Habits Versus Projects

Between working on my year of leveling up and reading up on habits, I have developed a theory:

There are two ways that anyone can accomplish something: by habit or by project.


Based on BJ Fogg’s theory (which I have personally found to be correct), if you want to make something a habit, it needs to be tiny (e.g. take five minutes or less to do) and needs to be paired with an already-existing habit.

An example is wanting to eat more fruit. All you have to do is buy some fresh fruit or fruit cups and then leave yourself a note on the fridge reminding you to eat it with your breakfast (the already established habit).

Supposedly, you can work on establishing up to 3 of these habits at a time, but individual mileage may vary.

The “21 days to a new habit” mantra is bunk. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits, the author cites an actual study that found that simple habits, like eating more fruit or drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning might take less than 21 days to establish, but more ambitious habits, like exercising 30 minutes a day, could take upwards of a year to establish.

A five minute habit tied to an existing habit is on the very low end of the scale, meaning it would probably take less than 21 days to establish, but since people find it easier to think in chunks of time (and since some people will take longer than average), a good rule of thumb is that you can establish a 5 minute habit in a month.

Once you’ve established your habit (or your three habits), you can take up 1-3 more the next month. And 1-3 more the month after that. If you find yourself forgetting your habit when you remove your reminders or work on building new habits, it’s not automatic yet and you need to give yourself another month.

Something may occasionally break your habits—a prolonged illness or job loss may completely change your daily routine and take away the habits that acted as triggers for your other habits—but you can reestablish them in a month if you just pair them with a current habit.

In other words, habits can be built up, one on top of another. That’s because a habit doesn’t require much in the way of thought; it’s not something that requires you to make a choice. For instance, I take the same route to and from work every day. Most of the time I’m driving, I’m lost in my thoughts and I’m doing everything automatically with only a little bit of observation by my conscious brain. But if I have to take an alternate route home to avoid traffic, then my all of my attention stays focused on where I am and what I’m doing because I don’t take an alternate way home often enough to be comfortable with it. (This is also why it can be hard to remember to stop on the way home and pick up groceries or a prescription, etc. That part of your brain gets shut off when you’re operating on habit.)


In short, a project is something that takes longer than 5 minutes and/or can’t be paired with something that’s already an established habit.

I have also found projects have two sad realities: I (and probably you, too) can only do one project at a time, and secondly, they don’t stack. Meaning when you take up a new project, the old one will automatically stop.

No matter how many times I have tried to keep one project going while starting a new one, I invariably (and quickly) drop one.

This has nothing to do with time. I can plan out my schedule to the minute and have more than enough time to work on both projects. Maybe even a third!

But I end up doing only one. Why?

We understand physical fatigue, but almost no one really understands mental fatigue. You intuitively know it exists—after a stressful day at work, all you want to do is veg on the couch and then go to bed—but it’s not something we really think about or talk about.

But scientists are starting to quantify things like “decision fatigue.” Whereas we used to say some people have no willpower, we now recognize that everyone has a limited amount of mental energy and every time we have to make a decision, it saps a little bit of that energy. That’s why people tend to blow their diets a few hours after dinner; they have spent up all of their mental energy and their ability to make decisions for the day, so the habit of having a late-night snack wins out over the decision to not eat.

When you start a project, it demands your focus because everything you are doing is new and unexpected. It’s like taking a different route home. If you try to do more than one project at a time, you will not have enough mental energy to focus completely on both projects. So you will either naturally drop one or you will feel unhappy because you think you are not doing a good job with either—even if you are spending all of your allotted time on both. Spending time on something doesn’t equal doing a good job. For the later, you need the focus, which, like time, is something you only have a limited amount of.

So projects need to be something that has a finite life or a deadline. Your project may be to write a book. Put all of your mental energy into writing a book. When it’s done, then you can move on to something else. Or you may want to lose some weight before your wedding or class reunion; exercising more and eating less becomes your focus until the deadline.

But, wait, shouldn’t exercise and healthy eating be part of our lifestyle—something we do all the time?

Yes, but people seem to fail at making those changes permanent. I think that’s because health regimens are treated like projects instead of like habits. So, when the time comes that someone wants to do something other than count calories and go to the gym every day, then the entire thing falls apart relatively quickly. If you don’t have focus, you don’t have a project. You don’t even have a few parts of it; it all falls apart, like a house of cards. If your project is finite, then it’s okay if everything supporting it goes away when it’s done. If not, then your project, at best, will come to a standstill; at worst, any progress you’ve made will decay pretty quickly.

Enough Habits Can Make a Life Change

So what’s a person to do if they want to make a lifestyle change and lose weight (and keep it off), or read more, or play an instrument regularly, or become fluent in a foreign language, etc.? Those are all things that have no completion date because we want to keep them going, in some form or another, permanently.

Well, if they can’t be projects, then they have to be habits. That means adding them to your existing schedule at a rate of 1-3 per month and doing them for 5 minutes at a time. (It also means that if you do more than one habit, they can’t be the same thing; one can be food-related, one exercise-related, one learning-related, etc., but not all of them can be exercise-related or that causes project-think to creep in.)

I’ve been working on making Spanish lessons a 5 minute habit that I do at the beginning of my lunch hour. (I have a reminder set up on my computer to remind me to do it.) In 5 minutes, I’m able to do a new lesson and refresh an old one, so I am both maintaining what I know and making forward progress every day.

I’ve also been taking the stairs every morning. I have to get to the 4th floor regardless of the method, and I already park near the back door so I have to walk past the stairs to get to either set of elevators. (I actually changed my parking habit several years ago so that I could make taking the stairs easier.) That makes it pretty easy to establish the habit of taking the stairs.

If I wanted to be even more serious about language-learning, I could do a lesson before/during breakfast and dinner, too, so that every time I eat, I automatically start learning Spanish. If I want to be more serious about exercising, I could just get in the habit of parking farther away, or walking a loop around the parking lot at lunch, or doing a set of stairs when I take my mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. If I wanted to eat better, then I might make adding a piece of fruit to my breakfast a habit. Or I might add a vegetable to dinner. Or replace my evening ice cream habit with something less sugary/fattening, such as switching to cookies, then switching the cookies to honey-roasted nuts or kettlecorn, then from that to something that’s not sweet at all, then hopefully I’ll drop the snacking all together (since I’m not naturally a snacker—just a sugar fiend).

(Note: When you want to get rid of a bad habit, it’s generally better to replace it with a less-bad habit, then replace that with something better, and so forth until you’ve changed your bad habit into a positive one. Going cold turkey and stopping all together is not often successful. That’s why people who give up smoking turn to chewing gum; instead of sticking a cigarette in their mouth, they stick gum in it and that keeps their mouth busy. People who make exercise stick don’t give up watching TV; they find a way to exercise while watching TV. Etc.)

The benefit of making things habits is that they do become a lifestyle change and they’re not easily lost, unlike when you stop working on a project. The drawback, though, is they don’t give you instant gratification. If it takes you 6 months to work up to getting 30 minutes of exercise daily, bringing your lunch daily (instead of eating fast food), and eating fruit and vegetables with every meal, then it’s probably going to be 6 months before you notice some weight coming off. But people want the instant gratification of losing a few pounds the first week and a pound or two every week thereafter. Or they want to be able to have a conversation with their Mexican waiter a week after doing a bunch of language lessons.

But the day will come when people stop focusing on those things and they will lose all the benefits that they so quickly accumulated. And the more rapidly they accumulated the benefits, the more quickly they tend to lose them. We all know that cramming for a test means putting information into your head very temporarily; once you have used it, it disappears. Rapid weight loss, language crash courses, etc. are just different forms of cramming.

Speaking of self-improvement projects . . .

Leveling Up Check-In

It’s been a about a month and a half since I started working on my year of leveling up. So, how’s it been going?

Well, so far, it’s led to the revelation that I can only have one project at a time. So I either need to turn things into habits or plan on them being finite in scope.

But that’s okay, since my plans more or less fell into one camp or the other; I just need to do a bit of tweaking in how I think about doing things and how I plan to do them.

Strength: My goal was to do one physical activity a day. This was easy to turn into a 5 minute habit. I’ve been taking the stairs at work in the morning. On the weekends, it can be more hit or miss. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of yard work, including digging up and carrying rock, digging holes, shoveling gravel, making paths, etc. That will end soon, though, as the weather is getting too cold to allow me to work outside comfortably. But I will start doing more inside the house, so it should balance out.

Suffice to say, I’m content with taking the stairs 5 days a week and not worrying about the weekend, since that will take care of itself most of the time anyway.

Once the holidays are out of the way, I plan on adding to this.

Constitution (Endurance): My goal for this category was to spend time unpacking, decluttering, and cleaning for 1-2 hours a week. (And by “week,” I mean weekend.) That’s not been happening. I have been putting all of my physical and mental energy into working outside. It’s good that the outside is improving, but the inside needs work too. But with the weather turning colder, my outdoor days are drawing to a close, so I plan to focus on the inside of the house instead. At least in December. After that, we have our big March event to prepare for, which means a lot of sewing, packing, and making things. So the house is going to be on its own. When we get back, I’ll be back outside for the spring planting and other yard work. I’ll come back to the inside of the house around the end of May or June, when it gets too hot to work outside.

Long story short, this needs to be about unpacking and getting everything organized, not about cleaning, because unpacking and organizing is a project that has an end. The cleaning will have to be reduced to 5 minute habits here and there.

Dexterity: This was all about the garden. My goal was to plant one bed. I have the bed prepped, and my plants chosen, and a diagram drawn up of where I want them, how many I need, etc. All I need to do now is wait until spring (and hope the drought breaks).

I’ve actually enjoyed being outside so much, I’ve gotten ahead of the one-bed plan and I have started working on a second bed and general outdoor improvement project.

Intelligence: This has a finite goal: publish Flames of Prague. I have okayed the print proof, but I still haven’t finished the conversion to ebook yet. I need to suck it up and pencil this in as my project for one month. That’s all it will take to get it done and crossed off my list.

Wisdom: My goal here was to go to synagogue once a month and finish my prayer book. The prayer book is a project that will take a month or less. Going to synagogue is one of those rare things that is too infrequent to be a habit (unless you do it, say, the first weekend every month, but my schedule doesn’t allow for that kind of firm commitment), but it’s too short to be a habit. So I will just pencil it into my schedule like an appointment. I missed November, but plan on taking care of December this weekend. So we’ll see how this progresses over the course of the year. I may need to find a better approach.

Charisma: This is my daily Spanish practice. I’ve been slacking for over a month now. In September it was my project for the month, so it was all I thought about. When I got a new project (gardening), Spanish went into the tank—despite the fact that I only did it 5-10 minutes a day. Hence why it’s important to tie a habit to an existing routine.

I have set up reminders on my work computer to ping me at lunch, so I spend the first 5 minutes of my lunch hour doing my Spanish lesson.

I have also abandoned working with the Memrise flashcards for the time being. While they have benefits, I think part of the reason why I quit working on my lessons is that they’re more boring than Duolingo. I’ve decided that I’m just going to trust the process and go with Duolingo only.


What to Do When You’re too Creative

I have been slowly coming to the realization that this is my life. I feel pulled in too many directions; there’s too much on my plate; there are things I’ve been meaning to do for ages, but never seem to have the time and/or energy to do it.

I sat down one day and accounted for my time. I found that I have 2.5 non-consecutive hours per weekday for working on projects and relaxing/ having fun, plus two weekend days.

Then I made another list of things which I am trying to get done or would like to get done. I had fifteen items on my list. And that doesn’t count the fact that one of those items–medieval re-enacting–has many sub-hobbies, such as sewing, embroidery, weaving, spinning, illumination, basketweaving, shoe-making, etc. If I were to count up all the sub-hobbies that I do or want to do, my project list would nearly double.

Is it any wonder, then, that there has been dirt and containers sitting on my porch for a year because I never got around to gardening last year? Is it any wonder that when I started seedlings last year, I neglected them and they died and I never replanted? Is it surprising that I started a costuming experiment (and, if successful, I would like to publish a research paper on it) but I put it aside when it was only half-completed and I still haven’t finished it 3 (or has it been 4?) years later? Or that I have a large embroidery project about 1/4th complete and sitting in a frame in my living room, collecting dust?

Even more embarrassing is that all I need to do on my first book are some grammar and typo corrections. When I have those done, I can send it to a publisher. Yet I’ve barely completed any of them and it’s probably been close to a year since I started. My second book needs its first round of edits (I think of these as serious edits, where entire scenes and even parts of the plot may be changed), but I’ve not worked on it in quite a while. I’ve made no progress on my third book either. And my romance book needs its first round of edits, then a round of typo edits so I can send it to a publisher.

I think this is probably true for a lot of creative types. We don’t get a great idea or want to learn a new skill–we have a lot of ideas and want to do a lot things. I know when I’m in a creative mood–and this was true of me even when I was a child making crafts to sell–I come up with ideas faster than I can implement them–each better than the last. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I can’t type it fast enough. Woe be to me if I’m somewhere where I can’t immediately write down a new idea in my head; if I wait, I’ll lose it. (This is, incidentally, why I write my stories out of order; I have to write what’s on my mind and figure out a way to connect the pieces later.)

Judaism talks about the fact that there are two forces in the world which are ultimately represented by male and female (this concept is also found Taoism–as most commonly illustrated by the yin-yang symbol). One force, which is male, is creative and contains unlimited potential. Men make millions of sperm, any one of which–or all of them–can become a child. The female force, however, is limiting action. A woman’s ovary only produces a single egg per cycle and she’s born with a limited number of eggs. But once the child is conceived, she builds it into a human being.

Male = potential, but also procrastination and incompleteness
Female = action and completion, but also limitation and stagnation

If you look at a yin-yang, there is no hard dividing line between the two opposites; they’re supposed to flow gently in and out of each other. Also, a solid kernel of each must reside in the other.

My problem is that I’ve been too yang lately; I’m not in balance. I’m constantly coming up with ideas for projects–even starting some of them–but finishing next to none of them. That’s why I have to give up some of my hobbies/projects to work on others. As the old saying goes, something has to give.

Blogger/Writer Scott Young mentions in a post that he has the same problem:

My old notebooks are filled of half-started ideas, vague projects and uncompleted dreams. It took me awhile to realize that this enthusiasm was great, but unless I was able to direct and focus it, my ideas would forever remain inside my head.

What changed was that I realized being a quick starter and rare finisher is just another form of debilitating perfectionism. Instead of sticking through the practical realities of my goals, I wanted to start again, where every idea was perfect in conception.

Once I realized that finishing, not starting, was the key, I started putting emphasis on it. I’d finish projects that had flaws, just because I had committed to finishing them. I’d try to make my existing path work instead of finding a new one. I’d start less, because I took my commitments to start more seriously.

Sound familiar?

He goes on to an interesting idea. He essentially separates experiments from commitments. What’s the difference? My understanding of the concept is that an experiment is something you do for fun–something you just try. In short, you have no goal. For instance, I took a class on basketweaving and later bought myself a kit to make a basket. I need to be realistic: while I enjoy basketweaving–and it’s great to have a basic knowledge of the skill, in case, you know, I ever live through the apocalypse and I need to make myself baskets to aid me in my fetching and toting of foodstuffs–I don’t want to become a professional basketweaver. I don’t even want to make it my primary hobby. I just want to learn the basics and then be done with it.

However, I do want to be a professional writer. That’s my goal, and I need to do work which will help me reach (and retain) that goal.

That’s the difference between an experiment and a commitment: one is generally short-term, one is generally long term; one is for fun and has no real goal, but the other is serious and has a goal which needs to be obtained; one you try out, to see if you like it, but the other you commit to finishing.

Once you have identified what you actually want to accomplish versus that which just seems like something fun which you might like to do, then what? My thought is that you need to limit both, but much more so the experiments. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do any experiments–you should–but I think one at a time is plenty. Do one and do it until you’re bored with it or find something you’d like to do better. Then, instead of telling yourself you’ll do both, drop the first thing and move on.

You can handle more commitments, but how many depends on how much time you have. I’m thinking one commitment per 8 hours of free time. I have roughly four 8-hour periods per week. So which four commitments will I undertake? (Remember, this is down from a list of 15+!)

  1. Conversion. I am going to spend the next year working with a rabbi to convert. This means reading and writing assignments, plus meetings and synagogue attendance weekly. If I also throw in a little Hebrew study on my Sabbaths, boom, there’s one 8-hour period filled up. Needless to say, my goal is to become a Jew and to read a portion of Torah.
  2. Home Improvements. As finances allow, I want to do some redecorating–namely I want to faux plaster and paint our paneled walls. This will cover a multitude of sins–like cat-scratches–and get us out of freaking 1986. (I think this will also make us enjoy our home more; when something is ugly to you, you can hardly appreciate it.) My goal is to redo the bedroom and the kitchen over the next year. This, along with general home upkeep (i.e. cleaning) will take up my Sundays.
  3. Writing. This also includes blogging, marketing, and publishing. I do this mostly in the evenings after work. My goal this year is to 1) finish the edits on my first book and submit it to a publisher; 2) finish the edits on my romance novel and submit it to a publisher; 3) publish 2 more short stories. Notice my goals are about finishing my work; I never lack for energy to start it.
  4. Exercise. The only way I lose weight is if I exercise. Walking a half-mile every once in a while or doing yoga on the Wii once a week is not sufficient. My ass needs to be out of the bed every morning and doing 20-30 minutes of something 7 days a week. Plus, I need to leave the house early so I can park 1/2 mile from work and walk the rest of the way. Being outside twice a day has the added bonus of getting me some Vitamin D, plus I do some good thinking while I’m walking. My goal for this year is to be able to touch my toes and do a real/full push-up (you may laugh, but unless you’re a gym rat, you likely can’t do them either; if you don’t work on your strength and flexibility regularly, you lose both).

My experiment for the year is gardening. As soon as I get back from vacation next week, I’m going to start some seedlings and plant some things. And when funds allow, I also want to turn the section of our backyard known as the “Lawnmower Death Strip” into a rock garden (so we never have to attempt to mow or weedeat it again). If I kill my garden, I don’t like doing it, don’t do it at all, etc. then I will forever abandon the idea of one day turning our 5 acres into a self-sustaining mini-farm or a thing of landscaped beauty and I will give away my containers and dirt. So, worst-case scenario, come October I will be rid of buckets and dirt sitting on our porch. At best, I will like gardening and eating what I produce, so it will become a yearly commitment.

Everything that’s not part of one of those goals is going to be suspended. I am going to shelve my sewing machines and clear off my sewing table (which is really a junk table right now, there are so many unfinished projects on it) so I can use it to pursue one of my goals. (Imagine being able to sit down at a clear table and draft story outlines, gardening plans, or read!)

Now it’s time to evaluate your life and:

  1. Find out how much free time you really have. When I figured my time, I subtracted time spent sleeping, eating, bathing/grooming, working, and commuting from 24 hours. These are the things that I do everyday, 5-7 days a week, all year long. You may need to subtract hours for watching television, reading, playing on the computer or anything else that you do religiously and/or can’t do without.
  2. Figure out how many 8 hour blocks of time you have available to you. If you have a partial day, you may want to round up so you can do another commitment, or you may want to round down and give yourself some down time. If you have a very small chunk of time, you may want to go back up to #1 and see if you’ve allotted time daily for something (like TV watching) that you might be willing to give up in order to do something else.
  3. Pick one commitment to do per 8-hour block of time, plus add on one experiment. Whatever is not on your to-do list, don’t do it.

What if your problem is not having too much to do but not doing anything at all? (I.e. you’re stagnating or feel bored with life.) This list works for you, too, only instead of narrowing your focus, fill up your time. At least do an experiment (everyone should do an experiment; it’s what keeps life interesting).

If you’re feeling constantly stressed, have health issues, or are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then don’t take on the maximum number of commitments. Leave time open to just relax. Veg in front of the TV or with a book; nap; spend time alone in a park or quiet place. Sometimes your “commitment” has to be to your health and sanity.

The other benefit to defining (and limiting) your commitments and setting goals is that there is suddenly no room for anything else. If you are a person who constantly says “yes,” making a list (and putting it where you can see it regularly!) will help you say, “no.” If you are asked to chair some committee or lead some project, or bake cookies for the entire school, you can just consult your list of commitments–if that sort of volunteer is not on your list, then just say “no.”

My list is a year-long list because it’s going to take me a year to accomplish #1 and #2. I’m hoping to make exercise an integral and habitual part of my day, so next year–when I sit down and do all of this again–it will be a line item on my day, just like sleeping and eating. There’s also the hope than in a few years my writing will become my full-time job, so I’ll be doing it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and I will free that slot for something else.

I suppose you could make your list for less than a year–namely if your commitments are short in duration. If you are the type of person who seems to live life on fast forward, you may take on one experiment and/or one commitment per month, two months, or quarterly. If you have more leisure time than the average American, you may reach goals in 6 months that would take others a year to do. So there’s some flexibility, but do remember this is not about setting short-term goals but things which require a lot of time and effort.