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.

Habits

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.)

Projects

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.

 

Sustaining Productivity

I have mentioned on here before that Scott H. Young is one of those go-getter, bootstrapping entrepreneurs that I admire (and wish to emulate).

He’s always challenging himself (and, unlike me, seems to complete his goals more often) and makes it look easy. But he had this to say recently in one of his newsletters:

Q: How do you sustain your productivity for weeks or months at a time?
 We’ve all experienced it–you’ll get motivated, finish tons of work and then a week or two later, you’re back to feeling lazy again. What gives?
 
I struggled with this problem for a long time. I would have surges of motivation, followed by long crashes where I didn’t get much done. After each, I wasn’t sure what had gone wrong.
 
Now I realize that productivity is best seen like the ebb and flow of a tide. Surges of motivation followed by slower periods. You can extend the surges for a bit, but there always comes an ebb at the end. The secret is to not fight the cycles, but to ride them out.
 
As a result, I’ll try to switch gears every 4-6 weeks. For a burst, I’ll be intensely work focused, getting as much done as possible and pushing ahead aggressively. During the MIT Challenge, I sustained this for the first three months, working around 60 hours per week.
 
However, I also balance that by allowing myself to settle into a routine for a period of time and let the habits I’ve built work on autopilot. During the months following, I worked less (more like 40 hours) but I got almost the same amount done and had almost no stress. I didn’t try to force myself to work harder, but I let the down tempo last for a few weeks before I started up again.
 
Anticipating and riding these rhythms isn’t easy, and I haven’t mastered it myself. But I’ve found it’s a more sensible strategy than trying to be 100% on at all times (or to pretend that you can keep everything in perfect equilibrium).
 
 
Make your learning routine a habit.
 
That means set aside a certain amount of time, every day, at the same time each day, for your learning goal. Even if it’s only twenty minutes in the morning.
 
If there’s any activity you want to sustain, but tends to get neglected, this strategy works well. Be extremely consistent when setting it up for the first month and then it will just become part of your life. Your time and energy will adjust to the new routine after a few weeks until you don’t notice any difference.
 
The other strategy–to use willpower perpetually to motivate your learning–is exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. Without setting your learning as a habit, it will always be drowned out by noisier and more urgent occupations.
Banging out a story during NaNo is thrilling (if hectic), but when November is over, do you keep working on what you’ve done, or do you go back to life and the routines you interrupted for a month, leaving your fledgling story to wallow in neglect in some file?
 
I think Scott is right that the key is to keep at it (whatever “it” is–in our case, writing) after the initial thrill is gone, albeit it at a greatly reduced rate. That might mean writing for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week post-NaNo, rather than writing for a couple of hours 7 days a week, as you might do in November. That way, you’re always making forward progress, and when you have more time or more motivation, you can put on an extra burst of effort. Professional writers all seem to agree that you need to write every day, even if you aren’t inspired. (In my novella, The Widow, the male lead is a painter, and he adheres to this idea: when he is not feeling inspired to paint , can’t come up with a new idea, etc., he paints Bob Ross landscapes until he gets out of his funk.)
 
Now that I’m starting to settle into my new job and apartment, I’m looking to establish a routine that will help me get my miscellaneous stuff done: sewing projects, procrastiantion projects, proofreading The Flames of Prague, plus some time to write new things and more Bloodsuckers. I’m thinking I might devote one hour per evening (more if I want to) to getting these things done.
 
  • Monday: Sewing (I also have medieval meetings two Mondays per week, and I can do hand-sewing while I’m at the meeting, thus multi-tasking.)
  • Tuesday: Proofing The Flames of Prague
  • Wednesday: Anti-Procrastination Day (this is for finishing up all the things that have been languishing forever–like my illumination, drafting my Last Will and Testament, various jewelry and craft projects, blog post series that I haven’t had time to finish (yes, I’m talking about you Medieval Monday), etc.)
  • Thursday: Write The Bloodsuckers
  • Friday: Date night w/ hubby
  • Saturday: Synagogue and/or packing
  • Sunday: Packing, cleaning, and/or moving; drive back to Chattanooga
 
That’s the plan, anyways. As my husband says, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” so I’ll check back in in a month or so to let you know how my various projects are going.
 
Do you have something you want/need to accomplish? What’s your game plan for making it a routine/habit?