Few things in life can help (or hurt) your productivity more than your work habits. And while they might take time to build, they can have a huge return on that time investment. If you build the right ones, that is.
While we’ve written in the past about how to build better habits and even how to replace your bad habits with better ones, we’ve never looked at exactly which habits you should build. To help you get started, here’s a collection of the best work habits used by some of the world’s most productive people.
Check in on your daily, weekly, and monthly goals every evening
Daniel Ek, CEO of music-streaming service Spotify, went from bedroom website designer to Billboard’s most powerful person in the music industry in a little over a decade. That’s no small feat. And in a recent interview, he explained one of the most important work habits he’s developed for keeping himself focused and getting the most out of each day:
“I write out what my daily, weekly, monthly goals are, and every evening I check how I’m doing. And then I just over allocate my time [to match the goals].”
It’s a simple practice, but one that Ek says has helped him not drown in the usual meeting-filled daily schedule of a high-profile CEO.
“People think that creativity is this free spirit that has no boundaries. No, actually the most creative people in the world schedule their creativity. That’s the irony. So I try to do the same. I just don’t have as many meetings as you think. Instead I have a lot of me time where I’m just thinking. If I have a call or another meeting, I’ll just block it out if I’m in the zone.”
Make time to get physical every day
Few people can deny the benefits of a good workout routine or other healthy habits. Yet when we’re stressed, overwhelmed with work, or feeling burnt out, physical exercise is usually the first thing to get cut from our list.
However, according to author, bodybuilder, and habit coach James Clear, there are far-reaching benefits to maintaining a health habit.
“The greatest habit for me has to be working out. Not just because it is something I love, but because it influences so many other parts of my life. When you work out regularly you eat and sleep better. You’re more conscious of your time. You have higher levels of energy.”
Clear describes working out as a “keystone habit”—one that has cascading effects throughout your life. Committing to physical activity isn’t just about the moment of exercising, but the other changes it forces you to make in your lifestyle.
As Clear explains, once you build the habit of exercising, most people start eating better, sleeping more, and drinking more water—small acts that when combined increase your energy levels, awareness, and focus all day long.
Take more (regular) breaks and get outside
One of the most productive work habits you can build isn’t around doing more, but less.
For New York Times columnist and financial planner, Carl Richards, breaks have become a necessity for doing good work:
“In the old framework, we thought of time off as a reward for hard work. But now, I think we need to reframe that and realize that to do high-quality knowledge work, being rested and taking time off is a prerequisite for that. It’s not the reward.”
Specifically, Richards says we should try to build a daily break habit of getting outdoors. When researchers from several US universities examined the connection between exposure to fresh air and productivity at one of China’s largest online travel agencies they discovered a steep drop in productivity as air quality worsened.
Not only does exposure to fresh air help keep us productive all day long, but studies show that simply surrounding yourself with natural elements helps alleviate mental fatigue and can even help you sleep more.
Tackle your most important work before lunch
When it comes to building good work habits that support your day, few are as powerful as starting off on the right foot. This doesn’t mean just creating a productive morning routine (although that certainly helps). But, focusing on doing important, meaningful work first thing during our working day.
According to Zen Habits founder, Leo Babauta, building a work habit of tackling your MITs—Most Important Tasks—first thing can have massive benefits:
“It’s very simple: your MIT is the task you most want or need to get done today. In my case, I’ve tweaked it a bit so that I have three MITs—the three things I must accomplish today…
“And here’s the key to the MITs for me: at least one of the MITs should be related to one of my goals. While the other two can be work stuff (and usually are), one must be a goal next-action. This ensures that I am doing something to move my goals forward that day… And that makes all the difference in the world.
“Each day, I’ve done something to make my dreams come true. It’s built into my morning routine: set a next-action to accomplish for one of my goals. And so it happens each day, automatically.”
The first actions you take when you get to work can dictate how you feel about the rest of the day. And when you build a habit of making progress on meaningful work before anything else, it puts you down the right path. As Farnham Street’s Shane Parrish writes:
“If I got up in the morning and the first thing I did was check email, I’d be allowing others to dictate my priorities for the day.”
Build a “one-touch” email habit
It’s nearly impossible to not let email take over your day. In fact, when we looked at data from 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found that most workers can’t go more than 6 minutes without checking their email or IM.
You’ll never get away from email. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build a better email habit.
For Intuit CEO, Brad Smith, this means using a system he calls “read, act, file, or delete.” Periodically through the day, Smith will work through his inbox, forcing himself to deal with each email in one of these four ways.
“It requires real commitment,” he explains. “But I never touch something more than once.”
Your own email habit will determine whether you spend hours in your inbox, or move through it quickly and efficiently. If you’re a Gmail user, check out our Guide to Mastering Gmail for some helpful tips and tricks.
Create a wind down ritual after work
Just like we need to take breaks during the workday, properly disconnecting after we’re done working is a powerful habit to build.
Researchers have found that people who are able to psychologically disconnect from work experience less fatigue, lower rates of procrastination, more flow, and greater work life balance.
While there are many ways to disconnect from work, Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, suggests practicing mindfulness:
“I enjoy meditation, which I’ve been doing for over a decade—probably to help relieve the stress I what as going through when I was working at Oracle.”
Along with mindfulness practices, many of the most productive people use what’s called Deliberate Rest—activities that let you recharge from your workday, while still being mentally productive. This could mean developing a habit of painting (like Winston Churchill) or playing violin (like railroad magnate James “Empire Builder” Hill).
Whatever you choose, the key is to find absorbing activities that take you away from your need to always be available, and let you rest, restore your mind, and get ready for a productive tomorrow.
Make decisions faster and earlier
Many things can slow down your workday. But few can grind it to a screeching halt like decision deadlock. Instead, some of the most productive people build work habits of making quick decisions. This way, they can spend less time deliberating, and more time testing, learning, and iterating.
As Elena Lytkina Botelho, partner at ghSmart leadership consultancy, explains:
“High-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather, they stand out for being more decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. They do so consistently—even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains.”
One example she gives is of former Greyhound CEO Stephen Gorman. While leading the company through a major pivot, he regularly expressed how “a bad decision was better than a lack of direction.”
This doesn’t mean you should make rash decisions just for the sake of moving quickly. But rather that you should dig into your decision-making process and find ways to streamline it so you never get stuck.
Our lives are powered by habits. The most productive people in the world all know this and have spent time developing the right work habits to support them.
And so can you. Look through this list and try implementing a few new work habits for yourself. With time, they’ll help you put your productivity on autopilot.
What have been the most productive habits you’ve developed? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.