Gretchen Rubin

Agree, Disagree? “Forming New Habits Can Actually Be Fun.”

Agree, Disagree? “Forming New Habits Can Actually Be Fun.”

Interview: Chris Bailey.

I learned about Chris's fascinating work through a mutual blogger friend, the wonderful Neil Pasricha. Chris has a blog, and he's written a book about the project he did, to spend a year experimenting on himself to figure out to be more...productive. So of course I was intrigued! His book, The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, recently hit the shelves.

It was very interesting for me to hear his views, because in so many ways we took different approaches to changing our habits -- which is a great example of my core belief about habits, that to change our habits, we must all figure out what works for us. For instance, I changed my eating habits completely, overnight; for Chris, making small, incremental changes worked. And of course I abandoned meditation! Which is his most essential habit.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating thinking. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits and productivity?

Chris: Like you, I see forming new habits as a way of leveling up to become more productive automatically. Of course, habits take energy and willpower to form. But when we form the right habits for the right reasons, all of that effort becomes worthwhile.

So much of my work focuses on which habits make us the most productive. In the short-run, productive habits can be a challenge to implement, but in the long-run they pay incredible dividends.

What's the one habit you couldn't live without?

By a wide margin, my daily meditation ritual. Right next to the desk in my office, I keep a meditation cushion, and meditate for 30 minutes every day—I've had this practice for years, since starting university.

Hardly any habit allows me to become more productive than my daily meditation ritual—despite how strange that may sound on the surface.

I think the connection between meditation and productivity is simple. Meditation has been shown to help you bring more focus to what's in front of you in the moment, and resist distractions and temptations, and this lets you get the same amount of stuff done in less time. I'm personally not a fan of the word "efficiency" as far as productivity is concerned; I think it reduces it down to something that feels cold and corporate. But there's really no better word here: when you bring more focus to your work, you accomplish more in less time. Meditation helps you spend your time more efficiently. You can easily make back the time you spend meditating in increased productivity, especially if your work requires a lot of brainpower.

I don't think productivity is about doing more, faster—I see it as spending time on the right things, and working more intentionally, so you can accomplish more. This is what makes meditation, and mindfulness for that matter, so powerful. I wouldn't trade the practice for anything!

What other habits are most important to you—that you've found indispensable for your creativity and productivity?

One of the most exciting parts about my productivity project was how I got the chance to play around with so many habits, to see which ones led me to accomplish more (regardless of how difficult they were to implement at the time!) On top of my meditation ritual, a few I wouldn't give up for anything are:

  • Defining three daily intentions. My favorite daily productivity ritual is to, every morning, step back and consider what three main things I'll want to have accomplished by the time the workday is done. It's a simple ritual, but setting these intentions gives me a guiding light for when $%* hits the fan throughout the day, which it often does. It also lets me step back, if only for a few minutes, to think about what's important. I see intention behind our actions as like the wood behind the arrow. I maintain a to-do list, too, but this simple rule helps me work that much more intentionally, and flip of autopilot mode for a few minutes to consider what's most important.
  • Disconnecting from the internet. Whenever I want to hunker down on something important, I almost always disconnect from the internet. This was hard at first, but the habit has paid incredible productivity dividends with time. I also wrote most of my book while disconnected from the internet, which I think is one of the main reasons I was able to ship it six weeks ahead of schedule! One study found that we spend an average of 47% of our time on the internet procrastinating. I've found totally disconnecting to be another great way to accomplish more in less time.
  • Single-tasking. Doing just one thing at a time is a less stimulating way of working compared to multitasking. But the research on multitasking is conclusive: we totally suck at it, and multitasking invariably makes us less productive. I don't see productivity as how busy we are—I see it as how much we accomplish. That's what we're left with at the end of the day. Just because you're busy doesn't mean you're productive, and this is especially the case with multitasking. Even though I prefer to multitask, I work on just one thing at a time most of the day, because the practice lets me get so much more done. It's not even close!


What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That forming new habits can actually be fun. Like so many people, as I've tried to shoehorn habits into my life in the past, I just became harder on myself in the process. But that idea runs counter to why we form new habits in the first place: most of us make new habits to turn ourselves into a better, more productive human beings, and being hard on ourselves in the process runs counter to that. The kinder I've become on myself while forming new habits, the more they've stuck. I've had some fun with this, and over time have started to do things like:

  • Reward myself, usually with a tasty meal of some sort when reaching a milestone with my goals.
  • Find social support when making big changes (like finding workout buddies).
  • Shrink habits so they're not as intimidating. For example, if the thought of working out puts me off, I'll shrink how long I'll go for until I'm no longer intimidated by the habit. (E.g. Can I work out for 60 minutes today? Naw, the though of it puts me off. 45 minutes? Nope, still not going to do it. 30 mins? That actually isn't so bad—I'll only hit the gym for 30 minutes today.)
  • Making an actual plan to form a habit, so I'm not trying to shoehorn it into my life. I realize that this is pretty lame advice, because on some level everyone knows they should do this, but yet hardly anyone does. For me, the only habits that have stuck have been the ones I've thought through in detail. But this could also be because I'm a pretty big Questioner 🙂


Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

My biggest weakness is definitely food—out of all of the things in the world, food is one of my favorites. From the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, I'm thinking about it. I'm even thinking about it as we're chatting right now. But in my experimentation I've found that what we eat can have a profound affect on our energy levels and productivity—especially when we eat too much, or we eat too much processed food. (Most of us have experienced that feeling of having almost no energy in the afternoon after a massive, unhealthy lunch.)

The best way I've found to change my habits around food that were so ingrained—like eating too much, eating too much processed food, and eating when I was stressed out— has been to chip away at these habits over time.

In my opinion, the best diet in the world is the exact one you have already, but with one small, incremental improvement. Making incremental improvements is one of the best ways I've found to become healthier; because the changes are small, they won't intimidate you once your initial motivation runs out. I’ve found this to especially be the case with habits so ingrained. Changes become habits so much faster when they’re not intimidating!

One of my favorite quotes is from Bill Gates, who said that we have the tendency to "overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years.” I think this holds true for our habits, and our productivity, too. Over time, incremental improvements add up.

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