How to use habit stacking to build a productive work day

One lesson I find myself learning over and over again is how important implementation intentions are for forming habits. It’s a simple premise. If you schedule a time and place for a habit, you’re more likely actually do it. The general formula is:

At [time/place] I will [behaviour]

I first came across this concept in Atomic Habits, but I also noticed the benefit from my own personal experiments. While tracking the habits I wanted to start, I noticed that the only ones I actually maintained were the ones that I had scheduled explicit time for. This insight led me slowly towards a productive morning routine.

However, when there is a lot of unpredictability to each day, scheduling a specific time is not practical. Since my work days can be highly variable, my preferred method of building habits comes from another related concept from Atomic Habits: habit stacking.

The key [to habit stacking] is to tie your desired behavior into something you already do each day. Once you have mastered this basic structure, you can begin to create larger stacks by chaining small habits together. This allows you to take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behavior leading into the next.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

“Do at least one pushup after breakfast,” is much more effective than “workout every day.” “Write a few sentences after lunch,” is much easier to stick to than awfully vague goals like “writing more.”

Habit stacking is effective because the cue for the new habit is something you already do everyday. Eventually, the new habit will follow automatically. Over time you can add another, and another, and slowly but steadily build productive daily routines.

One might worry about a cold start problem with this technique. If you don’t have any good habits to start with, how can you start stacking? The good news is you probably already have some trivial daily habits that can act as “anchors” for productive routines.

You already get out of bed every day, go to work, have lunch, leave work, have dinner, go to bed, etc. Everyone has some daily schedule like this. These are daily habits that we don’t often think about because they are so ingrained. They don’t require much (if any) will power and have the added bonus of being flexible in time. I eat lunch everyday, but not always at the same time.

Using these daily events as “anchors”, I’ve been building a collection of routines to add some structure to my unpredictable work days. When I get to my office, I check my inboxes, plan my day, and then move on to that day’s particular tasks. After lunch, I write a bit on a blog post, go for a walk, then return to my work day. My entire day is not a routine, but it is punctuated with a few mini-routines.

This strategy is also helping me develop a deep work habit. By reserving a few hours for Deep Work at the end of a particular habit stack, I’m training my brain to automatically transition into a concentrated state following that routine. This is making it easier to reliably switch from shallow to deep mode. This strategy of training yourself to enter deep concentration at will is tough but necessary, if you require deep focus but have unpredictable days. Cal Newport calls this the journalistic philosophy for deep work.

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

One great meta-habit that’s emerged from this habit stacking strategy is also a piece of advice from Deep Work: having a shutdown ritual. A set routine you preform at the end of your work day. Having a shutdown routine is a great way to tie up any loose ends for the day, ensure you didn’t miss anything important, and end your work day worry free. It’s also a very useful place to stack some daily habits.

Something I’ve been struggling to make time for is deliberate learning (via online courses, tutorials, etc.). It’s always been on my agenda, but it typically got pushed aside if I didn’t plan explicit time for it. It’s now the next thing I’m stacking on to my shutdown routine. After I check my inboxes, plan my next day, and journal, I now do five minutes minimum of explicit learning before I leave the office for the day.

These strategies been working wonders. I hit all of my daily goals before I leave work for the day, and I leave it with a clear mind. I’m less distracted during the parts of the day where I want to be highly focused, because I know I have time explicitly scheduled (in the several mini-rituals of my day) to check my inboxes, do code-review, and hit my other daily goals.

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