Living a productive and happy life isn’t always easy – because right when you think you’ve got things “figured out” a new problem arises and the shit inevitably hits the fan. And while it’s impossible eliminate all of the problems from your life, you can, with the right habits, mitigate the majority of them.
Over time I’ve developed a number of habits that I rely on to help me do just that. These habits are constantly evolving to meet the needs of my current situation, but in this article, I present to you the 7 easy habits I’m using right now to live a more productive and happy life – because sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.
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The Biases That Are Making You Miserable
Before we get into the habits, though, we have to go over two psychological biases you face every day that are making you miserable. I’ll reference these nefarious beasts later in the article and tell you which habits are specifically designed to help you overcome them.
The first bias that is making you miserable is known as hyperbolic discounting. Hyperbolic discounting is the tendency for you to place the burden of your problems on your future self because you like to receive immediate rewards more than you like to receive future rewards (even if the future reward is greater.)
One classic example of hyperbolic discounting is that if I offer to give you either $100 now, or $110 a month from now, you’ll most likely choose to receive the smaller reward now, even though you’ll get a bigger reward in the future (this is known as being present-biased.)
This is an odd choice to make, considering that your future self (if you could teleport one month into the future) would likely prefer to have the extra 10 bucks.
Overall, hyperbolic discounting tells us that you generally prefer to have smaller rewards sooner over larger rewards later – a preference that increases the closer to the present both rewards are – even if your future self would not approve.
And this can have very big consequences in terms of your productivity and happiness. Because if you’re choosing the immediate reward of watching just one more episode of Netflix instead of doing your homework or work, then your future self is not going to be happy.
Sure, you got the immediate gratification of watching Netflix, but your work suffered for it and you end up regretting it in the end.
In other words, hyperbolic discounting just robbed you of your long-term happiness and productivity.
The Confirmation Bias
The second bias that is making you miserable is known as the confirmation bias. You may have heard of this one before, and it states that you have the tendency to seek out information that already confirms your beliefs, and ignore the information that challenges them.
In terms of being a rational human being, this is extremely bad. Because a rational human being is always open to new experiences and new information – very few things are “set in stone.” A rational human being is not afraid to admit when he is wrong, and he doesn’t avoid information that challenges his beliefs (in fact, sometimes he will explicitly seek out challenging information.)
In terms of your happiness and productivity, the confirmation bias is dangerous because it’s what’s responsible (at least partly) for when you feel stuck, or in a “rut”.
A large part of happiness, at least in my opinion, comes from learning new things. The thrill of growth and new experiences is what makes life worth living.
However, when you’re trapped within the nasty clutches of the confirmation bias, you’re not learning and you’re not experiencing new things.
So, this is something you very much want to avoid for living a more productive and happy life.
Habit 1 Create a Daily To-Do List the Night Before
Ok, now with those two biases in mind, the first habit you want to implement to live a more productive and happy life is to create a daily to-do list every night for the following day.
A to-do list is simply a written list of all the tasks you have to complete. This can be done via pen and paper, your phone, a spreadsheet, a specific app, or whatever.
Now, I’m sure you may have heard this “create a to-do list” advice before, but you may not be familiar with exactly why it is so important.
Creating a daily to-do list the night before will help your brain be free of mental clutter and it will help you avoid mental fatigue.
It’s very well researched that your brain can only hold onto so many pieces of information at any given time (I’ve read studies that conservatively estimate as few as 4, and others that give an upper limit of around 11.)
It’s also understood that your attention is a limited resource. In other words, you don’t have unlimited amounts of focus every day.
And if you’re trying to remember everything you need to do throughout your day then you’re putting an unnecessary burden on your brain.
Put another way, not having a to-do list increases the number of things you need to think about, which increases your mental fatigue, which could hurt your productivity, which will hurt your happiness.
So, by getting into the habit of creating a daily to-do list the night before you can avoid these potential pitfalls and increase your happiness over the long-term. It may sound small, but trust me, this one habit has made a huge impact on my productivity and my happiness.
Also, this is the habit that allows us to avoid hyperbolic discounting. Remember, a big reason why hyperbolic discounting occurs is because we make decisions too quickly instead of fully thinking them through.
In other words, you chose that $100 reward that we talked about earlier because you didn’t actively think into the future about how you would feel a month from now if you took the $110 instead (a +$10 increase.)
The best way, then, to beat hyperbolic discounting is to consciously think ahead to your future self, and to think about what impact your current decisions will have.
Creating a daily to-do list the night before gives you this opportunity to think ahead. You can think about how much time you’ll have tomorrow and in the coming days, and you can create a rational plan that your future self would approve of.
No more disappointment, and no more regret (usually.)
Again, this habit may be small, but it is very important.
Habit 2 Create Weekly Recurring Goals
The second habit you can implement for a more productive and happy life is to create weekly recurring goals.
These goals are different than the ones you put on your daily to-do list, and they should probably occupy a separate list of their own.
The point of these goals is to give you something fun and exciting to look forward to each week; something that you don’t necessarily view as work but that you want to improve each week. When you’re not feeling all that great, these goals should give you an extra bit of motivation and inspiration.
For example, my biggest weekly recurring goal is practicing basketball.
I’ve never been particularly good at basketball, but I love the complexity of the sport, and I especially love the feeling I get when I see real improvements.
So, on my Weekly Recurring Goals List I have “play basketball 3 times per week.”
And I’ve found that even when I’m feeling down, this goal gives me a bit of a boost because it’s something I look forward to. And I know that if I didn’t already have it in my head that I should play basketball 3 times per week, then I might very well not do it at all, especially when I’m feeling lazy or despondent.
Important to note is that your weekly recurring goals should be scheduled for “X number of times per week” rather than for specific days of the week.
Related: Custom Habit Tracker Spreadsheet
This is because life is complex and unexpected things are always going to happen. And if you’re too stringent with your goal then you’re inviting the possibility of failure, which can spiral into you never completing the goal.
If you give yourself some wiggle room by only saying the number of times you have to complete the goal every week then this habit can do wonders for your productivity and happiness.
You’ll improve in at least one thing every week and you’ll enjoy yourself as you do.
Habit 3 Physically Warm Up Before Working
The third habit to increase your productivity and happiness is to physically warm up your body before you start working.
When you first start working for the day, do you ever catch yourself getting easily distracted – by constantly checking your phone, for example – or dozing off?
This is likely because you’re jumping from a state of rest (or maybe unrest) to a state of focus too quickly, and your brain is still adjusting.
Similar to how you would stretch your body before working out, you should stretch your mind before working.
Ironically, a good way of stretching your mind is also to stretch your body.
Now, I’m not talking about anything too intense here. I usually just do about 10 to 20 minutes of sustained physical activity.
Some stretching, walking, or light yoga are all good examples.
Personally, I enjoy a short session of basketball (because I have a basketball court where I live.) This includes some shooting and light dribbling drills.
Remember, the point is not to get tired, but rather to get your heart pumping and the blood flowing to your brain.
Habit 4 Read a Book Instead of Browsing Social Media
The fourth habit that will increase your productivity and happiness is one that is, unfortunately, easier said than done for most of us, and that’s the act of reading a book instead of browsing social media.
Social media is, in my opinion, one of the most pernicious activities you can do. It’s distracting, disrupts your focus, and as an ever-growing body of research suggests: makes you unhappy.
That’s right, nearly every major study done on frequent social media use and happiness levels concludes that social media makes you unhappy.
While nearly every major study on frequent reading and happiness has the exact opposite conclusion.
It’s completely baffling to me, then, that the majority of our noses spend more time buried in phones than they do in books. But that’s the 21st century for ya…
Now, I’m not suggesting that you never browse social media (though, that would probably be for the best.) Rather, I’m suggesting that you replace those 5 to 10 minute intervals throughout your day where you check social media with the act of reading.
Even reading one or two pages at a time can go a long way.
Remember: reading doesn’t have to be some grandiose task where you read dozens of pages or multiple chapters at a time. Keep it light, and make it fun. Instead of picking up your phone, pick up a book, and you’ll be surprised how much you actually enjoy it.
Habit 5 Journaling
The fifth habit that will increase your productivity and happiness is journaling. Journaling is simply the act of writing your thoughts down on paper.
I use my journal as a sort of “brainstorming resource space” where I record my major thoughts and ideas. Recent entries include business ideas, ways to communicate with people better, and new strategies to increase my productivity.
I used to journal every day, but eventually I stopped because I wasn’t getting a lot out of it and it was becoming too cumbersome.
Point being, it doesn’t matter how or when you journal, just that you are journaling (but you should shoot for journaling at least on a weekly basis.) Hell, you can even make it be one of your recurring goals from habit 2.
It may be difficult to build this habit at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. These days I find journaling to be a very cathartic experience, and things just seem a bit off when I’m not doing it. Like I’m taking a picture but the edges are constantly fuzzy and out of focus.
Habit 6 Read the News about Your Interests Every Day
The sixth habit that will increase your productivity and happiness is reading the news about your interests.
Remember when I talked about learning new things as a primary component of happiness? Well, that’s exactly what this habit is about.
It doesn’t matter what your interests are, so long as you’re staying current with the “ins and outs” of them. If you do this every day you’ll get a sense of growth (happiness) and a sense of achievement (productivity) for your efforts.
Personally, I like to read a lot of business, venture capital, and finance news. So I’m subscribed to 5 different email newsletters that I read every morning (except Sunday.)
P.S. If productivity is an interest of yours, or at least something you want to learn more about (which I’m guessing it is if you made it this far in the article), then you should consider subscribing to my newsletter. You can do so by downloading one of my productivity spreadsheets.
Additionally, I find that reading news about my interests gives me new things to talk about every day – because it’s always nice to have some conversation topics in your back pocket.
Remember: it doesn’t matter where the news is coming from (the newspaper, blogs, or even twitter for god’s sake), it only matters that you’re reading. You can even make this part of the reading you do instead of browsing social media.
Habit 7 Research Something Outside of Your Interests Every Day
The seventh and final habit that you should implement today to increase your productivity and happiness is to research something outside of your interests every day.
Consider this habit as your sword to be used against the “devilish beast” the confirmation bias (which we already talked about above.)
Don’t forget, the confirmation bias is one of your mortal enemies because it is constantly lulling you into a state of complacency and preventing you from experiencing the mirth of growth. So you must battle against it by gathering new research and looking at new news sources as often as possible.
Two of my favorite news sources, especially for world news, are The Wallstreet Journal and The Economist.
Now, just like the rest of the habits in this article, this habit shouldn’t be overly labor intensive. Obviously, the more effort you put in and the more learning that occurs the better, but, five minutes of research, or even learning a new word for the day, is enough to suffice.
Also important to note is that this habit is very important for facilitating serendipity.
Serendipity is the phenomenon of having good things happen to you (or good ideas come to you) without you searching for them.
Think of it as that “stroke of luck” that sometimes hits you.
And with this habit you can increase the possibility that serendipity will hit you by increasing the number of new things you expose yourself to.
In other words, if you’re stuck in the confirmation bias (or any sort of repetitive routine) then the odds of something new and beneficial happening to you are quite small.
But by researching something outside of your interests every day you open yourself to a plethora of new experiences and thus increase the probability that serendipity will hit.
As the great Louis Pasteur once said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”