Develop Habits that Sustain Careers

September 25, 2017


You can make your first year as a new professional quantifiably easier and more productive by consciously developing a handful of habits. Starting today, for example, make it a habit to always carry your office ID in the same location—around your neck, in your right-hand pocket, in your handbag. By doing so you will eliminate the need to hunt for your ID whenever you arrive at work. The daily time savings may only amount to a few nanoseconds, but over time, those seconds will add up to minutes, then hours, and eventually days.

A whole body of science explains just how easy it can be to convert a specific behavior into a new habit. In brief, you must: 1) create a cue that reminds you to undertake the behavior; 2) undertake the activity; and 3) reward yourself each time that you repeat the behavior. Most research indicates that it takes approximately six weeks to make the conversion.

Click here to learn more about the science of habit formation from Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist with the New York Times and author of The Power of Habit (2014).

Then commit to developing the following five habits, each of which will propel you forward professionally:


1.  Start each day with a plan

Study after study supports the following conclusion: if you invest less than 20 minutes creating a daily to-do list, you will gain up to two hours in time mostly via improved productivity.

At the end of each workday, create a to-do list for the next day. List each task that you must accomplish and assign priorities. Early the next morning, preferably before you arrive at work, review emails that arrived overnight and reprioritize your to-do list. As soon as you arrive at the office and turn on your computer, focus on your most important project of the day. Then, set aside five minutes every hour to check email and reprioritize your to-do list. 

For more details on this approach, read Peter Bregman’s “An 18-Minute Plan for Managing Your Day,” Harvard Business Review.

2.  Develop a paper and email management plan

Most large employers have created internal policies that apply to both paper and electronic documents. These policies generally include detailed instructions regarding how documents are classified, when they must be retained, how they should be indexed, and when/where they are to be stored. Ensure that you know your organization’s policies and adhere closely to them.

For everything else that comes into your office—from a new supervisor’s follow-up email to a former classmate’s paper wedding invite—decide how to handle it immediately. If you can quickly respond to an email, do so. If a response requires additional time or work on your part, send an email indicating when you will respond (I should be able to forward the research and my analysis no later than 1:00 p.m.). In the meantime, add the task to your to-do list. As to the wedding invite, RSVP right away and stash the invitation in a pending file, or RSVP your regrets and trash the invitation.

Do not allow your email and desktop inboxes to become holding areas for decisions that you simply don’t want to make. A stuffed inbox represents a bunch of decisions that you’ve deferred. Become proactive.   

3.  If you can choose between face-to-face and email, opt for face-to-face

Email almost always seems like the easiest and fastest way to address a work issue. Too often, however, one email begets several more. While email remains the perfect tool for coordinating schedules, whenever real-time communication and collaboration is of maximum import, brief conversations yield faster results.  

Develop the following important habit: as soon as you’ve exchanged two emails on the same discrete task or assignment, pick up your phone or walk down the hallway and engage in a quick discussion. Clearly some aspect of the assignment or your response is unclear. Address the point of confusion, clarify other potential issues, and then return to work.     

By the way, these face-to-face conversations will yield an additional bonus. Successful professionals consistently confirm that good working relationships are formed through real, not virtual, exchanges. 

4. Schedule one lunch per week with someone whom you don’t know well

As a new entrant to the workforce, the odds are good that you will have little time to attend many of the professional networking events that are scheduled weekly in every industry in every city. However, you should have time to grab a morning coffee or inhale some lunch. Use these opportunities to build relationships.  

Rest assured that the most important business relationships often emerge organically through serendipitous encounters. I was recently reminded, for example, that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did not meet over canapés at some swanky networking event. Rather, they were high school friends who later worked together at Atari. When Jobs designed his last Apple campus, he consciously created inner-office pathways that would encourage spontaneous meetings.  

Step away from your computer and connect with people both inside and outside of your department or practice group. Don’t worry about “selling” yourself. Instead, show a genuine interest in others—in who they are and what they do. As Dale Carnegie once wrote, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.”

5. Find healthy means to de-stress

Stress is endemic in today’s workplace. Every time your computer “pings,” indicating that yet another message has arrived in your email inbox, your adrenal glands release cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. The same thing happens each time a colleague pops into your office for a quick project update. And when an important document goes missing, cortisol may flood your system. Our bodies are hardwired to respond in this manner.

While you can track important documents, you can’t very well avoid email or drop-by meetings. You must find healthy ways to manage and control the stress that you will inevitably encounter.

Two habits can be especially helpful. First, start visiting the gym regularly. Exercise is known to boost endorphins, the “feel good” neurotransmitters that help elite performers endure even in extremely harsh conditions. Second, set aside some time each day to practice mindfulness. Several studies indicate that mindfulness-based programs can help reduce, stress, anxiety, and depression. (Click here to access research that supports one mindfulness app.)



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