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.

 

Update on “The List”

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been battling procrastination with the aid a reasonable task list. So how’s the experiment coming?

Some win, some not-so-win.

Win:

Not me, but my boxes look like that... minus the shelves.

I have accomplished a lot at work. I managed to catch up all the filing (two banker’s boxes full of papers which had to be integrated into 40 other storage boxes full of files). I finished cleaning out an old office, stored the old files, reclaimed some office supplies, and threw away a full trash can and a bit of recycling and part of a can of regular trash. I’ve caught up the billing and file-making. This office is looking s-h-a-r-p.

In fact, I’ve pretty much done everything I can do which is outside my usual, daily work; no more low-priority, time-consuming, boring projects hanging out in the background.

Not-so-win:

The List becomes less effective the longer you use it. It’s gotten to point that I write things down, but will ignore some of the tasks, not caring whether I get them done or not. This was especially true on the weekends (I was better about sticking to the list at work, where there are fewer distractions and I’m, you know, actually supposed to work. When I’m working for myself, pfft, I’ll blow things off.)

I suppose for some people (maybe people who are a bit compulsive) they might not get list-fatigue, but I have never been one to keep a list or a schedule or anything like that long-term. I thought that was because I was being unrealistic, but it’s probably because I’m creative and don’t like to have everything in my day planned; it allows for flexibility, in case I get in the mood to do something else. (This is the same reason why I won’t plan what I’m going to eat for dinner more than one day in advance; when I wake up, I decide what I’m in the mood for that day.)

So, I think instead of making a list every day, I need to save it for emergencies–those times when I really need to buckle down and either tackle a long-term, tedious, boring task, or I have a pile of stuff which I really need to do. Interestingly, that is the way I used to make lists. Prior to the end of the term in college, I always ended up making a list of things I had to get done before I could leave for the holidays. It ran the gamut from turning in term papers and taking exams to putting out the trash and stopping my mail. While not everything on the list got done (because I always put too much on the list and/or waited until late to start), all of the most important stuff always got done in a rush of activity that Karen Kingston calls “a white tornado.”

And, I admit, I loved the thrill and the adrenaline rush. Doing a lot of things at once makes me feel really accomplished; doing the same amount of work over a long period of time (i.e. a little bit every day) does not make me feel accomplished and does not give me a rush.

Are we starting to see why I procrastinate?

On a slightly different, but somewhat related note, is this blog post about new research showing that the longer people make decisions, the worse their decisions become (or they more they procrastinate and don’t make them). I believe they’re talking specifically about the decisions we make over the course of a day, but I believe that this probably holds true for people who make decisions day in, and day out (CEOs, judges, teachers, etc.). That’s why some countries/corporations/schools recognize the need for people to take a sabbatical; it keeps them from becoming permanently burned-out.

But, back to decision making on a daily basis. If you are aware of the fact that you tend to make worse decisions as the day gets longer (or, in my case, the procrastination level goes higher), then you can structure your day to account for it. Schedule meetings where you need to plan or make decisions for the morning. Team meetings should also be in the mornings, so the entire group isn’t making bad decisions (or making none at all). Negotiations, court cases, mediation and similar should be scheduled for the morning whenever possible. Save your afternoons for mindless tasks: filing, paying bills, handling e-mails and phone calls which do not require decisions. In fact, if you structure your day this way, you can spend your last hour getting your filing and piddly work caught up so you start the next day with a clean desk. Theoretically.

Procrastination Update Delivered On Time!

I had an ugly task on my list today: drafting a long, annoying document, printing 19 copies, and mailing all of them out.

I broke it down into three tasks and then filled up the rest of my day with less annoying tasks. I came into work resolved to knock out my annoying tasks this morning (because I have better concentration and stamina in the morning), and while it went into the early afternoon (namely because I had to stop and do an emergency task in the middle of it, and, oh, my copier jammed several times while printing all of it), I got it done, then I promptly kicked the rest of the list’s ass. Inbox: caught up completely. Tomorrow is a day of filing and billing.

The list on the weekend is not working as well as the list at work, though. I put 10 things on my Sunday list and got 5 done, plus did a couple of other things which were not on the list but which were chores that needed to be done (so we’ll say 7). Saturday was a jammed-pack day, with religious service, a holiday party, cooking for said party, 4 hours total spent in the car traveling to various destinations, etc. While we didn’t get home late, both my husband and I were so tired that we went to bed immediately and slept very late.

So I should hardly find it surprising that I was less than enthusiastic about spending my one day off (my one day when I didn’t have to set the alarm clock) doing a lot of cleaning.

I still got enough cleaning done that, overall, progress has been made. (In other words, I’m cleaning more every week than we’re messing up.) I think, however, that I still need to lighten my expectations. After all, the weekend is my time to relax, and I do spend half of Saturday at religious services. So I’m thinking I can keep the 10-item list, but I need to give myself all weekend to do it. Or, when I only have one day free (like this past weekend), then I cut it to 5 items (7 if a few of them are not time-intensive).