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Every now and then I start doing something which helps my productivity: devise a better todo list, wake up earlier etc. However, I find that I only engage in this activity for a short period of time and then it sort of fades away and disappears.

Is there a way to insert these actions into my day to day routine; how can I make them persist?

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up vote 19 down vote accepted

With any activity that you would like to make routine, there are three things you need to know.

  1. Why is the activity worth committing to? Deciding to make something part of your daily routine is a big step. It will sometimes inconvenience you. You certainly won't always be enthusiastic about it. Be honest with yourself about the time commitment you are making, and what you expect to gain from adding this thing to your life.
  2. How long do you plan to commit to this? It's important to add a new activity within a fixed timescale. This timescale should be long enough to allow you to make a reasonable judgment about whether the activity is something you want to continue, but short enough that you will be able to consistently perform the activity until evaluation day. The evaluation step is critical, because it allows you to reflect on whether this routine is helpful for you, whether it should be modified, and whether it is enjoyable or miserable. If it's not working out, the formal evaluation step allows you to drop the activity without guilt or other negative emotions.
  3. How will you deal with the inevitable lapses in the activity? Day-to-day life is mostly routine, but only up to a point. Maybe you get drunk one night, and wake up late the next day. Maybe you get snowed under at work and don't update your TODO list. Maybe you get sick and can't go jogging for a week. It's essential that when you lapse, you don't allow your routine to collapse under the weight of your guilt and violated expectation of perfection. Carry on, and continue when you can. These things happen. Often, they're not your fault. Even when they are, you are only human. Refrain from any kind of self-judgment or criticism. Only when you reach the evaluation point are you entitled to evaluate.

A concrete example: You dream of becoming an expert in the Japanese martial art Aikido. You seriously evaluate why you want this. You decide you are keen on the fitness, spiritual and self-confidence aspects of the art. You imagine yourself effortlessly dispatching opponents, and you are motivated. You realise this will take years to achieve. You decide you should begin with a goal of training for two hours, at least twice a week. Because any new physical activity is hard and unpleasant until you acquire some basic skills, you decide to commit to one month of training, before evaluating your progress.

The first two weeks are miserable. Everything is difficult to understand. Your body aches all over. You hate it. You are invited to the cinema by friends, but must decline because you have practice. But you keep going, because you haven't reached your evaluation point yet, and you guessed it would be like this.

In the third week you catch a cold, and miss a session. You are frustrated, but you don't allow this setback to weaken your resolve to see this experiment out to the end. You attend the next available class.

At the end of the fourth week you evaluate your progress. You now realise this is much harder than you expected, and it is going to take a long time to reach your dream. You also now practically understand how much of a time commitment is involved. On the other hand, you are starting to get the hang of things, and your body feels stronger and hurts less. After careful consideration, you decide on balance to carry on. You decide to set your next evaluation point for six months time.

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There are usually four suggested ways to develop a habit:

  1. Do it for long period - usually 30 days is suggested
  2. Mark-off every time you do an activity, basically your commitment score in the self-improvement game
  3. Tell others that you are doing it and ask them to follow up with you - making commitment public means it is harder (more embarrassing) to just give up on it
  4. Celebrate achieving milestones, such as 15 continuous days of doing X

There are online groups and sources for each one of these things, especially in sport and PhD (well, ABD "the final stretch" "all but done") community.

Now, if I only followed these myself..... :-)

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I like the celebration part :) – Mihai Oprea Jul 1 '11 at 11:40

There are two options:

  1. Turn it into a habbit

    Set an alarm reminding you of when to go to sleep and when to awake. Try to combine your reviews (better todo list) with an action you do every day.

    For example:

    1. Do it right after you start your computer or have gone through your mail list.

    2. Or do it right after evening dinner as you will have regained energy to do so, as when you'll watch something on television or go to a cinema your energy will have drained to do it afterwards. Planning it till the very first moment of the day doesn't help you remember to do it either.

  2. Schedule the time of your day in terms of hours.

    You don't necessarily have to schedule it into that detail that you decide which tasks happen where, but you could assign half an hour to be dedicated to GTD maintenance. You can also properly assign when you will do your evening and morning activities, when you will be at work or out shopping, ...

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There are already lots of good answers here. Let me add two more aspects:

  1. Make it easy to follow through on your resolutions - and make it hard not to. You only have a limited amount of willpower, so use it sparingly by preparing your environment.

    • If you resolve to eat less unhealthy snacks and more healthy food, then clean out your pantry. Don't have any unhealthy food lying around. Instead, put healthy food within easy reach, e.g., two apples on your desk, a bowl of nuts and berries next to your TV chair etc.

    • If you resolve to go running twice a week, then lay out your running clothes and shoes in the evening, so you can get to it first thing in the morning, without having to expend energy in searching for your equipment.

  2. Don't overcommit. Since you only have a limited amount of willpower (which I'll never tire of repeating), don't commit to too many changes that require willpower at once. Instead, integrate one new habit into your routine at a time, and only add another one when the others are well established.

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Stephen Guise's mini habits is a powerful idea. He explains the neuroscience behind this in his book

Also see his blog:

The reason people fail to change their lives, and fail to instill new habits, is because they try to do too much at once. In simplest terms, if your new habit requires more willpower than you can muster, you will fail. If your new habit requires less willpower than you can muster, you will succeed.

The idea is simple. Start with stupid small routines that do not call for much willpower. After the routine becomes a habit (that is, almost effortless), increase very gradually the magnitude of the routine and do it consistently until it becomes a habit, and so on.

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