Productivity tips – Part three: Habits & Deep work

In the last article of my little productivity tips serial, I will get into how I keep track of my habits and how I deal with distractions.

In the first article of this serial, I argued that a time management method like Getting Things Done is not enough to be productive in a long term. Staying on tracks after a month, two or a year can be tricky. Yet it's what matters the most.

Habit Tracking

Forming solid habits is the key to achieving long-term goals. As I mentioned before, it's even more important than any to-do app. A lot of people don't realize the importance of this aspect and neglect it completely.

To form a new habit, you have to be very consistent about it. Repeating the desired action every day, without skipping. According to a study by a psychologist Jeremy Dean, it takes 21 days to form (or change) a habit.

A simple and effective way to keep track of habits is to get a wall calendar and a red pen. Every day, after you've completed your habit, you draw a bold red cross on the calendar. This way, you will see at a glance, how many days in a row you've accomplished already. As the streak will grow, you will feel motivated not to break it.

If you keep a paper notebook, you can set up a habit tracker page for every month. Simply set up a matrix of all days in month and habits to track. At the end of every day, fill out the corresponding column with a green (accomplished) or a red pen (failed).

You can also try some app. Currently, I'm using Momentum for Mac. It's dead simple and that's the point of it. You can set up a reminder for a habit (I set mine at the time I usually go to bed) to reflect on your progress.

Deep work

If you want to get more work done in the same (or shorter) time, you have to - according to this simple equation - increase the intensity:

Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity

There is a great difficulty achieving this nowadays. We live in a digital age, which is full of distractions. E-mails, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube...Everything is trying to get your attention a distract you from work. This is a never-ending struggle.

Here are some tips on how to deal with distractions:

  • It's impossible to stay focused for a long time. Work in shorter sessions with breaks in between, rather than for hours with no break. You need to restore your mental energy!
  • Set off all push-notifications on your smartphone. Don't worry, you won't miss anything. Or even better, put your phone into a flight mode.
  • While working, sit at a writing desk. It's a good habit to start with.
  • Clean up your workspace. It will allow you to concentrate only on the work.
  • Don't multitask. Jumping from one thing to other only distracts your attention.
  • On your computer, run apps in full-screen mode or distraction free mode.
  • Consider working offline, whenever possible. YouTube is always just one click away...
  • Make deep work a habit. For example, try working early in the morning (or late in the night) every day, at the same time.
  • Try the Pomodoro technique.
  • Listen to some background music or sounds.

The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro stands for a tomato in Italian. The name of this curious technique comes indeed from a kitchen - it's inspired by a kitchen timer.

The Pomodoro technique addresses the focus problem. The idea is simple: divide your work into smaller chunks of intense focus sessions. Take short breaks in between to restore your mental energy. Make yourself a coffee. Check Instagram or Facebook. Then get back to work.

The proposed work-session time is 25 minutes (one Pomodoro). After each Pomodoro session, take a 5 minutes break. Every fourth Pomodoro, take a long break of 15 minutes.

Use a timer on your phone, some of the many apps (just search for Pomodoro in your app store) or a kitchen timer.

While this technique might not be well suited for everything (for example any kind of creative work), I find it a great way to "force" myself to work on tasks I don't necessarily enjoy. Study sessions, writing a scientific paper and so on. It's a great technique for students!


Background sounds

Some people just prefer a silent workplace. Music can seriously distract you from work. You can't focus while you are singing along with your favorite band. That is just another attempt to multi-task.

Try listening to different music genre just for work. Avoid music with lyrics and frequent rhythm changes. Although I like rock music, I can't listen to it while trying to focus on work. It only distracts me.

What I like to do instead is listening to electronic music. In fact, I started to like this genre just because it creates this background sound, a mood to dive into. Try minimal techno music, for instance. Spotify (premium) is perfect for this - just search for a playlist or play a radio. I like the Mixtapes by Tobias van Schneider.

Use headphones to completely separate yourself from your surroundings and focus just on work.

If you still prefer not to listen to any music, you can try background sounds. A busy cafeteria, heavy rain, thunderstorm, wind...These sounds create the perfect mood for an intense work session. On, you can create your own mix. Call me crazy, but I like to listen to a rainy-cafeteria-train on summer days.

Listening to background sounds also has another effect - it creates a habit. When you tune into your work music playlist, your head already knows: it's time to focus! It can also get you into the state of flow. You might realize it's 5 AM and you're still working like crazy.


That's all, folks!

In this three-article series, I covered the basic aspects of productivity and how I get my work done. In the first part, I introduced the Getting Things Done method and argued, why it's not enough to be productive in a long term. In the second article, I went over the best productivity tools for GTD and gave you tips on how to implement it in your life. And finally, in this article, I gave practical tips on habit tracking and deep work.

I hope you find some of my tips useful and that I could motivate you to change some aspect of your workflow, maybe.

What is your way of time-management? What are your work habits? Is there an app you can't imagine working without? What helps you to focus? Let me know in the comments!



Filip Pižl

Filip Pižl

Filip is a Czech interactive designer, living in Dresden, Germany. He focuses on UX/UI design and strategic web design.