In his excellent book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", Steven Covey details the habits that all successful people share. The habits he writes about are what I would call "low-level" habits. This is not a derogatory term, but is meant to convey the idea that these habits are closer to the sub-conscious than higher level habits. Low-level habits are more about changing the way you think, whereas higher level habits are about learning patterns of action that can be repeated.

Steven Covey's Seven Low-Level Habits

In order to gain a further understanding of low-level habits, here are Steven's original seven habits.

  1. Be proactive – We all have the capacity to choose how we react in every situation. We can use the common reactive model of thinking, where we are not in control of what we think or feel, or we can choose to be proactive and decide on our responses.
  2. Begin with the end in mind – Before you start any task, you should have a concrete idea of what the finished result will be.
  3. Put first things first – Don't waste time on insignificant and unrewarding tasks. Aim to sped as much time as possible working on the tasks that will bring you closer to the completion of your goals.
  4. Think win/win – When working with others, always be looking for a solution that benefits both parties. Cultivate and develop an abundance mentality.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood – Always try to see the other person's point of view before impressing your own upon them. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to experience the situation from their viewpoint.
  6. Synergise – Synergy means that the whole is greater than the individual parts. By working together in a synergistic way, we can create much more than if we worked alone. Sadly this has become modern day management speak for "do more work in less time".
  7. Sharpen the saw – Constantly regenerate and reinforce these habits through conscious action.

All of these habits are low-level, as they will affect just about everything you do. Developing any of these habits fully takes conscious effort, but they all bring considerable improvements to all areas of your life.

Effective High-Level Habits

Now that we have an understanding of low-level habits, we can look at building higher level habits. Each of these habits will bring improvements to your life, and the self-discipline acquired from learning each one can be used to learn others, in a snow-ball like effect.

Become an Early Riser

A lot has been said about the benefits of waking up early. Everyone wants to get more done in less time, and we can either wake up earlier or go to bed later. The main advantage of these two approaches is a lack of distraction and disturbance as everyone else is asleep. You can easily get several uninterrupted hours of work done without a break in concentration. Of the two, early rising has several major advantages:

  • You're more alert – The first few minutes can be difficult, as you shake off the early morning grogginess. A splash of cold water on the face and some fresh air can quickly wake you up. A little vigorous exercise can also get the blood flowing and raise your alertness. At night there's the problem that you don't want to be too alert as you'll be sleeping soon. There is also the fact that you're fighting your body as it releases sleep inducing chemicals into your bloodstream.
  • It's more rewarding – Realising it's 7:30am and that you've already done a tonne of work feels much better than doing the same amount of work as the clock ticks past 2:00am. Knowing you've done a lot before the day has even started is far more rewarding than feeling like you've had to pack it in at the end of the day just to keep up.
  • It gives you time to wind down – If you work up until the moment you sleep, you'll quickly burn out. Waking up early gives you the later hours to yourself, so you can relax and unwind. It's extremely important to make time for relaxation, because it helps to reduce stress and makes you more productive.

Waking up early and staying up late are both habits that can be learnt with the correct preparation. The hardest part of learning to wake up early is battling the internal conversation of "just a few more minutes". It's always extremely tempting to hit the snooze button and stay in bed, but it can be overcome. If you need a little help, you can always put your alarm nice and far away from your bed so you have to get out to switch it off, and then dunk your head in some cold water before going to bed.

Alternatively you can share a bed with somebody who takes up all of the room as soon as you get up so you can't get back in :)

Motivate Yourself

Although motivation in itself is a low-level action, it can be reinforced with a high-level habit. Constantly topping up your motivation is important for those times when things get tough (and they will). There are plenty of different motivational techniques out there, and some work better for different people. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Use the golden hour – Use the first hour of your day to read through positive affirmations, review your goals and get yourself pumped up for a productive day
  • Reward yourself/punish yourself – The carrot and stick motivational techniques are classics. Either dangle a tasty reward in front of yourself that you'll get upon completion, or threaten yourself with something bad if you don't finish in time. You might need external help if you don't yet have the discipline to reward or punish yourself. I'm not a big fan of the punishment approach, as makes you feel worse about not completing something in time can compound the approach, but it's a case of different strokes for different folks.
  • Use positive affirmations – Develop a positive mindset with positive affirmations. Read them as often as possible to keep your thoughts as positive as possible.
  • Do it now! – W. Clement Stone, who built a multi-million dollar insurance business, would have all his employees shout "Do it now!" every morning before they started work. This helped to get them in the mood for a solid day of work, and also got them out of the procrastination mindset. It sounds silly, but this type of reinforcement behaviour can have a profound effect on your productivity.
  • Listen to positive music – We all have songs that get us fired up when we hear them. Make a collection of your favourite tracks and listen to them before you start work. You can also combine this with reading positive affirmations or reading through your goals.
  • Use environmental reinforcement – Put your goals somewhere you'll see them often. When Jack Canfield set himself the goal to earn $100,000, he made a large $100,000 bill and stuck it to the ceiling above his bed so he would see it every morning. This kind of simple trick can help to keep the goal in the front of your mind, and assist in visualisation techniques.
  • Get outside help – Ask friends and family for help, or use a focusing partner.

Take Regular Exercise

Aside from the health benefits of regular exercise, it's great for your productivity and your mood. The body releases endorphins during strenuous activities which elevate the mood, and cause the phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "runner's high".

Committing to regular exercise can be difficult at first. It's important not to do too much when you first start as it can be counter-productive. If you haven't exercised in a long time, start with a small goal like working out for 10 to 15 minutes three times a week. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it can be a challenge if you haven't been doing much physical activity. Once you've built the habit of making time to exercise, you can start to increase the amount of time you spend doing it.

Use the Two-Minute Rule

If you have a task that will take less than two minutes, do it right away. It makes sense to get it done immediately, because it will take longer than two minutes to store it and retrieve it later. There is also the problem that most two minute tasks have produce the feeling that "it'll only take a few mins so I'll do it later", and they either snowball into a much bigger problem or don't get done at all.

Make Plans to Achieve Your Goals

Making plans builds upon the habits of having clear goals and of prioritising actions. Once you have a firm idea of where you're want to go, you'll need to start deciding how you're going to get there. Sometimes you might have no idea how you're going to achieve a goal, and that's fine too. Knowing what the goal is and visualising its achievement can give you valuable ideas, and it also opens your mind to opportunities you may have previously missed.

How far ahead you plan depends on the project and your own personal preference. Regardless of how far ahead you plan, remember to keep your plan as flexible as possible. Unexpected events will always occur, so be ready for them.

Get Yourself Organised

This is really a broad term that covers many smaller habits. Each small habit is useful on its own, but as they add up they become more and more valuable. Examples of good organisational habits are:

  • Use an inbox – Keeping all your inputs in a single place prevents you from becoming overwhelmed from too many sources. The inbox is not a place to store work, and once something goes in to the inbox it should be processed once and dealt with. Don't succumb to the urge to leaf through it and pick out the things you want. Go through it one item at a time, and keep it as empty as possible. The rest of your organisational system should be doing most of the work.
  • Keep your work area clean and tidy – A messy desk might not seem like a big problem, but lots of items lying around it can be a large distraction. Keep it simple and keep it clean.
  • Regularly review your goals – Once you've listed your goals on paper, make it a habit to constantly review them. Make changes where necessary, and don't be afraid to modify or even remove a goal if it is no longer relevant.
  • File away your project work – As mentioned earlier, don't use your inbox to store your work. Use folders to store work on projects, even if the folder will contain a single piece of paper. This approach makes it much easier to find the things you want, and keeps other areas clean and tidy.
  • Use project and task lists – Keep a list of all the projects that you are working on, and keep separate lists of all your tasks. Use contextual to-do's where appropriate.

Organisation can be a sticking point for some people, either because they have negative views of organised people, or because of a pre-conceived motion that they're just disorganised and that's the way it is.

A lack of organisation is a habit that can be replaced, and it's well worth it. For example, if you spend 5 minutes a day looking for misplaced items, putting things in the correct place could save nearly 20 hours over the course of a year. Granted, that's a particularly contrived example but the benefits are real. By getting organised you'll save time, reduce stress and have higher self-esteem.

Developing a high level habit

A habit is a "recurrent pattern of behaviour that acquired through frequent repetition". In order to truly learn a high-level habit, you must continuously and consciously repeat the behaviour that you want to see. It requires devoted energy and attention, but all habits can be developed with the correct mindset. When you are first getting started, develop small changes at a time. As you succeed, start to build on these previous successes. It's tempting to try and change everything overnight, but this approach usually leads to failure and frustration, and can set you further back in the long-term.

A simple method for learning a habit is as follows:

  1. Define the habit to be learnt – Define a specific and measurable habit that you wish to learn. "I exercise for 25 minutes every day at 7am" is a good example, but "I regularly exercise" isn't. Much like setting goals, you must be as specific as possible so that you know exactly what needs to be done to say that the habit has been learnt.
  2. Monitor your progress – Create a system for monitoring your progress. This can be as simple as ticking a checkbox at the end of the day, or filling in a chart. It could also be something more substantial like writing entries in a journal to describe the experience in more details.
  3. Use environmental reinforcement – Put up reminders and encouragement in places where you will constantly see it. Good places include the ceiling above your bed, or on a wall next to it. Also stick it on or above your desk, so that you'll see it whilst you work.
  4. Take action – The more often you take the action, the easier it is to repeat. It can be difficult to start any new habit, and there is often a dip midway where you want to revert to a previous habit. Fight the urge, and enlist the help of others if you need it.

Any new habit takes work to achieve, but even small changes in your thinking and behaviour can create substantial changes in all areas of your life. None of these changes can be learnt overnight, but with consistent effort and energy you can transform your life into something truly amazing.