executive coaching


The 4 Building Blocks of Productivity

This month’s post is about productivity. I focus on productivity using four building blocks:

  1. the importance of setting strong goals

  2. mastering your morning routine

  3. priming yourself for performance

  4. and forming and maintain habits that move you closer to those goals.

Know your goals

Productivity is not getting more stuff done; it’s accomplishing your goals as efficiently as possible. So, in order to maximize your productivity, you need to first know your goals while making sure to focus on the ones that matter most. Many people skip this critical first step to being productive.

Visioning is one of the best approaches I have found for goal setting. Think about where you want to be in 3 to 6 months (this time frame is far enough out to be meaningful, but not too far to be vague and out of reach) and really imagine yourself there. Write down what you see. Next, from this list pick the highest leverage things you want to achieve. By high leverage, I mean that accomplishing that thing that will make the biggest difference in your life and/or will help you realize the greatest number of things that matter most to you. Since you won’t be able to accomplish everything on your list, choose one or two of the highest leverage goals to work on. For example, getting physically fit tends to be a high leverage goal, since it provides us with more energy and confidence for all the other parts of our life. Perhaps you see yourself running half marathon this summer after a relatively inactive winter.

Master your morning routine

The morning routine is especially important because it sets the stage for the rest of the day.

I don’t believe there is any one right morning routine. The right method for you somewhat depends on your goals for the routine. Do you want to cultivate relaxation and positive mood for the day? Do you need to ready yourself for a high stakes performance? Do you really want to ensure you are fully experiencing each moment? Or do you just need to get some stuff done? Asking yourself what would make the biggest positive difference to your day if you did in the morning is a great starting point to come up with a productive morning routine.

Here are three examples of morning routines from folks who live and breath peak performance:

  1. Michael Gervais is a high performance psychologist; he works with the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes. Every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

  2. Tony Robbins primes himself for the day with this 10-minute morning routine: 3 minutes of Power (Bastrika) Breathing where you lift both arms overhead and bring them down as you explosively breath out of your nose. 3.5 minutes of pure gratitude for 3 things. One of the 3 must always be super simple (the wind on my face, my children’s faces). Why gratitude? According to Robbins, the two emotions that most derail us are fear and anger. You can’t be grateful and scared or angry at the same time, so it’s a great way to start or end your day. 3.5 minutes on his 3 to thrive — three outcomes or results 6-12 months out you’re really committed to, and imagine them as done and fulfilled.

  3. At basic training, Navy Seal Admiral William McRaven was told to make his bed every morning. If you make your bed in the morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. It reinforces the fact that the little things in life matter. If, by chance, you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made, that you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. Military branches around the world use methods like this to train productivity, and for good reason.

Prime yourself for performance

Creating a strong morning routine will help you prime yourself for success every day. For specific goals, consider customized priming for each activity. The idea of priming is to develop customized routines and use the same routine each and every time you engage in the activity to which it is linked. These routines have been shown to alter our biology, changing our hormonal profile in a manner that increases strength, energy, confidence, creativity, attention, and memory. You can have routines for starting your day, for starting work, or for getting ready to perform in whatever way you perform.

Using our example from above of training to run a race this summer, your priming routine before every training run could be the same simple stretching series, listening to “Eye of the Tiger,” and imagining yourself cross the finish line at full blast.

Form the right habits

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg codifies how habits are formed. Habits are choices we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. Habits emerge because the brain is looking for ways to save effort. And the habit loop is how our brains work. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Cues can be anything from a visual trigger to a place, time of day, emotion, particular person, etc. Next there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Last, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this loop is worth remembering for the future. Rewards can range from things that cause physical sensations (food or runner’s high) to emotional payoffs (pride, confidence, etc.) This pattern unfolds automatically. The last part of the habit loop is cultivating a craving or anticipation which gets associated with the cue that powers the loop. You do this by allowing yourself to anticipate the reward. To change a habit you must keep the old cue, get the old reward, but insert a new routine. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

Using our running example you can place your shoes next to your bed so you see them as soon as you wake up as your cue. Next comes your routine: your training run. Finally, the feeling of satisfaction you get (or the big lunch you will eat!) when your run is finished is your reward. And thinking about that satisfaction is the craving that will drive this habit loop.

So select your goals, focus on your morning routine as a high leverage time to become more productive, create a priming routine that prepares you to move into that goal powerfully, and use the power of the habit loop to make your routine automatic.

Living Your Best Life is a new blog series aiming to answer the question, How can I live my best life? This twelve-month series explores this question through the topics of productivity, leadership, motivation, psychology, family, wellness, and society.