How to build powerful productivity habits (even when you’re travelling)

This isn’t just any old coffee… it’s an Inbox Zero coffee

When I lived a “normal” life, I made bad decisions on autopilot. I’d stay up too late, and wake up just before I had to leave for work. I’d be in a bar, and automatically order an alcoholic drink. Then the glass would be empty, and I’d automatically order another.

Now, I make good decisions on autopilot. And that’s no accident: starting this new life was hard, so I had to form habits that forced me to do what was necessary to make it work.

The problem with habits is that it’s very easy to form bad ones when you’re living a settled life, but the act of travel makes it harder to form good ones – just when you need them most.

This post will explain how to improve your habits so you’re ready to strike out on your own and build a business while you travel, and how to keep those habits once you’re on the move.

How to form better habits

Building a business is hard, and doing it on the move is doubly hard. Plenty of digital nomads settle in one place for long periods of time, but so far we’ve been in a rush to explore the world so our lives are disrupted by travel on a regular basis.

Even if you’re not planning to travel that much, building a profitable business that you’re proud of isn’t compatible with the unhelpful patterns that a lot of people have – like sleeping irregular hours, shopping driven by habit rather than need, and putting off the most important tasks.

So, want to shake off some bad habits and form better ones? Here’s how to go about it:

Examine the cue and the reward

Here’s a super-simple diagram of how habits work, according to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg:

The “golden rule” of habit change is to leave the cue and the reward in place, but change the routine in the middle. The hard part is identifying what the cue and reward are.

Duhigg gives the example of going to get a cookie from the cafeteria at 3pm every day, and getting fat as a result. After some experimenting, he realised that the reward wasn’t the cookie itself – it was the need for some social interaction, cued by a few hours of working on his own. So he started just going for a chat at a coworker’s desk whenever the cue (loneliness or boredom) happened, and lost weight as a result.

Lots of habits are more complex, but can be altered in the same way if you can work out the cue and reward.

Work on a “cornerstone” habit

Some habits will underpin lots of things you want to change in your life – so tackling this “cornerstone” habit will have a disproportionate effect.

For me, my cornerstone habit was going to bed late: I never went to bed before 1am, sometimes later. If I’d been out I tended to be home by 11pm, but I’d need to watch TV, browse around online and generally wind down before going to bed. Even if I’d been home all evening, going to bed any earlier just didn’t feel right.

I changed this habit by deciding that my computer would go off at 11pm every night, and I’d be in bed by 11.30pm. The first couple of weeks felt strange, but soon it was hard to imagine staying up any later.

This turned out to be a cornerstone habit because I could wake up earlier, meaning I had time to exercise (leading to lots more benefits), and spend time on my own projects before going to work. I was also less tired throughout the day so I had more focus and mental discipline.

Within a few weeks, I’d gone from telling myself “I’m just a natural night owl” to being an effortless early riser, and lots of seemingly unrelated things in my life had changed for the better.

Find a community

Duhigg looked at studies of people who’d dramatically changed their habits (by losing vast amounts of weight, for example), and made this observation:

“For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities — sometimes of just one other person — who make change believable.”

Among other reasons, that’s why programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous are so effective: you become part of a community who’re telling you that change is possible, and talk to people who’ve been sober for years.

That’s why we go on so much about why isolation will hold you back, and the importance of buddying up: hanging out with people who’ve done what you want to do will make you believe that it’s possible. And once that belief’s in place, changing the habit becomes so much easier.

Maintaining good habits while you travel

The big myth about digital nomads is that they spend their days on the beach, and maybe fit in a bit of work when it’s raining or the mood happens to strike them.

In fact, most of the people we know who balance travel with running a business have a routine that’s more strict than they had in a nine-to-five job.

Many of them started out without any structure, but quickly realised that it didn’t work: there’s so much to do and so much general turmoil, it’s more important than ever to make positive working patterns habitual.

There’s a problem though: it’s harder to form habits when you travel, because you lose the cues that habits are based on. Tynan describes how his habit chain starts with brewing tea in the morning, so it all falls apart when he’s travelling and doesn’t have access to a stove.

(The happy flipside is that travel makes it harder for permanent bad habits to form, too.)

So how do you form good habits, even when you’re permanently on the move?

Work at identifying commonalities

Even if you change to a radically different location every few weeks, your days will have some elements in common: at some point you’ll wake up, open your laptop, have lunch, and so on.

You can use each of these as a trigger: for example, write out your biggest problem before going to bed, and habitually work on it for half an hour when you first flip open your laptop in the morning.

However varied your life, you can work to build in commonalities that give each day a routine. So you can go to a cafe every day, wherever you are, and make a habit of writing a pitch email to a new contact as soon as you sit down.

Another example: when we were travelling in Asia, I had a book to write. Everywhere we went, there was a swimming pool – so I made a habit of going to sit by the swimming pool every morning and writing 1,000 words. That was the only work I ever did by the pool, so it would have felt weird to do anything other than grind out my words when I was sitting in that context.

Use checklists to chain habits

Because you’ve got fewer constants to use as cues, it’s important to chain habits to make every cue count.

So when you’ve flipped open your laptop and activated your “work on most important problem” habit, you can trigger the habit of “processing my email, and deciding what to reply to”. Then seeing an empty inbox can be the cue for “write a list of ten ideas for blog posts”.

You can let this chain develop naturally over time, or use a checklist to force it. For example, I know social media is important but I don’t enjoy it at all, so I’ve made a checklist of seven actions I need to take every day. I could make a habit of starting that checklist when I sit down with my breakfast, so as long as I have breakfast (which I’m not likely to forget), every social media action I need to take will definitely happen.

Stop bad habits before they start

When you’re tired from a day of travel, it’s natural for your brain to take the easy option and prompt you to waste time. The same goes for when you’re working on a hard problem in your business or you’re scared of doing something important in case you fail: it’s easier to browse Reddit than to sit down and get to it.

By crowding out bad habits, it’s easier for good ones to form. So if you know that you tend to waste time on Reddit or Buzzfeed when you’re tired, use a browser plugin like Chrome Nanny to block those sites at certain times. Because your brain is seeking an easy option, it’ll prompt you to do something else rather than go to all the effort of circumventing the restriction you’ve put in place.

The same goes for email – if you use Gmail, you can use Inbox Pause to stop new messages from showing up until a specified time of day. That way, if you get stuck on a problem and your normal crutch is to see if any exciting emails have arrived, that temptation has been removed.

Really, it’s just a tech version of “if you don’t want to snack on chocolate during the day, don’t have chocolate in the house”. Tiredness and anxiety sap willpower and make it easy for bad habits to creep in, so it’s better to take steps that stop it from being a willpower issue altogether.

What are your habits like?

How do you form new habits, and shake off old ones? Which bad habits do you struggle with most? Let us know in the comments!

  • OH MY GOSH INBOX PAUSE MAY JUST SAVE MY SANITY!!!

    Not so much for my biz, but for my part-time “day job” – I need to be inside my e-mail to work, but the other people in the organization tend to use e-mail like chat and it’s really annoying to be working on one thing only to have ten more tiny requests pour in. I had been resorting to working at odd hours before anyone in that time zone is awake… now I won’t need to.

    • Woohoo, glad it’s useful for you!

      I’ve not ended up using it that much, because I’ve adopted some hardcore filtering where almost everything skips the inbox until I’m ready to see it. But I love the concept – before I got organised I’d constantly be going into my email to look something up, then getting totally hijacked by new messages that’d come in.

  • Great post Rob, I was in need of it! Inbox Pause and Chrome Nanny are just what the doctor ordered for me!

    • Oh yes…willpower is easily exhausted, so it’s best not to give your future self the chance to screw up 🙂