This question originally appeared on Quora: What daily habits can someone adopt to lead a more productive life? Answer by Charles Duhigg, staff writer at The New York Times, and author of “Smarter Faster Better“on Quora.
People will offer you lots of advice: you should sleep more, or you should meditate, or you should exercise, or read a book, or do headstands, or pray, or eat more vegetables, or spend more hours at your desk. And, for some people, those daily habits will work. And for other people, they’ll be total wastes of time.
Unfortunately, the academic literature shows that there is no single specific habit that is guaranteed to help everyone become more productive. (I, personally, get bored out of my mind meditating.)
There is, however, an approach to building habits that has been shown to significantly improve productivity, and that’s experimenting with different routines until you find one that helps you think, just half an inch more deeply, about the behaviors that we know are related to productivity, such as choosing the right goals, or directing your focus, or making better decisions.
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So, what does that mean in practice? Well, most people find that they have time to think more deeply about their goals and priorities and related topics when they have daily routines that force them into a bit of introspection. These are known as “contemplative routines” or “contemplative devices.” For some people, these contemplative routines are things like meditation: While sitting calmly, people have a moment to think about the day ahead, or what they really want to get done this week.
But, just as frequently, these “contemplative routines” can be much more active. Sometimes, they don’t seem like contemplation at all. Take writing a to-do list. Most people use to-do lists simply as ways to keep track of their tasks—an exterior memory device, in other words.
But studies show that the most productive people use (and write) to-do lists differently. Productive people use to-do lists as devices that force them to think about their priorities, rather than simply keeping track of tasks.
This often occurs because productive people force themselves to write to-do lists with their biggest, most important goals at the top of the page. Within psychology these are known as “stretch goals,” and usually they are the kinds of things we write at the bottom of a to-do list (if we write them down at all), and then promptly never look at again. But productive people put those stretch goals front and center, at the top of the page, where they will see them every time they glance at their to-do list.
And then, they do something else that makes the to-do list into a “contemplative routine”—they regularly ask themselves if what they are doing right now lines up with their stretch goal. If it doesn’t, they shift to another task. And they also force themselves to re-write their to-do lists everyday, and force themselves to ask, “Is my stretch goal from yesterday still my most important task today? Or have I learned something new that ought to cause me to shift my priorities?”
In other words, productive people don’t simply use to-do lists as memory aids. Instead, they transform them into contemplative devices, and they make to-do list writing into a contemplative routine, that forces them to think about their priorities, and that forces them to ask themselves, throughout the day, “Is what I’m working on right now really the best use of my time?”
Which is not to say that using to-do lists this way is right for everyone. Some people might rather meditate, and achieve similar ends.
Bu the point is this: the most productive people take their daily habits and routines and they try to imbue them with aspects that encourage them to think more deeply. And then rotate through various routines (“This week I’ll try meditating, and next week I’ll try exercising, and the week after that I’ll write down my stretch goal each morning…”) until they find something that works. And then they stick with it, and make that into a habit by giving themselves a reward whenever they do that particular routine.