Illustration: Bobaa22/iStock Illustration: Bobaa22/iStock

Some people think of good habits as hard work. Mustering the daily discipline to maintain an empty inbox, for example, seems exhausting to those who can barely find time to open their messages, never mind filing or deleting them.

But Gretchen Rubin offers a counterintuitive take on productive habits: Once established, they actually free up all kinds of time and mental energy that’s usually devoted to fretting about when we’re going to do those pesky tasks we’ve been avoiding. Good habits lead to greater happiness, Rubin argues.

She should know: Rubin has spent years trying to figure out what makes us happy, efforts she’s chronicled in books like 2009’s The Happiness Project. Her latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, makes the case for cultivating regular, happiness-inducing behaviours. Here are nine tips from the book about how to form great habits at work—and how to make them stick.

Start with a clean-slate

People love making resolutions on January 1 because of the sense of fresh beginnings the new year brings, so Rubin suggest looking for natural breaks in your work that present the same sense of opportunity: the start of a new job or a move to a new office is a great time to mark the establishment of new behaviour. Make sure to start on Day 1. By Day 2, you may already feel you’ve lost the moment.

Schedule your habits

Scheduling is one of the most effective techniques for developing good habits, says Rubin, who’s such a believer in routine she even programs times to kiss her husband (“every morning and every night”). But make sure your scheduling is effective: Vague commitments like “go to the gym on Monday” can make you think about going, but they don’t prompt action. Identify in advance the point in the day that you’re going to go, and rather than picking a particular start time, tie it to an existing event or habit that you know will happen. Scheduling “Yoga at the end of the strategy meeting” is more effective than “Yoga at noon.” (It’s easy to lose track of time, and simpler and more habit-forming to think about sequences of activities.)

Make yourself accountable

Declare your new habit in the office: If a colleague sees you scarfing a baguette after saying you were giving up gluten for Lent, they’ll call you on it. You may even want to try a commitment technique that Rubin describes as the “nuclear option”: She cites the example of a friend who gave his assistant a stamped, addressed envelope with a cheque written to an “anti-charity”—an organization he loathed. If he broke a new habit he’d just established, she was authorized to drop it in the mail. (He didn’t.)

Plan to fail

Nobody’s perfect. The important thing is to build in safeguards that equip you with strategies for failing. Rubin calls them If/then strategies: “If it’s 4 p.m. and I haven’t finished my weekly sales report, then I’ll finish it on the train on the way home.”

Find a focus-booster

If you’re trying to develop a habit that requires mental concentration, do whatever you need to do to minimize distraction. For those who work in a loud office, it might be listening to music on headphones. Rubin finds that she concentrates better on writing when she’s chewing on something. Her favourite thing to jaw on? Plastic stir sticks, which she keeps in her office and backpack so they’re always within reach (really).

Forget finish lines

Think about milestones instead, says Rubin. If you focus your behaviour on an end goal (“I’ll tidy my desk at the end of each day while we’re working on this massive project”)—you run the risk of stopping your new habit once you reach that endpoint.  (Think of all those people who run every day while training for a marathon, then never lace up their Nikes again.) Look forward to reaching milestones, but don’t think of them as endings.

And don’t think about forever

Rubin has ruled out sweets from her diet and focuses on healthy eating, but she avoids thinking about the idea of “never” eating something again. “Will I ever eat a cookie?” she muses. “Maybe. But not today.” You can apply the same one-day-at-a-time strategy to work habits.

Pair activities you hate with things you love

It’s not rocket science, but if you’ve always wanted to listen to the Serial podcast, check it out while you’re doing your filing or working out on the treadmill.

Plan conscious breaks

Don’t allow a holiday or a crazy work deadline to put an end to your new habit. If you’re going to be away and unable to practise your habit, don’t leave the question of when you’ll return to it unanswered. Plan your breaks and—equally importantly—plan your returns.

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What do you do to ensure you form and keep productive habits? Add your advice in the comments section below.

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