When it comes to having a successful career, certain work habits can make or break your professional development path. Although it takes months to build and maintain them (between 18 to 254 days more exactly), getting rid of the bad ones is a long—if not impossible—journey.
These habits tend to stick with us over time. Many good and bad habits are often overlooked or disregarded as being recurrent. According to this study from Duke University, 45% of our daily behavior comprises habits we’ve previously acquired and are likely to keep for many years to come.
Time to hook you up with the routines that will 10x your professional development. But first…
What exactly are these work habits?
They’re repetitive activities that develop into specific patterns in time at work or at your home office. Like checking off emails first thing in the morning, sending your work for review before you finish a task, or even placing your bag in the same spot every day.
Yet, not all of these activities add value at the end of the day.
To further develop your career, I’ve compiled a full list of the most common good work habits you’ll need to master to stay happy at work:
The feedback loop: Become an active listener
Active listening is a small effort to understand your conversation partner and be genuinely interested in what they say. In a previous article, we discussed how effective active listening was in project management. But its benefits apply beyond the scope of projects.
Active listening can improve how employees communicate with each other, make decisions, negotiate, and gain new insights. Listening and communication skills, in general, are things humans are still not that good at, though, as we remember only 25% to 50% of what we hear.
I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions. —Lee Iacocca, former CEO @Chrysler Corporation
Under these conditions, active listening becomes a skill you’ll have to develop over time and gradually become a good work habit.
If your mind often drifts away in the middle of conversations, here’s a brief list of actionable points you can practice to become an active listener:
- Do not interrupt the speaker.
- Try to remove any distracting thoughts that might be blocking your attention.
- Nod occasionally to show you’re listening.
- Restate the speaker with your own words to show that you’ve fully understood them.
- Get involved in the conversation by asking questions related to the discussion topic.
- Offer feedback on core statements.
EI: Work on your emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is any person’s ability to understand, manage, and control their own emotions and those of other people.
The “emotional intelligence” concept was made famous by Daniel Goleman, who ties it to the workplace and its importance for guaranteeing the success or failure of a person in a professional environment:
The interest in emotional intelligence in the workplace stems from the widespread recognition that these abilities – self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and social skill – separate the most successful workers and leaders from the average. This is especially true in roles like the professions and higher-level executives, where everyone is about as smart as everyone else, and how people manage themselves and their relationships gives the best and edge. —Daniel Goleman
Intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ) are among the most researched topics that predict whether a person will be successful or not. But while everybody is crazy about finding out their IQ score, studies show that emotional intelligence (EI) has the final say in improving job performance and job satisfaction. This survey from CareerBuilder found that 71% of employers are more likely to value people with high EQ scores, with 75% opting to promote workers with strong emotional intelligence.
The Great Resignation of 2021 proved how job dissatisfaction in a toxic environment and job performance in an expanding talent pool were among the leading factors that actuated change in the work culture at large.
Honesty: Become a trustworthy employee
Honesty and trustworthiness have long been two highly valued human traits. The same characteristics are sought after in the workplace, where integrity is a must to maintain a healthy relationship with coworkers, managers, partners, and clients.
The glue that holds all relationships together—including the relationship between the leader and the led—is trust, and trust is based on integrity. —Brian Tracy
Like with personal relationships, honesty goes a long way in the office. In the absence of honesty, employees will build up frustrations and disappointments to which they are too afraid to give voice. This will only lead them to develop passive-aggressive behavior or, even worse, switch companies.
Research shows trust starts with upper management. The link between workplace honesty and work happiness is evident, with 63% of employees being more satisfied with their work and likely to stay at their current job since leaders trust them by either giving praise for an achievement or owning up to a mistake.
The good news is that most organizations are already successful at displaying and maintaining trust. 78% of the survey respondents state that honesty is regularly practiced in their company, with a higher percentage in countries such as Ireland (88%) or Portugal (85%).
While it may seem like the company is in charge of building an honesty-based work culture, it’s the individual who is ultimately responsible for nurturing trust. So next time you’re given a chance to speak your thoughts but are too afraid to do so, keep these items in mind:
- Be honest, then allow others to state their needs and opinions frankly
- Admit to your mistakes
- Communicate openly
- Offer constructive feedback whenever possible
- Make sure your actions are consistent with your statements
- Simply don’t lie
Accountability: Demonstrate commitment to your work
On the same note, accountability is another good work habit employers are looking for with honesty and trust. Accountability refers to much more than simply taking responsibility for your work whenever necessary, and there are a couple of underlying aspects this concept refers to.
First, there’s a need to understand the company goals so you and your team can work towards reaching them at all times. Interestingly, this study found that 85% of the survey respondents were not fully aware of their company’s goals for the future.
As a result, 93% of them were unable to take accountability for any results since frequent changes in terms of company-level objectives create more confusion.
Imagine having a soccer team with 11 people, but only one of them would know what position to play on. This research highlights the importance of employees understanding the company and project goals to avoid poor results, missed targets, and low team morale.
Then there’s the need for each employee to take accountability into their own hands whenever the company fails to do so. Ask your managers or team leader to give you a clear role when working on a larger project so you know what goals and duties to abide by.
Offer further explanations whenever a goal or project area is not clear enough for someone else in your team. After all, success is a team effort, and being accountable for your work also means helping other team members do their work appropriately.
Check out our in-depth review of the best web-based resource distribution software for your company; the list contains top resource management tools.
Knowing your purpose: Set clear and realistic goals
Like with company goals, you need to set personal and work-related goals. You can’t hit them if they’re not realistic. To formulate concrete ones that are ambitious enough to pursue yet not too grandiose to give up on, use the SMART goals framework:
- Specific – Keep clear goals in mind: We want to increase our blog traffic to create brand awareness.
- Measurable – Answer questions such as “How much?” or “How many?”: We want to increase our blog traffic by 3x each month to create brand awareness.
- Achievable – Have the right resources at hand to reach them within a set timeline: We want to increase our blog traffic by 3x by hiring a content writer to publish three articles/week and promote them via social media to create brand awareness.
- Relevant – Any goal you set should be tied to the general business goals. You’re not going to have a goal like becoming a global leader in an industry if you only sell locally. We want to increase our blog traffic by 3x by hiring a content writer to publish three articles/week and promote them via social media to create brand awareness and convert leads into customers.
- Timely or time-bound – Refers to the need to set a deadline or time frame. This ensures you will work towards your goal without postponing it indefinitely: We want to increase our blog traffic by 3x by hiring a content writer to publish three articles/week and promote them via social media to create brand awareness and convert leads into customers by the 1st of July this year.
Time management: See how you’re spending your time and limit your distractions
Time management involves tracking, measuring, and analyzing your time spent working on a task, project, or application.
Many employees waste time on unnecessary activities like checking social media or aimlessly browsing the web. These are harmful to the business process, so companies are looking for employees who can take control of their time and make the most of it.
Time management is one of the top soft skills workers must have and what works best toward their personal productivity. For people who tend to procrastiwork, check out these tips to stop procrastination.
Just check out a couple of Glassdoor job entries or this detailed job description analysis I’ve put together for project manager positions.
Time-tracking tools allow employees to focus and work efficiently without having to be supervised by a manager at all times. Among other benefits, they help freelancers who get paid by the hour receive the accurate compensation they deserve for their work.
How does a time tracker work?
Simply press the start button of your time tracking tool whenever you start work and stop it once done. For most apps, time entries will automatically be recorded in a timesheet, on top of which you can create time reports to monitor your progress. Using automated timesheet software is a good way to keep track of your hourly engagements—in or outside the office.
Time tracker in Paymo
Appropriate use of computer time
Managers are always interested in how their employees spend time at work. While with manual time tracking, you decide when to track time and for which tasks, automatic time tracking tools like PaymoPlus do everything automatically, recording what you’re doing on your desktop in great detail.
That includes all the files, software, and Internet browser tabs accessed daily. Your manager will be able to see how you’re spending your time and prevent work overload while increasing transparency and trust within the company.
Check out this full guide to how automatic time tracking can help you better manage your time to start turning this into a natural work habit.
Say no to procrastination
All the no-purpose activities I mentioned above are a way of procrastinating. In the long run, postponing your duties will only add up and lead to burnout which is hard to recover from. Believe it or not, procrastination is a habit. A bad one that is. And it often comes together with a lack of discipline and motivation. A whopping 88% of all employees procrastinate in one way or another. Let that sink in for a moment.
To become a non-procrastinator and turn productivity into a work habit, you’ll need to muster up your motivation and build discipline first. There are a couple of good books to understand where the problem behind your procrastination lies and how to end it. The Now Habit, for instance, advises you to take well-deserved breaks, track your time, and uncover any hidden fears that might keep you away from doing your work.
Your first step toward breaking the procrastination habit and becoming a producer involves redefining procrastination and coming to a new understanding of how and why we use it. Procrastination is not the cause of our problems with accomplishing tasks; it is an attempt to resolve a variety of underlying issues, including low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of failure or success, indecisiveness, an imbalance between work and play, ineffective goal-setting, and negative concepts about work and yourself. —Neil Fiore
For more digestible advice to gradually end your procrastination habits:
- Start by doing your most difficult tasks first
- Establish a goal and intrinsic motivation for each activity you do
- Prepare a schedule for the next day and stick to it
- Limit or remove the time you spend on menial activities such as checking the social media updates of your friends or the latest YouTube video from your favorite channel
- Avoid self-critique and stop putting pressure on yourself
You can read this guide to productivity at work for extra tips on staying productive and why maintaining your health is essential for work performance.
Take regular breaks
Another must for your health and productivity is knowing when to take a break. You can turn your hourly 5-minute break into a healthy habit by grabbing a cup of water, or fruit, or just stretching your arms and legs.
Ultimately, we’re all humans. Working for 8 hours straight will put more strain and pressure on you and eventually lead to the dreaded burnout. Turning breaks into a work habit will prevent fatigue, increase productivity, make you more creative, and improve your focus at work. For a more actionable tip, how about you try the Pomodoro method? Ideal for taking short breaks, this habit recommends you work in batches of 25 minutes, each followed by a 5-minute break.
NOTE: Leverage the “tomato” for time management and test out these Pomodoro study timer apps.
Here’s a brief explanation of how the Pomodoro technique works:
Implement technology: Use the right tools for your daily tasks
We are now part of a digital workplace in every sense of the word. People use technology to get to work and do chores, with some even working entirely in the digital realm, so it’s only natural that we rely on tech for good.
I’ve already mentioned time-tracking tools, but there are other apps you can use to automate your work. This leaves us with more time to focus on those activities that require our creativity and emotional intelligence, traits no software will be able to replace (at least for now).
Must-have tools like Google Drive or Dropbox keep all of your files stored securely in the cloud so you can access them from anywhere (or create backups for the files on your computer). Evernote and Google Keep, on the other hand, organize your ideas or web pages of choice so you can check them out later when you have enough patience.
Grammarly underlines your writing mistakes and suggests possible corrections in real-time, so you’ll save time when doing the proofreading. Is Photoshop too time-consuming for you? Try Canva. Need a quick list of SEO keywords? Try keyword generator tools. There’s even a platform to legally sign documents online so you can skip the drive to your client or partner.
The right project management tool bundles several features you need to handle your work, including task management, resource scheduling, file storage, and even time tracking. Paymo, for example, is one such tool that lets you track time on each of the tasks you’re working on and even invoice clients based on it. To read more about the benefits of invoicing, check out our invoicing guide to learn what is an electronic invoice and all about the standard invoice format.
The project management tool of your choice will send you notifications not to forget about deadlines and important milestones.
To-do list in Paymo
Test Paymo for free to see how it helps you manage your projects and day-to-day work.
For an in-depth review of the best free tools you can use, check out this guide in which we analyzed their pros and cons to help you pick the best ones for you.
Stay organized: Sort your work into lists
Does it often feel like you’re working chaotically? Especially if you adopted a working remote system for your freelance gig and you need to tap into different skills and requirements.
Tracking your time is one thing – making sure your tasks are organized in a way that doesn’t cause any delays, though, is another one.
When it comes to it, there are two interrelated approaches you can take:
- Batch by form and structure: Consider how you will structure your tasks. For example, there are to-do lists, detailed task lists, online Kanban boards, Gantt Charts that help you work systematically—all of which I went into further detail in this guide to task management. Then put down all the things you have to do in a system or diagram to visualize them and prioritize them better.
- Devise your own approach: Behind the work habit of organizing your daily duties lies your mindset. There are different facets to this. For example, many people tend to postpone difficult or more critical tasks just because it takes them longer to complete or are not as enjoyable. Then there are specific time limits you can impose on your work, like spending no more than 1 hour daily responding to social media comments. Similarly, you can limit your time on activities that take too much time from your day, like responding to emails or looking for that perfect stock photo to include in your next post. Not sure if you’ve read Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog book, but it is an excellent way to understand why getting started with the most important task—eating the frog—is the key to improving your productivity.
Learn to prioritize
Many employees get to work on their tasks without paying attention to the order in which they tackle them. Certain tasks are better done before others, just like project planning is done before execution. Typically, a project manager would be the one to set priorities for team members. But in the end, it’s up to you to turn prioritization into your own work habit.
I went into full detail on how anyone can prioritize their activities in just a couple of steps in the web-based task management software I’ve mentioned earlier. Check it out if you’re interested in using The Eisenhower Decision Matrix or The Pareto Principle.
Another method you can use to set your priorities is the GTD method. A framework invented by David Allen to store all your brain dump – the good and the bad – in a system through 5 essential steps:
- Capture – write all ideas and tasks that require your attention
- Clarify – fully understand all ideas and how you can use them
- Organize – organize all activities into lists
- Reflect – systematically analyze what you’re doing
- Engage – work on the ideas
Here’s a look at how you can use the GTD diagram to make the process work for you:
No more multitasking
Oh, multitasking… That habit we all have in one form or another and even brag about to our friends and coworkers. In reality, multitasking is a myth. As Dave Crenshaw puts it in his book The Myth of Multitasking, it “gets nothing done.”
Multitasking reduces productivity by 40% and lowers your IQ by affecting your brain’s efficiency and comprehension abilities by 17%, even if you’re sitting next to someone who is multitasking—just like passive smoking does.
We often think that combining tasks will save us time, but scientific evidence shows that it has the opposite effect. Even those who claim to be good at multitasking are not very productive. In fact, they are some of the least productive people. Our brains can take millions of bits of information but can only actually process a few dozen per second. When we say we’re multitasking, we’re really switching back and forth between tasks very quickly. Unfortunately, we’re not computers adept at parallel processing. We spend all our energy alternative between tasks instead of focusing on doing one well. Concentrating on one thing at a time may be the single most important factor in achieving flow. —Hector Garcia Puigcerver
Here’s an exercise to try out if you’re a strong supporter of the multitasking work habit:
What are your work habits?
Now, of course, there are many more work habits you can think of. However, the ones listed so far provide a great starting point for you to begin practicing. Remember not to quit pursuing them too early, or you won’t see the desired results and hence get disappointed. Developing new habits can take time, but the sooner you put your mind to it, the more results you’ll see in your daily work productivity.
Back to you now. What micro-changes are you making to gain more good work habits? What bad work habits did you overcome, and how did you do it?
First published on September 9, 2019.