Biting your nails. Chewing with your mouth open. Speaking before you think. This is the kind of stuff we usually think about when we think of "bad habits."
But what about the bad habits that are hurting your performance at work?
There's a whole host of things many of us are guilty of doing every single day that research shows ends up really hurting our productivity. And the more aware you are of how these things are affecting your productivity, the more proactive you can be at taking responsibility for your choices.
So, ask yourself: Are you guilty of any of these bad habits? If so, it may be time to cut it out.
12 Bad Habits That Are Making You Less Productive
1) Rushing in the morning.
We all have those mornings where you're rushing your morning routine and barely have time to brush your teeth before running out the door to make it to the office on time. It's when the morning rush becomes a habit that there can be negative consequences to your sense of well being and your overall productivity.
When you start off your day in a frenzied state of mind, you're not giving your brain any time to decompress, reset, and prepare for the day. Instead, you're pumping it with adrenaline first thing in the morning, which can cause you to crash later on.
If your mornings lack time and space to breathe, try waking up 10–30 minutes earlier and starting off with a quick meditation session. According to a 2012 study, people who mediated "stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative feedback after task performance." Try the free app Headspace to start: It gives you 10 free guided meditation sessions, with the option of signing up for a monthly subscription.
2) Skipping breakfast.
I've never been able to skip breakfast, but I know plenty of people who do. Whether you blame it on being too rushed (see #1) or just not feeling hungry, eating a well-rounded breakfast just isn't a priority for a lot of people.
But it should be. Why? Because, technically, when you're sleeping, you're fasting -- meaning you wake up with low blood sugar. That low blood sugar is exactly why many of us feel tired, apathetic, and even a little irritable first thing in the morning. It's not you; it's your inherent need for the sustenance that, you know, keeps you up and running as a human.
What about replacing food with coffee? Sure, the caffeine rush from your morning coffee can help hide the symptoms of low blood sugar -- but it won't satisfy your need for food. In fact, it'll likely cause you to crash later in the day, which can really harm your productivity.
Prioritizing a healthy breakfast is a key to boosting productivity for the rest of your day. Try healthy breakfast foods that have the fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals that'll give you energy. Foods rich in vitamin B -- like oatmeal, bananas, pineapple, and avocados -- can help improve your concentration. Avoid breakfast foods with added sugar like sugary cereal, donuts, Pop Tarts, and even bagels.
3) Tackling the easy stuff first.
It can be very tempting to get all the easy tasks out of the way first before tackling the tough stuff. This is especially true when you're dreading that challenging task. You push it further and further down your to-do list ... until you've left it untouched for days or even weeks.
But tackling the most difficult tasks on your to-do list early on in the day is actually better for your overall productivity. Researchers have found that willpower is a finite resource that steadily decreases throughout the day, according to the book The Willpower Instinct. So your brain is much better at handling the hardest tasks at the beginning of the day when you're more focused.
Mornings also tend to lend fewer distractions, making it easier for you to get things done. My colleague James Gilbert suggests that folks "take advantage of morning hours to crank through meaty projects without distractions, and save any calls or virtual meetings for the afternoon."
Creating a to-do list is the easiest way to prioritize tasks effectively. Everyone has their own to-do list style, so check out this list of the best to-do list tools and apps out there and see which ones works best for you.
4) Checking and responding to emails as they come in.
Email is supposed to help us do our work, not distract us from our work. So why does it always feel like a productivity suck?
In an effort to stay on top of a constantly overflowing inbox, it can be tempting to check and respond to every email as soon as it comes in. Receiving email notifications in real time certainly doesn't help. But constantly switching tasks between work and email can really hurt your productivity.
Image Credit: Fuze & Visual.ly
To help you focus in chunks of time, turn off those pesky email alerts and limit checking your email to specified breaks.
To turn off notifications in Gmail: Click the gear icon and choose "Settings. In the "General" tab, scroll down to the "Desktop Notifications" section. From there, select "Mail notifications off" and click "Save Changes" at the bottom of the page.
If you're worried about missing an important email, try selecting "Important mail notifications on" and Gmail will notify you for emails it thinks are important to you based on past activity.
To turn off alerts in Outlook: On the "Tools" menu, click "Options." Open the "Preferences" tab and click "E-mail Options," then "Advanced E-mail Options." Under "When new items arrive in my Inbox," clear the "Display a New Mail Desktop Alert (default Inbox only) check box.
Pro tip: Even when you're checking email, you don't have to respond to every single one right away. If you're worried about forgetting about email, I highly recommend using Andreas Klinger's method for triaging email in Gmail, which you can read about here.
The premise behind his method is to triage emails by urgent emails that need action/reply, not-so-urgent emails that eventually need action/reply, emails that are awaiting reply, and emails you delegate to someone else.
5) Checking Twitter, Facebook, and your other social feeds.
The whole "easily distracted" thing goes for social media notifications, too. Turns out we actually have a psychological urge to check for social media notifications, which makes it hard to check our News Feeds "just this once" -- and usually ends up in a lot of mindless browsing.
As my colleague Scott Tousley says, "We are madly in love with distracting ourselves."
My colleague Alec Biedrzycki solves this problem by removing all social networks from his toolbar bookmarks. "Even if I don't mean to browse them, some uncontrollable impulse subconsciously clicks on them when I experience downtime," he says. "You can get sucked in without knowing it (or even intending to), so eliminating the gateway to those networks keeps me on track."
To turn off notifications in Google Chrome: Open Chrome, click "Chrome" in the menu bar on the top left of your screen, and choose "Preferences" from the dropdown menu. In the new browser window that appears, choose "Settings" from the menu on the left-hand side of your screen, and click "Show Advanced Settings" at the bottom. In the "Privacy" section, click on "Content Settings." Scroll down to the "Notifications" section.
From here, you can either choose "Do not allow any site to show notifications" if you want to turn them off altogether. Otherwise, click "Manage Exceptions" and see what Chrome currently allows notifications for -- and then alter that list as you see fit.
To turn off Twitter notifications on desktop: Click on your profile picture in the top right-hand corner and select "Settings" from the dropdown menu. From the sidebar on the left-hand side of your screen, choose "Web notifications," and uncheck every box. Click "Save Changes."
6) Keeping your phone with you at work.
Raise your hand if you have a small panic attack when you realize you don't have your phone with you -- whether you're sitting at your desk, attending a meeting, grabbing coffee ... heck, even going to the bathroom. (I'm guilty of this, too.)
There's a reason Blackberries were nicknamed "Crackberries" back when they were popular: It's because smartphones are probably the easiest distraction on the planet. And when you keep your phone with you at work, you're putting your productivity levels at risk.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found that when people who were performing a task that required intense focus received a text or call on their phone, they had more incorrect answers and were more likely to make quick guesses. People who received notification of a call -- even if they didn’t pick it up -- were 3X more likely to make mistakes. In fact, error rates were about the same whether or not people answered that call or text.
Why does receiving that text or call hurt our productivity so much? Researchers from that study say that, although the actually moment of interruption is short-lived, our thoughts are disrupted for a considerably longer period, making it tough to refocus.
There are a lot of different ways to curb your phone addiction. The simplest is to turn your phone on silent and put it away while you're at work. If that isn't cutting it, try an app like Forest. This app will prompt you to plant a virtual tree when you start working, which "grows" over the course of 30 minutes. The more 30-minute periods you don't use your phone, the larger your forest will grow; but if you leave the app, you'll have to start all over again.
7) Black hole browsing.
You know the feeling when you search for something on the internet, then click on a "related article" or other link ... and before you know it, you've charted the entire Russian Revolution?
Yeah ... I'll be the first to admit it: I do this a lot. It's a dangerous side effect of having a job that requires internet research. It's one thing to mindlessly browse the web outside of work or when you're on a break. (In fact, I have a great list of the best sites for wasting time on the internet for times like those.) But it's another entirely when you're supposed to be doing actual work.
That's what Tousley likes to call "black hole browsing," and it's become one of the most productivity-sucking psychological addictions out there.
Image Credit: HubSpot Sales Blog
You might feel like getting lost in the black hole is inevitable, but there are tools out there that can help you prevent it from happening. For example, StayFocusd is a Google Chrome extension that breaks the black hole browsing cycle by blocking distracting websites after a set amount of time. You have a set amount of time to browse a certain website per day, and after that time expires, you'll get this message in your browser:
Image Credit: HubSpot Sales Blog
It's genius. Read this blog post to learn how to set it up.
8) Working through your lunch break.
Eating at your desk doesn't just make you antisocial. According to NPR, it's also "bad for thinking, bad for creativity, bad for productivity, [and] bad for your body." Sadly, though, only one in five people actually leave their desks or the office for a lunch break.
To be fair, if you're among those people who take lunch at your desk instead of taking a break, it may not be your fault. Perhaps it's not built into your office culture, or maybe you have a deadline that's pressuring you to squeeze every waking moment out of your day.
But research shows taking the midday break can be mentally rejuvenating -- and, in many ways, more productive than plugging away at your desk between mouthfuls. The best way to take a lunch break is to remove yourself from your desk or workspace and eat somewhere else -- like a cafeteria, restaurant, or public park. Better yet, build your network at work by eating with a colleague. (Here are some more ideas for what to do during your lunch break. My favorite is probably "build a helicopter obstacle course.")
9) Not listening. (Like, really listening.)
One of the sad consequences of being constantly distracted is the epidemic of only half paying attention -- and thinking that's OK. You might think that any time someone else is talking and you're not, that means you're listening. But, as my colleague Andrew Quinn wrote in his post on bad conversational habits, it doesn't. "The real question is who are you listening to when [someone else] is talking," he wrote. "I'm willing to bet a good portion of the time, you're actually listening to the voice in your head."
That, or you're reading that email that just came in. Or checking to see why your phone buzzed. When you're in a meeting, how much can you really be paying attention when your laptop is open?
Not only can not listening carefully cost you relationships, it can also cost you in the time it takes to make up for whatever information you missed. Becoming an active listener is a critical part of becoming more emotionally intelligent. This mean really, truly paying attention to what people are saying -- and it's a skill that'll set you apart in both your professional and personal life.
10) Saying "yes" to every meeting.
Being "in the zone" is when you lose yourself in whatever you're doing -- so much so that you lose track of time. It's one of the keys to both happiness and productivity at work.
... And nothing disrupts that flow like a meeting. Especially an unnecessary one. It turns out that the average person wastes 31 hours in meetings per month. These unnecessary meetings are ones where you or the organizer isn't prepared, you didn't really need to be there, and so on.
Want to get those 31 hours back? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be sure you're only attending meetings you actually need to attend. If you don't see yourself actively contributing to the group, politely let the meeting requester know that you won't be able to attend.
- If you're the one calling the meeting, send invitees a note, description, or some sort of heads up along with your calendar invitations. This'll give them an idea of why they were invited or need to be there. Try an app like Do or Solid to help keep your meetings organized and actionable.
- Schedule meetings in bulk if you can. This is a strategic way to ensure the time you do have outside of meetings is spent as productively as possible, since it takes people an average of 25 minutes to refocus after switching tasks.
Speaking of which ...
Multitasking can seem inevitable in our modern, ever-connected lifestyles. But research shows it can make us less effective, increase mistakes and stress, and costs the global economy an estimated $450 billion every year.
Think you're an exception? Consider this: Only 2% of the population is capable of effectively multitasking. For the other 98%, all it does is cause us to be 40% less productive and make 50% more mistakes than non-multitaskers.
Image Credit: Fuze & Visual.ly
Remember that bad habit of not listening? People do that a lot during meetings when they try to multitask -- whether it's reading and responding to emails and messages, scrolling through their Twitter feeds, or something else. In fact, 92% of professionals admit to multitasking during meetings, and 41% admitted to doing it often or all the time.
Image Credit: Fuze & Visual.ly
Getting out of the habit of multitasking is difficult, but certainly doable. Removing notifications from your work computer (see #5) and putting away your cell phone (see #6) are two great ways to start. Other ideas include establishing a no-laptop rule for meetings, using the Pomodoro Technique (where you work in sprints in a way that complements the body's natural ultradian rhythm), and planning your day in blocks that include built-in breaks.
12) Playing with your phone before bed.
Have you ever lay in bed with the lights off and spent a few minutes scrolling through your phone to respond to last-minute texts and emails, check your Twitter feed, or scroll through Instagram? Now, raise your hand if those few minutes have ever turned into half an hour, forty-five minutes, or even an hour.
Imagine how much more sleep you could've gotten that night if you'd simply gone to bed when you first turned the lights off.
But it's not just about the amount of sleep -- it's also about quality of sleep. Studies have shown that people who gaze at a backlit screen right before bed actually report having lower-quality sleep -- even when they get just as much sleep as someone who didn't look at their electronics before bed. This is because presence and absence of light tell our brains whether or not they should release the sleep hormone melatonin that makes you tired. Because the LED lighting emitted by the screens on our electronic devices is so similar to daylight, it can trick our brains into thinking it's daytime, causing us to stay awake for longer.
The best way to break this habit? Buy an alarm clock that's not your phone, and charge your phone in a separate room so you avoid the temptation of checking it altogether. If you're worried about missing an emergency call, then try sending those last-minute texts 30-60 minutes before you hit the hay. It'll mean you get more sleep and higher quality sleep, leading you to operate at peak productivity the following day. (Read this blog post for tips on getting the most out of your sleep.)
What other bad habits hurt productivity? Share with us in the comments.
Originally published Mar 24, 2016 8:00:00 AM, updated June 10 2021