Hygiene is a productivity issue. Seriously.

My mom was a nurse and before that a baker, so when me and my three siblings were growing up she was anal about hygiene. Every task began with washing your hands, and every task ended with washing your hands. I suppose trying to keep four grubby-handed kids clean in the middle of a dusty ranch, she probably erred a little on the side of overkill.

And even today, when I walk into the kitchen I wash my hands. And when I come in from outside, I wash my hands. It might have started as a way to prevent cross-contamination, but for me, it’s just what I do to signal to myself the transition from one (physical) task to another. Maybe this is what it takes for me to establish a habit — years of someone shouting “Did you wash your hands?”

But when it comes to other things, I have difficulty establishing these kind of clear-cut boundaries, sometimes called “task hygiene.”

For instance, just as I’m typing this, I have the impulse to check and see if the credit card website that wouldn’t let me log in yesterday will let me log in now. I’m sitting next to a pile of unfiled receipts and a stack of un-thrown-out mail.

There was nothing preventing me from filing or throwing those things of my desk, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t just jot down a note to myself to check on the MasterCard account later. But I didn’t and I don’t. Why? Why is good productivity hygiene hard to maintain?

Similar to the concept of “task hygiene” (where you execute one task wholly and completely before moving onto the next) is the concept of “clear to neutral.”

Clear to neutral is where, after a task or at the end of the day, you take your workspace back to a neutral, could-do-anything state. And again, it’s weird, I have ZERO trouble, for instance, setting up coffee for the morning or picking out my clothes or having the car packed and ready to go (Thanks for that habit too, Mom!) but the idea of “putting away” everything on my desk, and especially within my computer does not seem to register in the same way.

[Tweet “Do you prefer to anticipate or complete tasks more? This affects how you get them done”]

And maybe it’s a personality thing. Maybe I prefer to anticipate more than complete. My husband goes the other direction. He loves to finish things. But on the other hand, he was taking wraps for lunch for something like 4 months before he struck upon the idea of creating the whole week’s wraps at once. I think he just quickly got into the habit of building a wrap every morning and it didn’t occur to him to change it up.

So working on this anticipation/completion rubric, depending on which way you tip, there’s no reason why you (I) couldn’t switch the emphasis from one side to the other. So for instance, I wouldn’t be “cleaning up” my desk at the end of the day. I would be “getting it ready” for the morning. Is this a stupid distinction? Maybe. But maybe it is a necessary one to put the emphasis where it will be most motivating.

So what motivates you?

Figure it out, and you’ll be that much closer to getting the things done that you want to see done.