Habits—not hacks—are the secret to success

Personal productivity is a key aspect to professional success. When it comes to ideas for increasing your productivity, there’s no lack of advice. “7 Life Hacks to Accomplish Anything!” “154 Tips for Busy People.” “223 Best Hacks for Work.” The tips and hacks are seemingly endless. But notice how these lists seem to say that there are ever-changing best practices when it comes to professional productivity. As if tomorrow, someone might invent a new and better way to achieve success. 

The problem with improving your productivity using mere hacks isn’t the suggestions themselves. It’s that the suggestions tend to be only narrowly useful. “Do your hardest task first” sounds reasonable, but what if your personal biorhythms make you more productive and creative later in the day? The better habit is to simply know your body clock.

Then there’s the implication that a person can selectively cobble together a set of hacks that will somehow instantly transform them into a super-productive, hyper-successful professional. Success isn’t that simple. 

But it doesn’t have to be all that complicated, either. The true secrets to success aren’t secrets at all. In fact, you probably hear them all the time. A growing body of research shows that the most effective productivity “hacks” are actually the accumulated wisdom of humankind over the past 7,000 years or so. The same habits that have elevated individuals and societies since humans moved from small tribal hunter-gatherer groupings to the much more complex challenges of agricultural and urban living.

The future of productivity is the past

They’re often called the “seven virtues,” a set of habits that show up in virtually every complex civilization, sometimes under different terms, and sometimes in slightly different groupings. Aldous Huxley drew attention to these cross-cultural overlaps in The Perennial Philosophy. What are the seven virtues and what do they represent?

  • Prudence, encompassing common sense, reason, wisdom, good judgment, foresight, diligence, and discretion.
  • Justice, representing due process, honesty, integrity, law, right, and truth.
  • Temperance, or restraint, self-control, frugality, moderation, and humility.
  • Courage, comprising bravery, firmness, fortitude, grit, and determination.
  • Trust, or broadly, acceptance, belief, confidence, loyalty, and conviction.
  • Hope, which is aspiration, confidence, optimism, and a forward-looking perspective. 
  • Love, and the habits of commitment, affection, appreciation, friendship, and respect.

Those are some seriously old-fashioned-sounding words. We can perhaps bring them up-to-date by expressing them in the language of productivity advice: 

  • Work hard
  • Use common sense
  • Be fair
  • Demonstrate grit and determination
  • Trust and be trusted
  • Be hopeful
  • Maintain self-control
  • Invest in relationships

That is a reasonably brief list of life and career habits that is pertinent to a broad range of circumstances. But is there evidence that these productivity habits actually work? Put simply: yes.

Over the centuries and across cultures, a lot has been written about these behaviors, though often limited to philosophical, religious, cultural, or anthropological perspectives. Empirical research into their practical implications is relatively recent. 

One such research project is the World Values Survey, which allows us to measure the differences between national cultures and link those differences to national outcomes. There are many other sources of data on behaviors and virtues and their linkage to life outcomes such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, longitudinal studies such as The Lewis Terman Study, and national databanks from countries like Sweden and Iceland that maintain integrated databases on issues like health, income, sociology, and crime. 

The big picture is that these and other research projects support the idea that some of the best productivity advice is actually rather timeless.

What the data says about productivity

There is some real insight into productivity to be found by looking at…poverty. One finding that has been independently documented multiple times is a triple-package of personal behaviors that shield a person from poverty. Fewer than 2-4% of people who meet the following criteria end up in poverty:

  • Graduate high school, related directly to the habits of Courage, Prudence, Temperance, and Hope.
  • Get married, stay married, and don’t have children before marriage, related directly to Courage, Prudence, Temperance, Hope, Love, and Trust.
  • Stay employed, regardless of job quality, directly related to Courage, Prudence, Justice, and Temperance.

Looking at each of the “seven virtues” individually, here’s how the research plays out. Let’s start with Trust. Multiple studies have found a strong association between countries with high levels of trust and high levels of prosperity. The causal mechanisms are still being researched and debated, but it appears that cultures that foster trust reduce social and economic friction, thereby improving efficiency and increasing rates of innovation. 

Similarly, countries with strong Justice institutions, reflecting rule-of-law and due process, also have a strong correlation with higher levels of national and individual prosperity. The degree of self-control (Temperance) a person exhibits in childhood is a predictor of beneficial future life outcomes. Grit and time-discounting (Courage) are well-documented precursors of achievement. Hope is also strongly associated with positive life outcomes and is, in fact, an integral part of the placebo effect. Finally, Love (defined broadly as personal and social relationships) has also been demonstrated to be closely affiliated with positive life outcomes.  

In an era of rapid technological change, it is refreshing to see that wisdom dating back thousands of years retains such relevance in the equally-ages-old pursuit of productivity and prosperity.