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4 habits that keep me sane and productive

4 keystone habits that have helped me become more increasingly productive over the last few years.


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🐉 Miguel Marin Vermelho

2 years ago | 5 min read

https://unsplash.com/@contentpixie

We’ve all been affected by this pandemic to a greater or lesser extent. No news there. A lot of us have struggled to stay sane and productive for a variety of reasons. I’m sure you can come up with a list… The aim of this short article is to lay out 4 habits that have helped me cope with the pandemic and even improved my productivity. Resistance is natural when reading other people’s advice, but hey, if this helps at least one other person, I will be happy. So here goes.

1. Tracking habits ✅

To my list of regrets, I have added not reading “Atomic Habits” by James Clear earlier; it was probably the best use of my Audible free credit. Understanding in-depth how habit formation works and listening to multiple success stories was immensely helpful in providing more structure to the habits I wanted to track. Compound gains (and losses) are a surprisingly powerful concept that I insist on drilling into my head.

The picture below puts it well:

What happens when you get 1% better every day vs. 1% worse. Source: https://radreads.co/atomic-habits-james-clear/

Essentially, a lot of small positive changes, with marginal daily gains, will eventually compound into greater achievements and self-improvement. The same applies to the negative side, so it’s good to keep that in mind.

A last piece of advice on habits, that has been helpful to me is: “what you measure, you improve”. Making it a habit to track your habits seems a bit meta, I know. But measuring how you go along with a particular habit and being able to look back can be extremely rewarding. Moreover, creating a “chain” (and not breaking it) can come a long way in motivating you to do what you what to accomplish. I have found a nice way of achieving this, which leads me to the next habit.

2. Bullet journaling 🚄

Huge thanks to the folks at https://bulletjournal.com/, for making this neat booklet to support a very minimalist way of organising goals, tasks and habits. I took inspiration for my journal layout from both the original method and a couple of youtube videos (here and here). These are art to me, but I am not this sophisticated or capable with my drawings. Please don’t let the artsy journals discourage you from the actual method. My journal is a lot less pretty than that and I’m okay with it; the key part is to make it work for you.

After all, it’s a personal thing. It helps to follow a certain method, as long as it brings results. I have found that writing a daily learning and gratefulness has helped me stay sane and even made me closer to family and friends I had lost touch with. Being consciously grateful for things narrows the focus on what’s really important.

Repeat a habit enough times it eventually becomes ritualised. Bullet journaling has become a daily ritual. The best part is you can get a taste for the compounding effect when you look back on the journal and see what you have accomplished.

To give you an idea below is a photo of my habit tracker for the month of August.

Note: I realised that I was tracking too many things at a time and recently reduced this grid to just a handful of habits.

One important thing to remember is to use journaling as a tool to build awareness, not to judge or blame yourself for not doing more.

3. Deep work 🧠

In this quest to stay productive, I came across the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and I decided to read it over last Christmas. While this new term was new to me, I was familiar with the concept of states of flow when one is completely immersed in a task. The missing part was formalising the concept in my mind. In Cal Newport’s words: “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. The term can seem misleading, however, as “deep work” is not only about working. The practice also encourages interspersing some “playing time” into your working day. Whether that is a walk in nature or an interesting read, it ought to be something that allows you to disconnect and stimulates a different part of your brain.

I am not a firm believer in the mystic, but shortly after reading the book, I coincidentally got a job as a developer at FLOWN, a company whose mission is to embed “deep work” principles into people’s lives. FLOWN provides a toolkit based around the same science and ideas described in the book and I have found myself using the product I am also building. There is an obvious bias here but do check it out: https://flown.com/. It has completely changed my approach to work and helped me feel more fulfilled in my own job.

Just like meditation, deep work is a practice. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

4. Napping 😴

Yes, napping. The famous Spanish siesta. I know this sounds counterintuitive but this is something I did as a child and stopped doing as I grew old. Yes! I did think: I can’t be spending precious time in my day just sleeping even more…

In “When”, Daniel H. Pink breaks down research on timing and prompts us to ask an often forgotten question: When?. It drops some real nuggets on timing and has an interesting passage on naps. Timed breaks can help us disconnect and have been shown to be restorative, in the way they prevent the natural cognitive deterioration during the day (see Chapter 2 — Afternoons and coffee spoons).

“Naps, research shows, confer two key benefits: They improve cognitive performance and they boost mental and physical health”. There is plenty of other evidence in favour of naps and I recommend the read if you have an interest in the science. Ideally, a nap should be between 20 to 25mins. Going over into the 30min mark can be less efficient as it can result in sleep inertia. You probably know the feeling of being slightly groggy after waking up from a 1h snooze…

For those out there who love coffee, have a go at a “nappuccino”. Essentially, have a coffee, then nap for 20/25mins and when you wake up, the caffeine would have had just enough time to enter the bloodstream. I can’t promise the coffee will taste good though…

That’s all from me! This is my first article on here and I would love any feedback you can give me. The only way to improve is to put your work out there for others to judge so here’s my attempt at it. Hope you have a great day wherever you are.

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🐉 Miguel Marin Vermelho


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