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.


Mental Energy vs. Physical Energy

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about laziness.

I’ve been accused of laziness on more than one occasion in my lifetime. And when I don’t accomplish my goals (which all involve physical exertion–like cleaning house), I mentally berate myself for my laziness.

Yet, when I examine what I do on a “lazy” day, I begin to question the assumption that I’m lazy. I don’t spend much time playing games or watching TV or movies. These days, when I read, it’s either to study the way other people write in my genre, or research for a writing project, or it’s to improve me mentally and/or spiritually. I don’t spend a lot of time on the internet when I’m at home because we only have dial-up, and it’s annoyingly slow; if I’m online, it’s specifically to do research or something else which needs to be done at that moment.

I spend most of my free time working on my writing. With my publication deadline looming, I’m trying to finish up my edits and formatting, I had to make my cover, and I’m still debating the blurb for the back cover. Plus I’m trying to market my blog ahead of my book’s publication in order to generate some interest in it. So I am spending a lot of time studying blog marketing (A-List Blogging Bootcamp has some really good information for free), checking out other people’s sites, and trying to improve my site. Oh, and I’m also working on building my website and I’m moving information from here to the new site.

I do a lot–it’s just not physical work.

Coming to that realization has made me think that perhaps all people have two types of energy–mental and physical–and they’re not interchangeable.

Mental vs. Physical

Think about people who are introverted versus extroverted. You can try to force yourself to be your opposite, but you will be unhappy doing do, and the longer you do it, the more likely you are to end up depressed. (Susan Cain has an excellent 20 minute lecture on why it’s okay to be an introvert.)

Some people have excessive amounts of physical energy. They’re known as “hyperactive.” Some people (like me) have excessive amounts of mental energy. We tend to be called “lazy.” Most everyone else has a balance between the two (“average”), although some people have excessive amounts of both (Benjamin Franklin comes to mind); these people with endless ideas and the energy to accomplish them are called “geniuses.” (Of course, it’s possible to be a genius with only one type of energy, but most of the people who truly become epic and go down in history have huge amounts of both.)

I think the number of people who have almost unlimited amounts of both physical and mental energy are a rarity. And yet, I think our society (American, in particular), expects everyone to strive for that ideal.

Do All the Things!

Take, for instance, Ivy League colleges. You are not only expected to have perfect grades (which require a lot of mental energy to achieve), but you’re also expected to play a sport, and/or a musical instrument, and/or do volunteer work or otherwise be active in your community (which requires a lot of physical energy). In short, they require you to have lots of energy to do very opposite things: sit and think, and be on your feet and busy. Is it any wonder that so many kids, when pressured into doing both, rebel, get addicted to drugs, have nervous breakdowns, or commit suicide?

Even when parents aren’t aiming for Ivy League, many kids find themselves pressed into sports when they’d just as soon sit on the sidelines and read for fun. We want our children to be “well-rounded,” never giving any consideration to the fact that they may not be cut-out for sports (or higher education).

What if we thought of our energy type as a personality type–something which really can’t be altered? What if we identified this in children before high school and shaped their educations and extra-curricular activities appropriately? What if we stopped medicating hyper children and stopped shaming the “lazy” ones–in short, stopped trying to force people into a balance which doesn’t naturally exist in them–and instead worked with it?

Work With, Not Against

Here’s a crazy idea: divide the class into hyper and sedentary children. (Children who are somewhere in the middle can choose where they want to go, can be rotated between the two, or there can be a third group for them. Most schools have multiple classes per grade level, so restructuring the kids in the classes shouldn’t be a problem or cost money.)

For the hyper children, they start their day off with sports; the sedentary children start with lessons. Once the hyper children have some of their physical energy drained off, they can come in and have lessons. Another break for sports/gym/outside playtime will be necessary in the afternoon. The sedentary children will get the minimum amount of daily physical activity after lunch (yoga, tai chi, or other activities which are done slowly and individually should be preferred over things like kickball or running), then they go back to study. They can spend their late afternoon (while the hyper children are still learning lessons) in activities like chess club, debate club,independent reading, etc.

Imagine high school where hyper teens spend more time learning those subjects which are more likely to be a benefit to their future careers such as science–with a focus on invention rather than long-term research–technology (again, focusing on innovation rather than something sedentary and tedious like programming), business, government, communications, performance art, and trades (like carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, farming, etc.). Teens who like to spend their time reading and thinking would have more time in static arts, music, literature, scientific research, computer programming, etc.

How much less wailing and gnashing of teeth would there be if parents stopped trying to make their hyper child sit down and have piano lessons and didn’t push their bookworm to play football?

Telling people to find an area and concentrate in it might sound odd coming from me, the aspiring polymath, but there’s a difference between knowing things and doing things. I am fascinated with frontier/self-sufficient skills: gardening, raising chickens, cooking from scratch, making everything by hand, etc., but while I like to read about these things and admire the people who do them, I’ve never managed to muster the physical energy required to do them–just like I like a clean house, but I hate doing anything remotely related to cleaning. But I spent about 2.5 months sewing something like 14,000 beads onto my wedding dress, one at a time. Can you imagine a physically-active person sitting down to do that?


The simple truth of the matter is that I’m a chair jockey. I conquer all things which require much ass time. And when I have a story or idea in my head, I’m mentally hyper; I have trouble concentrating on other tasks until I complete my idea. Sometimes it feels like my brain is just brimming-full and I have to spend time siphoning things off of it. To hell with mopping the kitchen floor. I can no more stand to waste time doing some physical labor that than a hyper person–who is feeling full of pep–can sit down for a 3 hour lecture  on global economics. (Okay, so I don’t know anyone who would want to sit through that, but you get the idea.)

That isn’t to say I never get off my ass and do stuff. I have had some legendary marathon cleaning sessions–even entire cleaning weekends!–where I’m full of physical energy and have to get it out reorganizing the entire garage. Of course, I’m sure there are hyper people who can recall the time they sat peacefully through a 3-hour movie or managed to write an entire term paper all in one sitting. It’s not that these tasks are physically impossible, it’s just that the energy to do them is lacking most of the time.

So, I think the best thing for me is to throw all of my energy into writing and long for the day when I will make enough money writing that I can hire someone to come clean my house.