“We are what we repeatedly do,” the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote. “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Well, that is true if you are repeatedly excellent. As our routines blew up in 2020 and 2021, many of us had to practice new habits, like turning off “mute” when speaking on a Zoom call—still working on that one!
We all have habits that are less than excellent. But when it comes to work, there are habitual ways of thinking and acting that help us be more productive and successful. Here are seven of the most important work habits.
1. Make a To-Do List at the End of Your Day
Ivy Lee transformed the productivity of executives at Bethlehem Steel in the 20th century by teaching them to list the six most important tasks the next day at the end of each workday. Lee noted that if you wait until the morning, you will forget and get lost in whatever situation you walk into at work.
That was before you had a phone full of messages when you woke up in the morning. The number of tasks is essential too—Lee knew that if his pupils got six jobs done, they would be more effective than trying to do 20.
To-do lists can also help you avoid one of the most destructive negative work habits—procrastination.
2. Ask Questions
Nobody said you must know how to do everything your job requires. Most coworkers and managers prefer that you ask for directions and not pretend to know something you do not.
It will just take more time to figure it out by yourself. That is not to say you should not see how far you can get on your own, but do not spend hours banging your head against a wall.
Your questions do not have to be task-related, either. You can ask about the reasons for business decisions and the strategy behind projects and initiatives. These questions show that you want to understand and align your work with your vision.
3. Show Up on Time
Musician Randy Newman said, “If you are doing something, show up every day, and something good might happen. It is not going to happen if you do not show up.” Let’s add “on time” to that habit.
Being punctual for meetings, events, lunches—any engagement that includes other people shows them that you respect their time. Timeliness is even more true in our hybrid world, where most people are in a Zoom waiting room before a discussion starts.
Sitting in front of a computer, wondering if a meeting is happening or if you got the wrong link, can be demoralizing. Sure, you might be the first one in the virtual or physical room, and you also might be the first to be given more responsibility because you have set a high bar for reliability.
4. Pay Attention to Detail
There can be a fine line between perfectionism and attention to detail. One way to tell the difference is by estimating the time a project should take.
If that sales presentation should take an hour and you are on hour number seven, you may need to call it good enough. What you do not want to happen is to have other people find your mistakes before you do. That can be tough for tasks like proofreading your written documents.
You can rely on technology like spell checkers and grammar checkers and enlist a coworker to review your work before submitting it.
Timeboxing is another weapon against procrastination and perfectionism. Economist Cyril Parkinson famously said that work expands to take the time we give it.
Schedule an hour to do that sales presentation, and it will take an hour. Schedule 30 minutes for the same task, and you will finish it faster.
Timeboxing is the practice of blocking out time on your schedule for specific tasks and projects. You can use your calendar to keep people from scheduling meetings when you focus on a project. Timeboxing is especially helpful with email and chat management.
Setting aside chunks of time to respond to messages can help you avoid interrupting yourself every time you hear message alerts. Bonus tip: turn alerts off!
6. Take Ownership
Whenever possible, please do what you say you will do when you say you will do it. Sure, stuff will happen to throw you off schedule, so reset expectations as soon as possible.
Expectation-setting is one type of ownership.
A different kind of ownership is finding ways to contribute to your business or department outside of your official responsibilities. Contributions can mean menial tasks like making coffee or cleaning up the break room for small companies.
If you are remote, try reaching out to coworkers with different roles from yours to understand their success factors and pain points.
7. Be Easy to Work With
Being easy to work with will take you far in work and life. What does it mean to be easy to work with?
Think of it this way—every time you ask for help from someone outside your department, you are asking them to volunteer their time to help you do your job. For example, if you need some technical information from a product manager to complete a sales sheet, do not just email the product manager to write it for you. Instead, create a first draft and mark what needs filling in.
Make it as easy as possible for them to contribute. And do not be demanding or irritable if you don’t get what you want right away. All that negative energy will make people want to avoid helping you in the future.
Negative Work Habits to Avoid
We have tried to focus here on positive work habits to embrace, not negative habits to avoid—well, a couple in procrastination and perfectionism. Other practices you would avoid in the workplace include:
- Interrupting/talking over others
- Taking things personally
- Hide mistakes
The Time it Takes to Build Good Habits
James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones,” said it takes 66 days (about two months) to create a new habit. Clear pointed out a widespread misconception that forming a new pattern should take just 21 days (about three weeks).
Habit-forming takes quite a bit longer in most cases.
Happily, researchers found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, if you skip a day here and there during your habit-building campaign, all is not lost.
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About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.