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Habits vs. Workflows

Productive Pondering

As I transition from the slow freedom of summer to the constrained energy of fall, my thoughts have been gravitating back towards nuts and bolts productivity issues. One topic that keeps catching my attention is the distinction between habits and workflows.

When most people talk about personal productivity, they tend to focus on improving the habits they deploy to wrangle their work. For example, batching email, or deploying time blocking to control the flow of their day (which, as longtime readers know, I highly recommend).

There is, however, another relevant layer: the underlying workflows that dictate what you work on and how this work is executed. For example, if you’re a project manager at a consulting firm, and you spend much of your day emailing back and forth with your team members to get answers to questions from your clients, this behavior is an implicit workflow that dictates that asynchronous, unstructured messaging is your preferred method for extracting relevant information from your team.

Workflows are arguably more important than your high-level habits when it comes to impacting how effectively you produce valuable things (my preferred definition of “productivity”), but they’re a topic that’s often ignored.

Indeed, for most people, the workflows that drive their professional life are processes that haphazardly arose without much intention or consideration.

I believe this state of affairs should change, as there’s great advantage to be gained by confronting these flows, and, for each, investigating their optimality.

Consider the project manager example above. Better inbox habits and clever strategies for blocking out deep work time can only go so far so long as the underlying workflow demands asynchronous, unstructured messaging throughout the day.

On the other hand, once this process is examined objectively, better alternatives might arise. The savvy project manager, concerned about maximizing the return on her attention capital (as well as that of her team), might decide that everyone would function better if all this messaging was replaced with 10-minute synchronous meetings, held at noon and four everyday, during which questions and planning could be efficiently handled.

This fall, in other words, consider spending some serious time evaluating your workflows before turning your attention to the habits that help you deal with the obligations these flows generate.

25 thoughts on “Habits vs. Workflows”

  1. – This is simply great stuff, more food for thought (Wouldn’t expect anything less from you!)
    – Question: If you have found (and I’m glancing here at my hardcover copy of “Deep Work”, which is all lit up with copious fluorescent highlighting and tape flags) a superior alternative to building career capital, would you please share that?

  2. I’m one of the people with basically no way to do deep work, except on weekends or somewhat early mornings (0500-0730): teacher. My class time is scheduled, my breaks are subject to constant interruptions (open office space with people coming, going and talking all the time). Basically 0730-1500 is “wasted” for anything demanding my actual concentration (serious planning, grading, writing).

    My solution is not healthy (crappy work/life balance) but it “works”:
    0500-0730: deep work: writing, planning
    0730-1500: lessons and “wasted” time
    1500-1700: “after” work (grading, prep work)
    Plus usually 1-2h of extra work in the evenings.

    Not a good life, not a sane work/life balance, but I stay sane as to getting some deep work in, and keeping up with the rest. If anyone has a better solution…

    • I feel similarly. I am a new teacher, so my work-life balance is not going to be great, but I really want to bring the philosophy of deep work into my life. One of the most difficult parts is in my school, no teacher has a classroom to themselves during prep period, so we must constantly move our materials and there is no place for us to work in complete isolation. It takes so much time of out my day to constantly rearrange papers as I shuttle them to three different classrooms!

      • 2 things floating teacher can do:
        – rolling cart
        – multiple clipboards for student work – and binder clips to keep classes together

        Also, use sticky notes liberally. Put your answer key for short quizzes/homework on sticky notes. Makes the process easier. As you grade, make notes to yourself about feedback – as you see the answers to most often missed questions, make a note to review these questions.

        Also – alphabetize all work before you grade it – believe me, it saves lots of time, and is a low-level activity that prepares you to start grading.

    • Pär, I use in-ear earphones with white noise + music to battle this. It takes time adjusting this habit to your workplace demands but works for me. For me it puts me in a flow I can never achieve otherwise.

    • My suggestions don’t change your basic situation, that of a teacher, and one in present times, but, consider investing in noise canceling headphones. Would you have to deal with negative feedback about that?
      Must you use the open office? Would it be acceptable to use a study carrel, or find some other retreat?
      For after class, to get in exercise, could you think creatively and imaginatively while on a treadmill or other walk? Interrupt yourself to briefly notate a concept (could be through small mike to phone), and then resume movement-with-mental flow.

  3. Hello Cal wonderful post…
    do you or anyone have any advice on getting back on track after a few years of being off university? I have been working an recently got into a program ( certificate) and also taking couple courses on data science online from Udemy. it seems that I waste a lot of time and in the end I only do an hour or so of what matters the most which is the studying.

  4. Hi Cal,
    This is a great reminder of how we can influence the workflows and habits of those around us. Thanks to this post, and a re-reading of “Deep Work”, I’ve scheduled a discussion on this at our next team meeting. We’ll talk about habits (giving ourselves permission to check email once per day, use the “do not disturb” on our IM system, and work offline) and also talk about workflows and how people prefer to communicate. I might call the agenda item “The Tyranny of Email and the Status Light” 🙂

  5. Hey Cal,

    I am an aspiring singer who wants to become more disciplined and work hard. I am currently reading Deep Work, I looked at the schedule and training regimens of K-Pop Idols and trainees. They dedicate 12 hours to dance, singing, modeling, etc. I want to get to this point, however in your book it states that 4 hours is the limit where you can incorporate deep work into your day. How are K-Pop trainees able to do this, aside from having coaches and an environment and culture that facilitates this, and how can I do this while I have a job? Thanks!

    • Hi Nhien, you’re already onto the answer. K-Pop trainees are in an environment where they are driven to discipline themselves. The singers are “so good they can’t ignore you.” Then they sign on and just do what is expected.

      But if you want to be a singer, even 4 hours a day is a lot of strain on the vocal chords. Study the score, get some good headphones to listen, these things will help.

      Otherwise, take the advice of Stanley Kubrick for aspiring filmmakers: The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot

      So define a cool project you are passionate about and just do it.

  6. Great post!
    Cal – is there any way to get an advance copy of your Digital Minimalism (even paying the cover price)? I read about 50-60 books a year, most non fiction, and I’d love to read yours asap… February is far away!

  7. This article really struck home for me; at the beginning of the year I was really worried about some habits that weren’t taking off, until I had a concrete workflow. I’ve been combining Getting Things Done (GTD) and Dropbox Paper (which I highly recommend to everyone). The habits I wanted to develop actually ended up sticking after using and refining my workflow. Good luck to everyone and your productivity journey!

  8. The semester just started for my junior year of college and I could honestly say I have yet to fall into a flow of getting things done. I’m a person who needs a schedule to plan when things should get done but with an ever changing schedule it is difficult to get things done in a timely manner. Some weeks I feel a though I have found a flow but then there is a break or something new comes up where I have to adjust how I operate to fit it in.

  9. Hi Cal,

    I am a graduate student that has been working on improving my ability to do deep work and started on improving my overall workflow. I have a few different roles that require work from me every week and sometimes it can be overwhelming because even the best scheduling is not effective. Workflow became a more pressing issue when these roles included emails and getting certain deliverables done by a certain time.

    I like your idea on workflow and paying attention to it. Looking forward to more advice on workflow and developing deep work.

    P.S. Your book, Deep Work, inspired me to work on a qualitative study for my first research class about focus. It was not big scale but it really highlighted some of the things you talked about when it comes to that feeling to respond quickly to email, constantly be connected to social media, and what works for students to getting effective work done.

  10. I agree with this point of view. The things with systems and workflows is that they are fundamental to how what we do on a daily basis. They then wire our actions and behaviors and ultimately our habits.
    To master one the other needs to be worked on. It takes a bit of time investment and awareness but if you get it right, it will stick just like it is the case with habits.

  11. The semester has just begun for my first year of college and I could honestly say that I still have to fall into a flow of doing things. I am a person who needs a schedule to plan when things should be done, but with an ever changing schedule it is difficult to do things in a timely manner. Some weeks I feel that I have found a flow, but then there is a break or something new comes up in which I have to adjust the way I operate to adapt it.


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