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This is a guest post from Mans Denton who is a blogger at The Hacked Mind. He is also the co-founder of Pure Nootropics, which provides cognitive enhancement and smart drugs for high performance individuals.  I asked Mans to put together his thoughts on handling workplace stress and this is what he came up with.

 159/365. Agony.

For any engineer, the causes of stress are self-evident. Most people work under stressful conditions, but they are rarely given some of the simple tools that can improve stress on a long-term basis. While there are plenty of tangible ways of reducing stress, it is best to focus on specific principles that one can take throughout their life for a better experience.

This quick list of methods that can help you deal with stress will hopefully make long-term life improvements no matter what employment situation you are in. Some are philosophical and some tangible, but they have improved my working experience manifold.

Three Ways to Deal with Stress

Accept It

If there is one thing that I have learned through meditation and Zen philosophy, it is to accept the current state. For western thinkers this sounds passive and too self-evident, but it is actually quite powerful. Accepting your situation means nothing more than seeing pain, deadlines, and stress for what they are rather than making them worse.

Shakespeare once famously said “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” When I visit the gym for a high intensity session, there is plenty of pain involved. If I focus on the pain and feel concerned by it, my mind amplifies the torment. As soon as I accept and observe the pain, most of it goes away.

That isn’t to say all your stress will melt away as soon as you accept it. However, you will avoid making the physical stress worse in your mind.

Think Sustainable

Most people view stress from a short-term gratification perspective, which only makes things worse in the long-run. It may feel stressful to wake up early and work on projects, but coffee is not a long-term answer to the problem. In fact, the caffeine in high doses will burn out your adrenal glands and lead to more physical stress. In this scenario, it would be beneficial to focus on sleeping habits that make it unnecessary to take caffeine in high doses.

Any time you try to solve a stress problem from a short-term perspective, you invariably make things worse. Coffee is only one example, but you see it in almost every working environment. Any decision you make to reduce your physical and mental stress should come from a place of sustainability.

Don’t Compound Stress

The final rule is a little more practical. A lot of engineers and people working in offices find plenty of stress with their job. Finishing work before deadlines and completing large-scale projects can be a massive headache and a stressful period. However, most people don’t realize how much they are compounding their own physical stress.

The human body was not meant to sit for long periods of the day. Even if you feel that many hours working on a project is causing the stress, it may actually be the seated position. Try to stand up or go for a walk every now and then to avoid compounding the stress of work with physical stressors due to bad habits.

Your diet and exercise habits play a massive role in controlling physical stress as well. If you eat foods that are high in lean protein and healthy fats without a lot of simple carbohydrates, this evolutionary style approach is going to prepare your body for a lot more stress rather than compounding your pain.

Work and Stress

Not everyone can work in a position that they enjoy for their entire life. While it is ideal to find a project or business that causes little stress, this isn’t always possible. Instead of making your stress problems worse, a few of these ideas and philosophies will improve your stressful work situation.

Image Credits: by Anant Nath Sharma on Flickr

Wow, its been a little while since I last posted here on Babbling Engineer.  For that, I really must apologise!  The reason for my silence has been down to a mixture of illness and being super busy both at work and home.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year To You 

Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.
Henry David Thoreau

Earlier this year I got a promotion at work, to be Deputy Head of Stress for the Engineering firm I work for.  That, coupled with the project I am working on starting to get really busy has raised many challenges. So whilst it has meant a few months away from the site, it has also given me a whole load of new learning opportunities.  Some of the aspects I intend to write up as I am learning – on subjects such as:

  • Managing outsourcing work
  • Handling Stress in the workplace
  • Learning to delegate work

To kick things back off, I have been talking recently with Mans Denton over at The Hacked Mind, who is writing a guest post on Handling Workplace Stress. That article will be published next week and following that I will try and get back into my writing habit.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Image Credit: Merry Christmas & Happy New Year To You by Mohammadali F.

Boomerang on the grass

Just a quick post from me today, but I wanted to tell you about a really great tool I’ve found to keep your GMail account under control. Its called Boomerang.

Boomerang on the grass

I’d heard about Boomerang before, but up until now had dismissed it as something that I didn’t need. However, now I’ve had a deeper look at both Boomerang and my e-mail inbox, the features in Boomerang are really appealing to me.

So, What Is Boomerang

Boomerang connects into your GMail account or is installed as an addin for Outlook and enables you to apply GTD to your emails. Here are just some of the features:

  • Defer an incoming email till later. If the email is something that you don’t need right now, but you will at some stage int he future, then you can hit the boomerang button and it will dissapear from your inbox and magically appear when you specify. A tickler file for your inbox.
  • Delay sending an email. Not sure how often I would use this, but if you wanted to send an email later on (for instance, you want to send a birthday email), but you know you won’t have time to write it on the day it needs to go, you could write it now and defer sending it.
  • Follow up reminder. There is an option to boomerang hte message back to your inbox if you don’t get a response within a certain amount of time.

Ways To Use Boomerang

  • So, just some of the ways I have come up with to use Boomerang:
  • Work as a tickler file for tickets you have booked weeks in advance of needing them
  • Remind you that you are waiting for a reply to an email you have sent
  • Send emails at key times to people in different time zones


I’m really excited about Boomerang now I have had chance to install it. I need to do a big clear out of my inbox, but Boomerang coupled with heavy use of filters should hopefully keep my email inbox to zero.

I am forever losing track of emails. Now I really will be able to fire and forget, and then get reminded that I haven’t had a response from a question I asked, so I can keep on top of my correspondence.

I won’t need to spend an hour searching my email for all my travel and accommodation plans before I go on holiday.

If you use either Outlook or GMail, you really need to check out Boomerang and see how it can work for you.

There are plenty of articles out there on how batch processing can increase your productivity 10 fold.  Darren Rowse over at ProBlogger has covered it, Michael Hyatt has covered it.  Everybody tells you how batch processing is THE way to handle your tasks.  This isn’t always the case though.

Krispy Kreme Portsmouth Krispy Kreme Portsmouth by Julia Manzerova

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not about to say that batch processing is bad.  In fact its not.  It’s a very good tool to use.  Its just not ALWAYS the best tool to use to get the job done efficiently.

What Is Batch Processing

Also known as Batching.  Basically, batching is the grouping of tasks of a similar nature together.  For instance, say you were decorating your house and you needed to paint 5 rooms.  You may go round and mask off all the rooms first, then do the undercoat on the woodwork, then do a coat of emulsion in them all, then do a coat of gloss in each of the 3 rooms and so on.  This is batch processing.

The theory is that it increases your focus by removing distraction – once you get into the rhythm of masking off rooms, then you work more effectively at that task.

Why Batch Processing Isn’t Always Good

Batch processing sounds good, right?  Well, yes it is, in some situations.  However, take the above example.  All 3 rooms are out of action until you have masked all 3 rooms, under-coated all 3 rooms and so on, until you have got that final coat of paint and tidied up in the first room.  Lets look at that in a diagram.

Lets say, hypothetically, that it takes an hour to do each task.  And lets simplify the say that the following tasks need to be done:

  1. Mask off paintwork
  2. Paint gloss work
  3. paint walls
Batch processing diagram showing actions batched

Batch Processing

In the above diagram, all the masking is done first, then all the gloss and then all the walls are painted.  If it takes an hour to do each task, then it will be 7 hours before any of the rooms are ready to be used.

Alternatively, by not batching each of the jobs:

Batch processing showing each item not batched

Not Batch Processing

In this instance, the first room will be done and ready to be used after just 3 hours.

Whether to Batch Process

Now, it could be argued that with the above example, that the overall time taken to do all 3 rooms would be less, because each task has taken less than 1 hour due to the benefits of batching.  That is something you need to take into account when deciding whether to batch process or not.

Any repeatable task can be batched.  However, before doing so, weigh up the pros and cons and look at the big picture.  Some examples of when not to batch process are:

  • You are starting a company selling widgets – by putting together one widget and selling it, your first money is coming in sooner.  If you make 50 widgets by batch processing them, you will have to wait until all 50 are made before any money comes in.  In this instance you may want to look at an optimum batch size.
  • Somebody in another team is waiting on your work before they can start theirs.  By completing one item of your work and passing it on, they can start their work while you are doing item number 2.  In this instance, you are batching as part of the bigger picture, not just focussing on your part.
  • Responding to emails – throughout the day, you respond to each email as and when it comes in.  Instead, you could batch process your emails at the end of the day – that way, you are not getting distracted every 30 minutes by another email.  This is an instance where batching is good.

I hope that this helps put batching into some sort of context.  Why not provide some examples of batching and when you decided not to batch in the comments below.

How to improve your active listening

The majority of people would much rather be talking than listening. Unfortunately, many often exercise this preference. However, being a good listener can improve your life in a number of ways. In order to improve your listening, then read on – and stop talking at the back!

How to Improve your active listening

A study by Paul Rankin way back in 1929 showed that in a typical day’s communication, the average person spends:

· 45% listening

· 30% speaking

· 16% reading

· 9% writing

By improving your listening skills, you are effectively improving on almost half of your communication skills in one blast.

1. Remove All Distractions from your Head and Concentrate on the Speaker

Although often thought of as the realm of the nutty, we all have voices in our heads. James Borg, in his book Persuasion* refers to these as playing back tapes in our heads. They cover all the little preoccupations that are swimming around our minds and can be to do with thoughts, senses and emotions.

For instance, you’ve just got home from a really gruelling day at work and an incident from the day is playing on your mind. Your wife starts to talk to you about the shopping list, but you really aren’t listening because you are playing over the incident from work in your head. Because of that, you end up eating low fat, cardboard cereal for the next fortnight.

Practice taking your distractions and putting them in a box while the other person is talking about something that is important to them. It will come with practice.

The above example used is a common situation in most households. Something my other half and I do when we get in is we each vent about the day at work and things that are still weighing on our mind. We get it out of our system, while the other one listens, and then the other one takes their turn. It’s not quite as regimented as it sounds, but it does really work. It would only work, though, as long as the other one listens.

2. Distinguish Between Hearing and Listening

This is one very important point to make. So many people think they are listening, when in reality they aren’t… at least not actively listening. If you are thinking about other things while another person is talking to you, you might hear the words being spoken by the other person, but your mind isn’t processing them, because it is focussing on the afternoon’s football results. This is where mistakes happen. Take the following conversation:

Person 1: “So I’ve just realised that we need to get the car taxed. It’s due at the end of the month, which is this Friday. I don’t know how it happened.”

Person 2: “uh huh”

Person 1: “You’re not listening to me are you?”

Person 2: “Yes I am, you were saying we need to tax the car. I’ll go to the post office next week.”

Clearly, Person 2 could hear what was being said and recorded it on his internal tape recorder, but hadn’t processed it.  In most households, this would have resulted in a row – a row that could quite easily have beena voided if Person 2 had been listening and not just hearing.

3. Don’t Interrupt

Too many times we think we have got the full story behind what somebody is saying, before they have finished talking. It could be down to impatience, an abundance of energy, or whatever, but people will jump in with an answer to the question that they think is being asked. A lot of the time they are wrong though. A former work colleague of mine is terrible for this. He’ll hear (note, I said hear, because he isn’t listening, he is only hearing) one word or phrase in my sentence, latch onto it and take the conversation off at a tangent.

Me: “So, I was looking at your analysis of the widget and whilst it’s good that you’ve started analysing for buckling, there really wasn’t much need, as the widget rib interfaces along the web, so you could clear it off with a statement.”

Colleague: “Ah yes, the widget. I’ve been that busy analysing the flimflam brackets, that I haven’t finished the widget. Anyway, I’m halfway through the buckling calcs.”

It doesn’t leave me with a great deal of confidence in my colleague, and leaves me wondering what else he doesn’t listen to. As a result, I end up checking his calcs a lot more thoroughly than I would any other analyst.  Most of the time, they are fine, but the doubt has already been cast.

4. Don’t Finish Other People’s Sentences

This isn’t always a flaw of not listening to the other person, but more not letting them finishing. You can’t actively listen if you are putting words in their mouths. Consider the following:

Manager: “So, I’ve got a few parts here that need some stress analysis doing on them. I’d like to give them to you, but I’m worried that….”

You (interrupting): “will mess them up, like I did when I applied the wrong loads to the widget? I’ve learnt my mistake there”

Manager: “Well, I was actually going to say I was worried that you won’t have time”

If you hadn’t interrupted, your Manager may have forgotten about you messing up on your last analysis. All you did was bring it back to the forefront of his mind. Let’s hope this didn’t happen right before your appraisal.

5. Paraphrase

So far I’ve mostly talked about what not to do, in order to improve your listening abilities. One positive action to take is paraphrasing.

What do I mean by paraphrasing? Well, basically you are summarising your understanding of what the other person has said. This has several benefits:

· It shows the other person that you were listening

· It reinforces the message in your own mind (similar to writing down notes)

· If there is any misunderstanding, it gives an opportunity for it to be rectified before you go off and take action.

· You may want to ensure that the speaker has heard what they have just said, and the implications.

An example of the last point would be:

You: “So, can I just be clear what you want? Although our standard product holds 16GB of data, you only want us to supply you with 8GB of storage? You realise that this will require modification of our existing product, so will be more expensive, and will make future expansion more difficult?”

Client: “Hmmm, you have a good point there”

By actively listening to conversations, we aren’t just listening to the words, we are listening to the meaning and reasoning behind the words. By practicing active listening, we are improving communication and the nature of our business and personal lives.

To Do List

I’ve done a lot of thinking lately about what works for keeping me productive in the workplace.  All seems to be working quite well.  I started capturing all my notes and actions in one place, At the end of each day I process that days notes and the first thing in the morning I decide my 3 Most Important Tasks.  I have also looked at how to craft an ideal next action item.

To Do List

The next area of my life I need to tackle is my life away from work.  I am going to keep the same methodology as I do for work, but I need to look at the tools I use to capture, process and review.  I have created a shortlist of items for now, but I am still open to suggestions.

I discussed a bit about my requirements back at the beginning of this series.  In a nutshell, Either digital or analogue is ok, and I can rely on an internet connection at home, but not necessarily when I’m out and about.  I don’t want to have to rely on a computer, but I can rely on my Android phone or tablet.

List of tools:

Pen and Paper

Simple pen and paper list

The classic approach.  There is something very romantic about a nice pen* and a moleskine notebook*.  The feel of the nib as it draws across the paper.  And as it is permanent, you take care over what you are writing.

This is also the approach I take at work, so it is familiar.  As I make a subtle change to how I work with one system, I can carry that over to the other.

The downside is that it is something else to carry around at the weekend.

(web | Android | iOS  | Windows | Mac)


Wunderlist is both simplistic yet powerful at the same time.  It is a basic list app available for just about all platforms out there (certainly for the ones that I use).  I can have as many lists as I like.  Within each list, each list item can contain a further checklist (ideal for projects), notes, due date and a reminder.  You can also attach files to each item too.

Your list is stored in the cloud and then syncs to each device you use it in, so should I forget my phone, I can still access it from the web.

I’m not sure this will work at work though, due to IT filter policies and the rather old copy of Internet Explorer that we currently have installed.

You can also email tasks to wunderlist too, but only from the email account that is connected to your Wunderlist account.

I really like the simplistic nature of Wunderlist though.

Remember The Milk
(web | Android | iOS)

Remember The Milk

Remeber The Milk is a freemium app, with more control over your lists than Wunderlist.  In addition to the features that Wunderlist has, you can add tags, locations and more.  This could be useful if I decided to use GTD contexts such as @phone, @computer etc for my tasks.  As I have decided not to do that for now, then this is irrelevant.

I like the locations feature though.  This allows you to set a location to a task, for instance the drycleaners for your “pick up drycleaning” task.  Then, when you are near the drycleaners, the app will remind you.

You can also sync with your MS Outlook tasks.  However, you have to pay for premium membership for this.

(web | iOS)

Toodle.Do Preview

For even more customisation, there is Toodle.Do.  I used this service once before and for the ultimate in control over your list, then this is it!  You can assign priority, folder, context, due date, start date, status and more.  What is good, though, is that you don’t have to use these features and you can turn them off completely.  You can also filter on each column and

Apps are available for both Android (albeit third party) and iOS, as well as the web interface.

What I didn’t like about this, the first time round, was the complexity.  Its great being able to control all these features, but it just gets a bit overwhelming.  With great power, comes great responsibility and all that!

Any More?

Right now, I think I’m leaning towards Wunderlist for its simplistic approach.  The simplistic task management approach is really appealing to me right now as I don’t want tos pend my time managing my todo list, I want to spend the time clearing items off it.

However, I’m not going to make any final decisions just yet.  Are there any other suggestions that anybody has for me to look at?  If there are, I will update the post.

I’ve been struggling recently with my to do list.  I’ve tried GTD, and recently I discovered Leo Babauta’s essays on a modified approach to GTD. I much prefer this more laid back, simplistic approach to task list management. However, I’ve been struggling to knock items off my to do list.

by Emily Raw

One of the main reasons for this, I believe, is the quality of the item on my to do list. Some items are simply too generic and too big to get done in one day. By the time I’ve got through the day and struggled to knock off one item off my MIT list, let alone three, it’s quite disheartening.

I clearly need to make some changes to my to do list items, so after a bit of research and thinking, here is what I am proposing I do.

Differentiate Between Projects and Actions

My to do list essentially started off as a dumping ground for all the notes that I had collected through the day that needed me to follow up on them.  This works quite well and I don’t feel I need to change how I handle that.  Scanning down my list at the moment, I have items like:

  1. Reply to email on panel buckling
  2. Check initial stress dossier / report
  3. Verify sandwich panel analysis method

These are all tasks that need completing.  However, item 1 is a standalone action.  It only has one step to it.  Items 2 and 3 are much bigger tasks.  The stress dossier is an 800 page report.  And the sandwich panel analysis method I know would take about a week’s work.

These items are projects and can be broken down into several steps – e.g. Check chapter 1 of stress dossier.  This is a much more manageable task to handle in a day.  It could even be broken down further, for example, to “check first 10 pages of dossier”.

Marketing Professors David Gal and Blake McShane looked into the psychology of checking off smaller goals and they found that completing smaller subtasks motivates individuals to complete the final goal.

So, in future, when I am processing my daily notes, which I do at the end of each day, I shall look at the stages needed to complete each project.

First Task Board First Task Board by Alan Dayley

I should also note down that I will not be putting “big ticket” projects on my to do list.  Items such as “Show A350 Leading Edge To Be Structurally Sound” is not an item for my todo list.  That belongs ona  completely different list, which I will deal with in a later post.

Only Actions Make it to my Most Important Task List

So, now that I have broken down my larger projects into more manageable chunks, it is only my actions that will make it onto my Most Important Task (MIT) list.

Its important that I have MITs that I can focus on straight away, rather than staring at it pondering what the action I need to do to complete it is.

Each Action Should Contain a Verb

A verb is a doing word.  Similar to only having actions on my MIT list, by describing what I need to actually do, I can get straight on with the job, without sitting there for 10 minutes pondering what to do.  The pondering should be part of my inbox processing job.

It may be at the beginning of the day, whilst I am declaring my MITs for the day, that I do some further processing to tweak my actions – I may have an urgent task that needs completing, but a lot of meetings that day, so I change one of my actions in order to delegate that task.  Either way, when I set up my MITs, they need to be rock solid and ready for me just to start doing.

Be Aware of My Time and Energy Quota

And speaking of busy days, I have had a number of days recently where everything has come at once.  For instance, the other day I had a podiatrist appointment first thing in the morning, then I was at a client’s offices the rest of the morning, so I lost half of the morning for doing work at my desk.

I’ve also had days when I’ve not slept too great, so my energy levels haven’t been wonderful (particularly with the recent heatwave we’ve had here lately).

I need to be aware of this when setting up the remainder of my day.  Pick off the smaller tasks that I know I can fit in.  When my energy levels are low, pick off the mundane tasks that I don’t need to think too hard about.  Ask myself if I can delegate any of the work.

There are a lot of ways of doing this, such as scheduling it on my calendar, noting down energy levels required for each task, limiting the time required for each action.  However, these are all adding complexity to a system that I want to keep as simple as possible.


I’ve got a few bits to take away there, so I shall start actioning them over the next week or 2 and see how I get on.  I shall also have a think about whether I want to do something more formal with managing time and energy levels when deciding my MITs.

We will be moving over our feed provider over the next 24 hours.  Hopefully there will be no disruption to the service, however, if you don’t receive your regular Wednesday post (on Wednesday funnily enough!) then you may need to resubscribe.  If that does happen, then my sincere apologies.

Hopefully, I will see you all on the other side!



Shorten to Do List

I’ve been building up my productivity system for a couple of weeks now. Following a read of Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done, I decided that this could form a good foundation for my to-do system. Check out this post for details of what I planned to do.

Shorten to Do List

If you couldn’t be bothered going back to that post, in summary, Zen to Done is a simplified version of GTD, with the focus on building a set of habits that stick.  Sticking with the habits is what I struggled with, the first time round. Leo recommended taking on only one habit at a time and so I chose the collecting habit. This worked very well for a few days, but then I had a big long list of notes that was stressing me out.

I decided that I needed to go against Leo’s advice on this and build in some more of the system sooner. I needed to get my actions out of my list made up of meeting notes, phone notes, general ideas and to-dos. I decided to take on a few more of the habits that I need to build. So, I added in the following:

  • At the end of each day, I process that day’s notes to pull out any actions that I need to take care of. These go in a big list at the back of my notebook.
  • At the beginning of each day, I decide on 3 Most Important Tasks (or MITs as Leo calls them). These are 3 tasks that I want to get done that day.

This is similar to the system that Leo uses and has been working much better. The information is flowing much freer and I feel much more in control. I can still sense some areas of resistance, but for now I am happy that I have got something in place that is working. I shall carry on with these three habits for a little while whilst I get into a habitual routine with it. Then I will start adding in more habits.

One thing I have found, though, is that I am not completing my three MITs a day. Possibly because my MITs are too big. There are several ways I could handle this:

  1. Carry them over to the next day – whilst this isn’t a show stopper in terms of my workload (I’ve already accounted for when they are going to finish), I don’t want to be leaving unfinished items on my todo list for each day. Psychologically, this is failing (even if I tell myself it’s ok).
  2. Do fewer MITs each day – again, this isn’t ideal. Sometimes I have struggled to do even one of my MITs.
  3. Break my MITs down into smaller MITs – some of my to-do’s have been horrendously huge. Review a 400 page document for example. There is no way I could do this in one day.

Option 3 sounds like the ideal option, but I’d like to do a bit more research on what other people have found to be the best way to set tasks. I will report back on this next week.


Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out aka habits

I’ve been discussing habits a lot recently. It’s become incredibly apparent to me that it is habits that have been the reason that my previous attempts at improving my personal productivity have floundered. I need to build some good habits, but what are the best ways to do that?

Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out aka habits

I’ve dug into a lot of the research on psychology of habits. If you want to build a good habit, then keep reading.

Start with Small Habits and Build On Them

One of my favourite writers on Habits, Leo Babauta, suggests starting small and building from there. For instance, if you want to eat more healthy, then get into the habit of eating one piece of fruit a day. Once you have ingrained that into your daily routine, build it up to 2 pieces of fruit.

If you take on too much change in any one go, for instance by immediately changing all your unhealthy chocolate and crisps for apples and oranges, you will find it a struggle and you will reject it at the slightest obstacle. Whereas, if you switch out just one packet of crisps for an apple, you will slowly build a solid foundation for your healthier habit.

This builds on the theory of micro quotas and macro goals. We often tend to thing big and aspire to huge goals. However, these can often be intimidating elephants to eat! So break down the goal into smaller chunks. Goals and quotas are defined thus:

  • Goal – What you want to accomplish. For instance, you might want to write a book
  • Quota – This is the minimum amount of work that you need to get done each period in order to get it done.

So, for instance, you may want to write a book. Wow, that’s quite a big task. A typical book is about 80,000 words. However, if you can write 500 words a day, which should take you about 30 minutes, you will have written a book in under 6 months. When you look at it like that, its not as scary as you first think!

Also, by setting yourself a low commitment, often you will be motivated to carry on. For instance, I have recently been trying to build up my fitness by cycling. I have been building up my mileage on each trip following a knee injury. My last journey, I set myself a target of 10 miles. However, as I was approaching my 10 miles, I was feeling pretty good and that I could (and wanted to) do some more miles, so I took a detour and ended up doing 13 miles in total. I didn’t have to. If I had carried on and only completed 10 miles, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.

Similarly, I have set myself another goal of writing 1000 words a week, as I would like to develop my writing and communication skills. I quite regularly write far more than 1000 words for various websites and at work, but sometimes I’ll get busy and I will only do my minimum 1000 words.

The 21 Day Habit Myth

There is a common belief that you can form any habit in 21 days. Or sometimes 30 days. Numerous books spread this myth with titles such as “We Can Make You Rich/Thin/Pretty/Anything You Want to Be in 21 Days”. Their research often goes uncited as to where they get this mythical figure from.

Researchers from University College, London, conducted a study using 96 volunteers to study how long it took them to form a solid habit, with the final figures ranging between 18 to 254 days. The conclusion gleaned from that research is that the length of time it takes to build a habit depends on the individual. We aren’t all the same, so just as one productivity method won’t fit everyone, neither will every habit forming method.

Decide Why You Want to Form a Habit

You need a motivator and you should keep your motivation in mind regularly. The last thing you want is to end up just carrying out your habit for the habits sake.

For instance, if your goal is to build a business buying and selling antique widgets, you may then build a habit of going to widget markets every weekend. However, if the price of widgets drops significantly due to the market being flooded with new widgets, you need to re-align your motivation as to why you are going each week. It could be that you enjoy your widget collecting, which is fine, as long as you are aware of that. However, if you are still going because you have become robotic with your habit then you need to give yourself a kick.

Use Triggers For Building Your Habit

Triggers can be a significant key for building habits. For instance, I bet the majority of us have a bed-time routine – lock windows and doors, turn lights downstairs off, put PJs on, wash face, brush teeth etc. Thinking in logical terms, this is an “If…. Then….” routine. For instance:

If Bedtime
Then lock windows and doors, turn lights off etc

The same could apply to habits you are trying to build. Have a look at what habit you want to build and what triggers would be good. For instance, I book my hours every morning at work, as soon as I boot up my computer:

If just booted up computer
Then book hours

This is a similar principal to Pavlov’s Dog. A trigger incites a reaction, so we use that to our advantage in building a habit.

Recognising triggers can also be effective to stop you breaking habits. For instance

If I feel too tired to go out cycling
Then I will have a drink and some sugar and go for a shorter ride

Chances are that I will end up doing a longer ride. After all, the secret is to just get started.

Identify Obstacles

There is an interesting phenomenon known as the “What The Hell” effect. Basically a minor setback makes you think “Ah, what the hell, its not worth it”. These minor setbacks and frustrations can be habit killers and make you completely abandon ship.

Take for instance my cycling goal. At one point I was cycling once a week into work quite regularly. Then the cold weather started. And my bed was nice and warm. I still needed to make sure my tyres were pumped up, go and find my cycling clothes, prep my lunch and bag it up. So I rolled over and thought “Ah, what the hell, I can cycle tomorrow”. But I didn’t. I was just using all those minor details as an excuse.

If I had identified that as my “What the Hell” moment, I could have countered it by doing my prep work the night before. Then in the morning all I would have to do would be get up and put on my clothes. And so that’s what I do now.

So, hopefully I can use some of these tools to build my productivity habit.

What tools do you use to build habits?