Are “Harmless Habits” Hindering Productivity?

Habits are developed over a period of a long time, and are the product of continuous doing of something that is either harmless, fruitful, or harmful. There is plenty of research out there about what’s good or bad for our physical health, but what about the habits we develop in the workplace, especially those that can help (or hinder) our productivity?

Neuroscientist Tara Swart shares some fascinating ideas regarding how to enhance our personal productivity in her article “Harmless Habits.”

It is estimated that we check our phones every 12 minutes, often to get the latest headlines.  Staying up to date is important, however, it may come at a high price. Today’s news, which tends to be loaded with negativity, often overwhelms us with stress,  leaving us with a sense of hopelessness.  

This hits close to home for me.  I’m a news junkie, and it often puts me in a funk. I have had a lot of luck reclaiming some time and positivity by listening to music rather than reading headlines.

Swart mentions a mindless habit that we should explore called , “toxic comparison.”  We are hardwired to compare ourselves with others in our group. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of being jealous of someone else’s success instead of celebrating it. This doesn’t make us bad people, but does mean we could put too much stock in comparing ourselves with others

There are two primary types of comparison: downward comparison,  which is comparing ourselves to those less fortunate, or upward comparison, in which we compare ourselves to those we envy.  Fact: both of these can be really bad for the brain. Downward comparison activates the brain’s “lack” network, emphasizing our insecurity and focuses on safeguarding the status quo at the expense of risk and adventure. Upward comparison can excite feelings of envy and low self-esteem.  

My good news here, is that as I age, I am more aware of when I sink into “toxic comparison” mode.  I find gratitude (giving thanks) to be a great antidote for my comparison habit. I spend time every day identifying at least 10 things that I am thankful for.

My most challenging bad habit that Swart mentions is “comfort eating – eating triggered by boredom: it’s something to do when we’re idle.” The good news is that I am aware of this bad habit and having some success replacing root beer floats with reading or walking.  I bumped into Swart’s article because I was trying to avoid a plate full of freshly baked oatmeal raisin cookies.

The final bad habit Swart shares is, believe it or not, “multitasking.”  We pay a “cognitive cost when we batch unrelated tasks together, we tax our brain and use up energy in the transition. The more complex the tasks we are switching between, the higher the cognitive cost.”  

There is research to back this up: experiments have shown that multitasking can actually hinder productivity – and it’s all because of the accumulated time people waste switching between tasks.

I often fall into the trap of multitasking and watch the quality of my work erode.  I have a long way to go, however, and I’m finding it very helpful to unplug daily from my phone and email so I can spend 3 to 4 hours of quality time on my most important project.

Thank you Tara Swart for sharing your thought-provoking article and ideas. They are much better for me than watching the news while woofing down a root beer float.