I have been noticing a sharp decrease in my productivity during pandemic isolation. PhD research can already be a very lonely venture, but isolation has shredded the little collaboration and daily check-in with colleagues that provided productivity cues. I thought that a writing retreat at a hotel would improve the situation, but while I did write more the first few days, I quickly fell into writing troubles again.
Now I have been reading about habits in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. You can tell that Duhigg is an investigative journalist, because the book is intense, long, and based on an impressive amount of science. A key point of the book is that human habits are basically structured as CUE - RITUAL - REWARD. This insight makes it easy to spot the problem of isolation, namely that the environment at home cues very different habits than at the office.
Together with Duhigg’s book, this blogpost by Shawn Blanc had me thinking about how I could improve my productivity habits during isolation. I took two important points from Blanc’s post:
1. Protect Key Productive Habits
I usually get up at 6:00 everyday to write, but this habit has drifted due to isolation. In terms of the habit structure, my “getting up at 6:00” habit has the structure:
- CUE: Wake-up alarm
- RITUAL: Get up and start to write in Ulysses
- REWARD: Cup of Coffee.
Paradoxically, this habit was hard to maintain during my writing retreat, perhaps because I had to find a new writing spot. Usually I get up and sit down in the couch to write immediately after getting up and making myself a cup of coffee.
Another key habit of mine that should be reinforced is the weekly review. I usually do a weekly review every friday afternoon. This is where I capture all loose ends and process everything project-related into the right buckets. I have described here how I use OmniFocus for this task.
2. Protect Rest/Thinking Time
When thinking about habits, it is essential that breaks and rest periods are actually rewards for working. Blanc use time blocking for protecting spaces in the calendar. Basically, you set aside big blocks of time for certain routines in the calendar. Then you can further specify each of these time blocks.
Sometimes I will notice that I feel stuck for days or week (materialising as stress feeling). In these instances, It’s important to look at the calendar and assess if key productive habits and rest/thinking time is sufficiently protected. It can be worth it to experiment with shifting around routines (blocks) to see if this improves my workflow.