Trying a new workflow can be as tumultuous as taking a chance on a new job. There’s a period of newness and excitement, followed by, “Hold on, maybe this isn’t as perfect as I thought,” and then the dreaded, “I kind of miss my old gig—did I make a mistake?”
At this point, you can either go back to the way things were, or keep going with the new opportunity. But remember: You were unhappy with the old process for a reason. If you forge on, you might just become that productivity powerhouse you’ve always dreamed of (because that’s what everyone dreams of, right?). Change always takes time.
To learn how to get to that efficiency happily ever after, let's dive into the science of adapting to a new workflow.
How Do You Know When It’s Time For A Change?
Science argues that even if processes are working moderately well, a new routine will still benefit you. Changing processes actually encourages you to think more creatively, as you are approaching a task with a completely different framework in mind.
What’s happening when you adapt new workflows is you are exercising your neuroplasticity, or your brain’s ability to form new connections between different areas of thought. Research has shown that neuroplasticity can be improved well into adulthood, but it requires dropping mundane or routine tasks in favor of new challenges.
So, even if you think you’re doing fine, it’s worth it to attempt something new for your brain’s sake.
To Jump In, Or Take It Slow?
There are a couple ways to try something new: You can take the “sink or swim” approach, like you’re diving into a pool, or you can take the “bit by bit” approach, as though you’re getting into a hot tub.
APQC, the world’s leading authority on business best practices, calls these approaches “re-engineering” and “overlayment,” respectively.
The “Don’t Automate, Obliterate” Approach
Re-engineering calls for swapping out your existing workflow with its replacement. In other words, one day you’re using your original method, the next day you’re diving right in on the new process. According to the APQC, companies who took this approach reported initial grumblings by some employees who were resistant to change, but found over time that the sweeping changes meant a more comprehensive adoption.
The “Take It Slow” Approach
Overlayment, on the other hand, requires that you use both methods at once. Let’s say you usually manage your time with the Pomodoro technique, but now you’re moving to GTD. Rather than immediately swapping out your timer for a notebook, you’d write down all the tasks you needed to get down (à la GTD), then tackle them in timed sprints (à la Pomodoro).
Which approach is better? Well, like usual, it depends. Research shows our brains build understanding over time: as we continue to learn about a topic, our brain stores those memories in new neurons and strengthens the link between existing neurons.
With that in mind, use the overlay approach when you’re taking on an extremely different or complex workflow—it’ll allow you to slowly but surely adjust until suddenly, everything clicks. But for relatively small changes, the re-engineering method is optimal, because you won’t need as much time to train your brain.
The “21-Day” Myth Of Habit Formation
You’ve heard it takes approximately three weeks to form a habit. So, when you reach the 21-day mark and your new process still feels strange and inefficient, you decide to end the experiment and go back to your previous workflow.
Makes sense—except the 21-day rule of habit formation is as real as Sasquatch.
According to a study carried out at University College London, it takes an average of 66 days to pick up a new behavior (and in effect, quash out the old one). However, this “66 days” stat is slightly misleading as well.
As psychologist Jeremy Dean points out in his book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick", the participants took vastly different amounts of time to form new habits depending on what those habits were. The people making small changes took less than 20 days to adapt, while those tackling major adjustments needed up to 254 days.
But fear not, you don’t need to allocate eight and half months to switching processes.
“The earlier repetitions produced the greatest gains toward establishing a habit,” Dean writes. “As time went on those gains were smaller. It’s like trying to run up a hill that starts out steep and slowly levels off.”
In other words, the first part is the hardest. If you focus your energy on making it past the adjustment period, you should be good.
How To Ease The Growing Pains
Although that adjustment period will always be somewhat tricky, there are a couple things you can do to make it easier.
First, write down the new process. Having the concrete steps listed out in front of you will cut down on the chance that you’ll skip a step or make a mistake; plus, scientists have discovered simply having a plan makes it easier to focus on the work itself. The more complex the new workflow is, the more detailed your plan should be.
Second, remind yourself why you’re switching. Brad Power, a researcher in process innovation, explains, “The pain of change must be less than the pain of not changing. Therefore, the pain of not changing must be clear.”
Maybe you’re tired of being chained to your inbox, so you decide to try “batching.” Every day, from 8 to 9 in the morning and 5 to 6 at night, you answer emails. But you’re constantly fighting the urge to check your messages—so, taking Power’s advice, you think about how inefficient it is to answer messages all day. This “note to self” gives you the motivation you need to stick to your new method.
Even with this knowledge, it's definitely not guaranteed every new workflow or process you implement will be perfect. After all, most of us need to date several people before we find the one. But at least the beginning stages will be much smoother.