Your normal workday is comfortable. You get things done pretty well, you reach the bar for productivity your bosses have set for you, and that's about it. It's easy in those moments to think you don't need to change much or that your routines are OK. Here's why you should consider changing them anyway — at least occasionally.
Over the years, it's safe to say we've become addicted to life hacking. We love finding new and better ways to do everything. However, as we've often noted, this can be detrimental — if all you do is spend time looking for better ways to get things done, you probably won't be getting much done at all.
So where's the line? How do you avoid getting complacent and also avoid becoming obsessive and changing up your workflow too much? Today, we aim to answer this question.
Why Changing Your Routine Matters
Your everyday routines are comfortable, and chances are you do OK with them. However, even if you're doing alright, there are benefits to mixing things up that you don't get if you stick to the same methods month after month. Being aware of how others in your field work, or trying out new methods, can help in some less-than-obvious ways.
New Input Encourages Your Brain Creatively
For obvious reasons, most of us create specific routines for our work and other habits. This works out pretty well for getting through day-to-day tasks without having to think too much about it. However, by switching the apps you use or exploring how others get their work done, you coax your brain into thinking more creatively about your workflow, even if you don't decide to make a permanent change.
Broadly speaking, any time you force yourself to make a change to your workflow, you encourage your brain to make new connections (a concept we've discussed previously called neuroplasticity). Changing our habits force your brain to pay attention and learn what you're doing more carefully.
Not only does altering your routine force you to pay more attention to what you're doing, it changes your regular behaviour and exposes you to a new set of triggers. For example, changing your route to work may mean that you don't pass your local coffee shop every morning. If you don't have the temptation there each day to indulge in your vice, you can trick your brain into breaking the habit with less effort.
Discover Tools You Didn't Know You Needed
Often, when you set out to find some new way to improve your workflow, you do so because something specific is bothering you. A particular task is tedious or problematic, so you find a solution. However, some of the best tips and tricks are the ones you never knew you needed.
No matter how much experience you have, there's always some new trick to learn. As xkcd eloquently points out (as always), for everything that "everyone knows", thousands of people are learning it for the first time every day. Even something as basic to most of us as using Ctrl-F to find words in a page can be a startling discovery to one of our smart, university-educated friends.
There's also the matter of new services and techniques. Dropbox, as an example, didn't exist prior to 2008. While it may be a mainstay of modern productivity today, a mere six years ago, no one had any idea you could do the things Dropbox does (and the company did very little advertising). While throwing out your whole workflow because of a hot new product isn't the best idea, sometimes it's worth trying out something new.
Expand Your Understanding Of How the Other Half Works
Learning the skills and habits of people who have accomplished what you want to do is an essential skill for career progress. Often, we choose our role models based on the most high-profile person in a field. While that can be a workable approach, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science explained why it might be better to learn about and emulate more realistic role models:
In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, for example, Jerker Denrell of the University of Oxford and Chengwei Liu of the University of Warwick counsel us to model ourselves on solid, second-tier performers, not the flashy types who come in first. The researchers reported on the results of a game played in many rounds. Over time, the most skilled players came to inhabit a second tier of reliable competence. Those who succeeded spectacularly — who took their places in the first tier — were often not the most skilled, but rather were those who got some lucky breaks early on or took big risks that happened to pay off.
Emulating these top performers would probably lead to disappointment, since imitators would be unlikely to replicate their good fortune. Because luck and risk play a dominant role in extraordinary outcomes, Denrell and Liu write, "extreme success or failure are, at best, only weak signals of skill," and top performers "should not be imitated or praised." Better, they advise, to learn from individuals "with high, but not exceptional, performance" — those whose success can be attributed to solid skill and not to a rare lightning strike.
Learning the habits of accessible mentors is not just a more realistic goal, it's a more effective way to encourage us. Copying the actions or habits of those around us or those who have achieved the goals we've also set for ourselves put us on a more practical path.
How To Integrate A New Technique Into Your Workflow
So, you've decided it's time to mix it up and you're ready to try something new. Where to start, though? You don't want to abandon Gmail without a backup plan. To change your routine without completely ruining your workflow and to maximise the amount you learn from the experience, follow a few key guidelines.
Identify A Task You Want To Change
Mixing up your workflow is daunting, but like any personal change, you can break it up into pieces. Writer Jennifer Cohen explains one way to pick a task to mix up: finding a keystone habit. This is the part of your workflow or routine that all of the others rely on. Often, this is the function that most needs shaking up because it's the one we least want to mess with:
To find out what that is for you, ask yourself, what constantly gnaws at you? Is it something you do that you want to stop, or something you don't do and want to start? The keystone habit is different for everyone, and it may take a few sessions of deep thinking to pinpoint exactly what that habit is. Whichever habit you're working on, pick one at a time. More than one at a time will be overwhelming and will increase your likelihood of failing to improve any habits. But don't believe you can only change one thing about yourself; it's actually the opposite. Working on this one Keystone Habit can have a positive ripple effect into the rest of your life as well.
On the flip side of that coin, there are the "broken window" habits and routines we have. Put simply, these are habits that may not be the most important problem in the world, but they contribute to a sense of chaos or disorder. A messy car or a disorderly desk may be much less important than the pile of work you have to get done. However, they all enable patterns of disorganisation or inefficiency. Improving a peripheral routine gives us a confidence boost and can lead to bigger changes later on.
Isolate The Task
Once you've identified the task you want to change, stick to just that one. Whether it's something you've read about that you want to try (how you doin', standing desks?), or a problematic workflow you want to improve, pick only one task to change at a time. As Zen Habits points out, focusing on a single change is more potent than trying to keep up with multiple goals at once:
Just as focusing on one task at a time is more effective, and focusing on one habit at a time is more effect, so is focusing on one goal at a time. While it might seem very difficult, focusing on one goal at a time is the most powerful way of achieving your goals. When you try to take on many goals at once, you're spreading thin your focus and energy — the two critical components for achieving a goal.
Once you've started on a new path, pay attention to how you react to your new habits (after all, exercising your mind is half the point). Identify "Ah, screw it" moments that indicate the friction caused by a new habit. What's the reason? Is the new workflow making it unnecessarily harder? Or are you simply annoyed by change? Those moments can give you the most insight into how to improve your routines.
Allow Time For Failure
There is a reason we fear change. Change doesn't always result in awesome things happening, but the familiar is relatively safe. If you're trying out a new habit or workflow (and especially if you're doing so just to mix things up), you won't want to risk upsetting your normal productivity. Failing, however, is not only to be expected, it's sometimes worth encouraging:
As Buffer co-founder Joel Gascoigne explains, when creating a new habit, you're almost certainly going to fail at some point. If it's not by slipping back into your old routine, then it will be a small loss in productivity as you adjust to your new habits. Don't get discouraged, though:
What I've realised is that one of the key parts of building habits might be to know that you will not flawlessly create them. You are going to break your habit at some point; you are going to fail that next day or next gym session sooner or later. The important thing is to avoid a feeling of guilt and disappointment, because that is what will probably stop you from getting up the next day and continuing with the routine.
Trying out new methods and routines can seem a risky business, but it's worth taking the chance. While the adage that routine is the enemy of productivity may be a bit hyperbolic (it might be more accurate to say that productivity is the result of replacing bad routines with good ones), the truth is you'll never know what works better until you change how you get things done.