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The proven and unsexy route to better habits at work

Covid-19 has forced people into an altered work environment and prompted new habits to work effectively

Habits, whether related to health or work, often form over a long period of time through experiences that naturally push us to modify our patterns. (iStock)

We have all tried to change our habits with varying degrees of success, especially during the past months. A new diet, fitness goals, monthly savings and others. Some withdraw immediately from their old pattern, increasing their steps from 5,000 to 15,000 a day; going to bed at 11pm instead of 2am, or giving up sugar abruptly. This approach works for some, repetition and determination helping to break past the initial discomfort and eventually making the new practice habitual. But many falter, their resolve patchy with motivation ebbing and rising. Others prefer a gentler approach, with almost imperceptible, but continuous, modifications that are not overwhelming. This method is called “habit creep”.

A term coined by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, habit creep is a gradual approach to habit formation that can be applied to any aspect of our lives.

It has worked well for marketing professional Shivangi Agarwal. She’s been making slight changes and removing distractions to work better. With everyday work tasks, it can often be difficult to take time out to read. She spends 15 minutes a day to keep up with the latest trends in design and content, browsing an interesting website or digital content from a key brand. “I take this creative break anytime of the day, often in between long assignments. It’s a great refresh,” says Agarwal, who works at a Delhi technology firm.

Nudging behaviour in a comfortable and achievable way has helped several working professionals, like Agarwal, develop better and long-lasting habits at work and in life, in general.

Slow and steady

Covid-19 has forced people into an altered work environment and prompted new habits to work effectively.

Kishi Arora had to adapt her way of doing business in the past year, with travel restrictions putting her consultancy work on the backburner. She began catering homemade meals on order. “I am trained as a production chef, but I haven’t worked in hotels for over a decade. Trying to prepare large number of orders in a home kitchen took some preparation. But I did it slowly,” says Arora. “I did 70 orders the other day without any panic or stress. It took me a few months to get to this point, from preparing my kitchen with the right utensils, getting my proportions right and being logical and organised. If I had tried taking on too many orders from the start, I would have made mistakes.”

Habits often form over a long period of time through experiences that naturally push us to modify our patterns.

“My habit to preempt challenges is something that has benefited me at the workplace and in my personal life,” says Hyderabad-based Deborah Paul, a program manager at an international development agency. “It formed over years, where my work involved detailed planning and analysis. Initially it was not my way of thinking, but gradually my thought process became structured around weighing the pros and cons, helping me to plan ahead and being prepared for various outcomes.”

Removing distractions by making minor adjustments to our environment contributes to the success of habit creep. Clear insists that even one positive adjustment per week, like placing your phone in another room to avoid responding immediately to notifications or keeping treats in an out-of-sight cupboard, can lead to significant behavioural changes over time.

Agarwal initially spent most of her work-from-home days in conference calls. “I realised there was hardly any part of the day left to do actual work. So I started pushing most meetings to one part of the day. That allows me at last three hours of undistracted time to work on creative or content related work.” She is also mindful of giving her team enough space, using Monday meetings with them to plan, thereafter leaving them for the rest of the week to work accordingly.

Shikha Jain likes to structure her week during Sunday evenings, before the weekday distractions and bustle begin. “I started a personal work practice a few months ago to plan my week on Sunday and schedule emails with timelines specified, to reach recipient inboxes on Monday morning,” says Jain, who works at an education technology company in Delhi. “It helps me as I am dependent on other teams in the organisation, and getting anything done later in the week is difficult.”

Bite-sized pieces

People respond better to changes that require minimal effort, which is why using manageable or shorter chunks of time for new habits can be effective.

For Dipika Jaikishan, co-founder of Basis, a financial services startup in Bengaluru, breaking larger tasks into smaller, achievable ones has been useful. “In a startup, there are several administrative aspects to keep track of to ensure smooth functioning of the business, like accounts and finance. These can pile up and get overwhelming if not addressed at regular intervals,” she says. “My co-founder and I make it a point to have a 30-minute chat every day to ensure we do not allow things to roll over. It may not be long enough but serves as a good duration to plan and get things done.”

Focusing on improving one aspect of our normal routines often allows other goals to fall into place. Srishti Bhatia, who works at a Mumbai marketing agency, has struggled with punctuality for a long time. “When I joined the new company where I’m leading a team, I wanted to set the right example. I decided to keep daily morning calls with the entire team. This automatically made me be at work on time.” Because of this, she saw other habits fall into place. Waking up earlier allowed her more time to fit in housework and yoga and get to bed earlier.

While it is a slower approach, many underestimate the effectiveness of these small steps adding up to significant habit changes. “Human behaviour follows the law of least effort. We will naturally gravitate towards the option that requires the least amount of work,” says Jaikishan.

Slipping up is alright, regardless of whether we make gradual or rapid changes. “New habits don’t come easy,” insists Paul. “Be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself, because anything forced does not last. That’s what I have learnt.”

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