares are rectangles, but not all…you get it).

If you’re just getting started with establishing either/both to accomplish a goal, I would suggest working toward building a habit first, by habit stacking.

Identify something you’re already doing and make a tiny, easily palatable adjustment to which you can commit that moves you toward your goal.

Once you’re comfortable with that adjustment, make another small change, until you ultimately get to the habit you want to establish.

Continually analyze those habits and routines

Habits and routines are most effective when they’re part of a reflective loop. By periodically and regularly checking in on our routines, we right the ship.

In order to evaluate if the efforts you’re putting into your habits and routines are getting you closer to your end-goal, you should continually revisit the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this (habit/routine)? How do I want this to serve me?
  2. Is this working? How should I tweak this to better accomplish my goal?
  3. Should I quit it?

That third question is important to consider — dropping practices/routines are just as important as picking up new ones.

The problem I sometimes have is becoming too vested in a routine itself instead of the goal of that routine — it becomes an end in itself rather than the means it should be. That’s often a fault of people known as productivityists — people obsessed with productivity but may not actually be producing anything, just thinking and talking about productivity. (I’ve been a productivityist at various points.)

By continually reviewing your habits and routines — whether you choose that to be on a weekly, monthly, or bimonthly basis — you’ll be able to gauge the progress you’re making toward your end goal.

Just remember, doing the ‘important’ — and often hard — things over and over again actually changes your brain (through myelination), so that habit becomes easier with time and helps you accomplish your goals. As if you had superpowers.

“We are what we repeatedly do.” —Aristotle
Habits are important, and so is evaluating if they're still serving you. Ask yourself these three questions to determine if they're still helping you accomplish your goal: 1. What is the purpose? 2. Is this working? 3. Should I quit it?

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