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Build Better Work Habits by Starting Small and Rewarding Yourself

Belle Cooper
Belle Cooper / August 21, 2014

I've written about habits quite a few times before (see my own methods for building habits and four different approaches you can try), but I only realized recently that my research could apply to work habits, too. After all, who among us doesn't want to develop better habits at work as well as home?

Let's take a look at how the research can help us work smarter and healthier.

1. Start Small

BJ Fogg is the king of starting small with new habits. His program, Tiny Habits, focuses on this approach. The idea is to focus on building the habit itself, rather than worrying about how big the impact is. Here's a good example: say you want to start a habit of flossing your teeth every night. To build a successful habit, start with something tiny: flossing just one tooth. I know it sounds crazy, but it works. If you're building the habit of flossing just a single tooth each night, three things will happen:

  1. You'll feel silly about not doing it. Flossing a single tooth is so easy, it's hard to feel okay about skipping it.
  2. You'll probably floss more than one tooth. Getting started on anything is the biggest hurdle. Once we've started, it's easy to just keep going.
  3. You'll build the habit. Although flossing just one tooth each night probably won't make your dentist too happy, after a few weeks have passed, the action will start to become a habit, i.e. something you do automatically, without thinking about it.

Once you've built up the habit, then you can add to it incrementally. In our example, you'd start flossing two teeth per night, and then three, and soon you'll be flossing all of your teeth without having to think about it.

Let's look at some examples of how you could apply this method to building healthy work habits.

  • Single Task - If you're struggling to stay focused, and beat distractions, you might want to work on the habit of working on a single task at a time. Start off by just doing this for 5 minutes at a time. After 5 minutes, let yourself relax and let distractions in if you notice them. Later on, try another 5 minutes of pure focus. When 5 minutes becomes easy, work on doing 10 minutes at a time, and then 15. Soon you'll find you can spend half an hour on a task without struggling to stay focused.
  • Drink More Water - What if you wanted to drink more water during your work day? Start small with just one extra glass of water. Start with a small glass, even. Just one glass a day for a month. If you're still struggling after a month, keep practicing (and check the other strategies I've mentioned here for more help). But if you've got the habit down, you can upgrade to a larger glass, and later add a second one.
  • Get Organized - Or perhaps you're trying to be more organized and keep on top of your calendar. Start with a weekly reminder to look over your calendar for the coming week. Each Sunday night when your alarm goes off, just take a minute to look at what events you have coming up for the week. When you find that's easy and you do it without thinking, try setting an alarm for every night to look at what's on your calendar for tomorrow.

2. Stack Habits

One of the most powerful methods for building new habits is to stack them onto existing habits. You have lots of existing habits that you probably don't even realize. Getting your coffee every morning, logging into your computer, walking to the train station after work, having a mid-morning snack. You do these things without thinking about them because they're habits you've built up over time.

Now that they exist, you can use them as triggers for new habits. Here are some examples.

  • Increase Exercise - If you want to exercise more, stack the habit onto your morning coffee. Every time you get your morning coffee, take a walk around the block as well. Or start getting your morning coffee at a café a little further from work, so you get a longer walk.
  • Strengthen Work Relationships - If you want to get to know your colleagues better, stack this habit onto your mid-morning snack, or your bathroom breaks. Every time you get your mid-morning snack, stop for 5 minutes to chat to whoever else is in the office kitchen. Or when you go for a bathroom break, stop and say "hi" to someone on the way back to your desk.
  • Read More - If you want to read more, stack this habit onto your commute. Grab an audiobook or download Umano for articles read aloud and listen every day when you walk to the train station. Or every day when you go out for lunch, take a book with you.

Here are some of the habits I've stacked together in the past:

habit stack

Obviously, there are plenty of ways to stack your habits together. Start with something you do every day around the same time and use that as a trigger to remind you to do your new habit. A habit so small you might as well do it and a trigger that happens every day at the same time is a good start for creating strong work habits.

3. Make it Obvious

Another of my favorite tricks to building habits is making the habit obvious by putting the tools you need right in front of you. Having whatever equipment you need easily available takes away the hurdle of getting started and acts as a reminder.

  • Drink More Water - Say you want to drink more water at work. Keeping a water bottle on your desk means you don't have to get up to grab a glass of water, you can just reach out and take a sip while you're working. And seeing the water bottle there all day acts as a reminder to keep up your habit.
  • Work Out Over Lunch - If you want to go for a jog or hit the gym during your lunch break, put your equipment in easy reach. Set your running shoes or gym bag beside your desk so you can quickly grab them as you run out the door at lunchtime.
  • Leave Work on Time - When your habit doesn't rely on something physical, you can still use this technique. The trick is in making the barriers to acting on your habit easy to overcome. Say you're trying to build a habit of leaving work on time every day. If you make plans with your family or friends after work each night, you'll have a good excuse to pull you away from the desk. This could simply be agreeing to have dinner with your family at home at a set time. Make it an appointment in your calendar, and when it comes time to leave the office, there's no more work involved. You just see the event reminder and run out the door.

4. Reward Yourself

habit loop

Lastly, the most fun part. Every time you complete your habit, celebrate it. Reward yourself for putting in the effort. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, is a big proponent of rewarding yourself after completing a habit. Duhigg's approach to habits is based around cycles consisting of a cue, or trigger, the habit itself, and then a reward.

After building up enough of these, Duhigg says, "when your brain is exposed to a certain cue, it'll kind of go on autopilot because it craves the reward it expects to come at the end."

Building up habits over time means focusing on doing something small every day (or very often, if not every day). Celebrating each time you complete a habit reinforces the value of doing that small thing over and over, rather than reaching for a far-off goal. For instance, if you're trying to lose weight, focusing on the scales will probably get you down after a while if you don't see much movement. Rewarding yourself every time you go to the gym, on the other hand, helps you to build up a lasting habit of regular exercise, regardless of what the long-term consequences are.

Rewards can come in whatever shape and size makes you feel good about sticking with your habit. It might be stopping for a break, having a snack or simply telling yourself, "Well done!" Here are three suggestions to try this week:

  • Complete an Overdue Task - If a task has been nagging at you for some time, make it a priority to tackle it at the start of a day. After doing so, reward yourself by grabbing a healthy morning drink, such as an orange juice or smoothie, or treat yourself to a pastry.
  • Finish a Lengthy Report - After you've completed a hefty report at a project's end, take a break to watch a video on Devour, a site serving up interesting videos daily.
  • Send an Email Marketing Campaign - When you've pressed "send" on an email marketing campaign, take 15 minutes to read posts on Growthhackers.com or Inbound.org.

A good way to make sure you're staying on track and rewarding yourself for your progress is to use an app like Lift or Balanced to check off your habit each time. If you struggle to stay on track or you need a bigger reward to stay motivated, try grabbing an accountability partner. Find a colleague or friend who will keep you accountable and cheer you on when you succeed. I always tell my co-founder when I go for a run and his support makes me feel even better about sticking with my habit.


Most importantly, just pick one habit to build up at a time. It's really easy to get overwhelmed by trying to make several changes at once. Plus, once you've built up one habit successfully, you've got another starting point for stacking on a new one!

More articles on habit change:

Credits: Steps photo courtesy Jake Hills. Habit stacking graphic courtesy Crew. Habit loop graphic courtesy Charles Duhigg.

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