Habits are in focus at this time of year more than any other. My recent reading of Atomic Habits and testing various habit tracking apps has had me evaluating how I get things done and how I plan my time.
I’m not alone. Here are other authors writing along similar lines:
Shawn Blanc has been writing recently in his newsletter about goals and his teammate Isaac Smith recently wrote about weekly reviews for your goals on The Focus Course blog
One thing I’ve begun to ask myself is whether it makes sense for me to plan tasks each week. A shift started to occur in my weekly review process this past year: I noticed that I was missing my weekly goals with increasing frequency. However, the habits that I wanted to incorporate in my life were becoming increasingly consistent. I started to wonder whether that was good or bad. Should I even set weekly goals?
How it looks
Here’s what that change looks like with practical examples. For a given week, I may have a set of goals like this:
Complete an outline of my proposal for Jan. board meeting
Finish all planned improvements to CRM set up in Airtable
Practice all 15 of my katas at least once at home
Finish installing new sump pump
Have a date night with one of the kids
These goals are based on various projects I want to complete or am responsible for. And they can be for any area of my life (home, family, work, health, church, etc.).
At the same time, I also have a list of several activities that I want to perform more regularly. Aka, habits. These are the kind of things I’ve tracked:
Communion with God
Saying something positive to my kids
Homework with one son
60 mins of pure focus time
Stretch one muscle group
Write 400 words
Read 10 pages of non-fiction
1 core exercise per day
My time is limited, so it’s rare when I have a week that includes me hitting all these habits daily and completing all my goals. Very rare.
So which is more important?
Atomic Habits has been a good read (largely because it’s highly practical and immediately actionable). I don’t agree with much of how author James Clear talks about human motivation, but the book is very well done overall. And the part that stood out most to me is Clear’s focus on identity. He talks early in the book about how habits shape your identity and so there is a very important first step to succeeding in life:
Decide the type of person you want to be.
That resonated greatly. But I’m still unsure how that fits into planning my days and weeks. And I’ve been pondering that question over the Christmas break.
A few insights revealed themselves:
Habits are better in the long run. They shape who you are and are present no matter what current tasks or projects you have on the go
Some habits will help you complete those tasks and projects
Some projects are purely aspirational and “nice-to-haves”, whereas your habits are vital to a successful, enjoyable life
Let me unpack that last one with some concrete examples. I’ve had the itch to refresh my website again (an itch that comes every two years). I have a project broken down into tasks and sub-tasks that has been in my task manager for over 12 months. Every once in a while I manage to make small increments of progress on this project.
But truthfully, it doesn’t really matter if I never complete this project.
On the other hand, doing an exercise 5 days per week to strengthen my core makes a big difference to my life. So too with running four times per week (and the first habit makes the second more doable). Helping my son with his reading makes a huge difference in his life. So too with speaking positive words to my kids every day. And journaling makes life less stressful now and brings a lot of joy in the years to come.
So you may get be getting a picture here: I’m putting more value on the habits, not the projects.
Will I stop setting goals for my weeks? No, not yet anyway. But maybe I’ll stick to 3 instead of 5–6. And each day I’ll be keeping a close eye on keeping those streaks alive.
Apps that help build habits
Over the past several years, I’ve used my notebook to track the habits I want to adopt in my life. And I still do that today.
However, I’ve been slowly trying out different apps to go along with this habit. It started with the Google Calendar app for iOS, but from there I began to explore a few of the options in this space. After a year, I think I’ve found a winner. Or maybe two winners.
Here are the various apps I’ve tried.
The iOS app for your Google calendar is different than what you get in your web browser on the desktop. The biggest addition is the Goals feature. You can set a goal, how often you want to do it, and Google’s AI will schedule times on your calendar.
If you complete the activities at a time the AI did not schedule, it will learn your preferences and adjust its scheduling accordingly.
Overall, it was a nice implementation of AI (the best I’ve used to date), but it did not stick for me. I still used Fantastical for scheduling actual meetings and having two calendar apps was not necessary. More importantly, my habitual activities do not need to be scheduled to a specific time. If I’m going to run on a given day, I slot it in depending on my other activities (whether those activities were on the calendar or not).
Last, while scheduling the habits was easy, seeing your progress and being mindful of it is clearly an afterthought in this app. The focus is all on the scheduling of the activity.
An interesting option, I found the UI on this one different enough that I ended not wanting to use it. I wasn’t interested in taking the time to explore an alternative UI — I just wanted to track my activities.
Overall, this app is focused most on calendar-based productivity. I like that, but I was looking more for something to track how I consistent I was in my habits, not another task manager.
This option did better at offering the functionality I wanted, but in less than ideal package. Function is more important to form, but between two functional apps, I’ll take the one with better form any time.
That brings me to the next option.
When I first came across this app, I loved how it looked. But for reasons I cannot recall, it didn’t stick for me at the time.
When I first considered all the options above, it usually was from reading some tweet or a link in a blog post. I wasn’t actively searching for a solution of this sort. I finally got serious about it this all and took a closer look at the options in this space with a firm goal in mind. Right away, Streaks jumped out at me. Here are the aspects of this app that I like.
The ability to group different habits together (categorize). I can keep all my fitness focused habits in one group, all my work related habits in another, and all my family focused ones in the last
The badge! Yeah, I turn badges off for every app on my phone (except for due items in Things). But for Streaks, I want that reminder that there are activities I still want to do today
The mechanics of the app. A long press on the habit results in a satisfying completion of the circle around the habit. It’s better than filling in a checkbox
The ability to do a specific activity multiple times in the specified timeframe. Stretching is a good example for me. Ever since I started running consistently two years ago, I’ve wanted to stretch more regularly. But I could never seem to find the time to sit down and do a full, proper session of stretching. But with Streaks, I set up an entry for stretching one muscle group — I can take 3–5 minutes to stretch my quads a lot more easily than taking 30 minutes to stretch everything. And in Streaks, the habit is complete when I do two muscle groups per day, 6 days per week.
So I’ve been using Streaks for the last several weeks. I thought it was a clear winner. However, I took the time to review all the apps above once I had a clear goal in mind. Habitify now made a lot more sense to me as well. Both are very good options.
I prefer the looks of Habitify, but I love that Streaks allows me to have several iterations of any given habit in order for it to be considered complete for the day (i.e. stretch one muscle group twice per day). But Habitify comes with a macOS and iOS app, whereas Streaks is iOS only (and the macOS version has a nice menubar option).
Matt Gemmell gives some insight on how he writes his novels using Ulysses.
TOLL is the result of two years of work, and is the second book in my KESTREL series. It’s around 100,000 words long, and required a great deal of planning, research, and organisation. I used various tools for the planning stages, but ultimately I moved almost everything into Ulysses, to keep all my book-related material in one place and easy to access.
You don’t have to be a novel writer to get some value from this post. He goes into detail about his setup and the tips included cover both the features of Ulysses and creating a clever system to make it work on a bigger project (I especially like his use of keywords).
I tend to easily consider alternate options for most of the apps I use. That is not the case for Ulysses — it just continues to get better and I have not yet hit the borders of what it can do.
Motivated from the inside
I’ve been thinking lately about what drives us to pursue certain activities. This line of thinking was initiated by this question in an application form for competing in the Soke Cup (the world championship tournament for the Chito-ryu style of karate):
Why do you want to compete in the Soke cup?
The question is asked because this is not just any tournament. It happens every three years and will include the best and most dedicated athletes in the world. Entering a competition like this should be done with more consideration than a usual event.
As I pondered how to best answer the question, I noticed my son sitting beside with his pen down and an unhappy look on his face. I asked him how he was thinking of answering why he wanted to compete in the Soke Cup. His response was, “I don’t.”
A careful balance
I’ve learned in my time as a parent that you’re often walking a fine line between pushing your children to challenge themselves and allowing them to find their own passions (not to mention creating spaces for adequate rest and downtime). But some kids need a little boost to find a craft to pour themselves into.
Self-direction is great until a child only seeks the easiest path at all times.
Anyway, this all got me thinking about motivation. At times, external motivations are important. They help us to remember about deadlines and responsibilities to others. But ideally, motivation is intrinsic and comes from the individual.
But that kind of motivation is not always found through the course of everyday life. It often needs to be cultivated — that was sure the case in my life.
This particular child of mine is talented, but working hard is not yet a skill he cherishes. He participates in karate because we require our boys to join at least one physical activity outside of school. He’d tried it for a year and while he doesn’t hate it, he also doesn’t love it.
And he has no desire in competing against others or doing the required training for a world-class event.
Finding their way
You can’t force children into pursuits: they have to find their own interests.
My son? I couldn’t ask him to answer a question that asks why he wanted to do something when he in fact does not want to do it. But I also didn’t want to let him just say no and forget about it. I asked him in what way would he want to challenge himself in 2019.
He decided on joining flag football.
I support his decision. When we hit situations like this, I prefer to let them make their own decisions. But at the same time, they need to understand two truths:
there is joy in a job well done, even when you don’t enjoy the job
mature adult do the things that are needed, not only what they want to do
Those were truths that took me far too long to learn.
Alan Jacobs gives some insight into how he keeps track of things when doing research for a book. Reading the post, you come to know he’s tried many ways of organizing things, but he’s recently begun following the methods of Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system.
He shares how he had thought he was too late in life to adopt this system, but…
But ultimately, when I was working on The Year of Our Lord 1943, I realized that the demands of my research — trying to track the thought and writing of five figures working in complete isolation from one another — called for something like a Zettelkasten system. (It would take a long time to explain why, but it had to do with cross-referencing ideas that were related to one another in a variety of ways: by author, by date, by theme.) Well, I thought, why not have a collection of Zettel that is based not on a lifetime of research but on a single project? So I tried that. And it worked wonderfully.
It’s an interesting post and this kind of subject always catches my attention. But, if you’re like me, you may not understand the terminology being used or the core concept of the Zettelkasten system itself. But that’s the beauty of a good Internet rabbit trail.
Jacobs points the way and this is where I found myself lost for some time. I won’t bore you with details if you're not into information architecture, paper, and organization.
But if you are, save this link for later!
When you have so many things on the go
Maybe it’s simply due to the current stage of my life, but my days can feel so busy and scattered that I have to fight the feeling of being overwhelmed. Where all the different scenarios or locations in my day bring a reminder of another thing that needs tending to, anything thing that I should be doing something about.
And that sense of being overwhelmed leads to the feeling of not even knowing where to start.
How It Looks
As I work from home, usually alone, there are a lot of ways this feeling can come at me. It’s also one of the dangers of working remotely from your home: people think pleasurable pursuits are a distraction (like binge-watching Netflix shows), but in reality, it’s my other responsibilities that distract. When you work in an office, the triggers and reminders of the tasks from the rest of your life are largely out of sight, out of mind.
Anyway, here’s how it can look on any given day for me:
I’m working on my most important work task of the day, the kind of activity where I want to be most focused. As I hit a moment of uncertainty about how to solve the problem, I take my fingers off the keyboard and look out the window as I meditate
At that moment, I observe that is stopped snowing … I wonder if I need to shovel the front deck
Then I question whether I’m going to get in the lunch run I had planned — I dislike running right after a snowfall, but I know I’ll feel pressure if I don’t do it
I return my attention to the task at hand, but just as I start to type, I hear the beep of the washing machine. I’ll need to get the next load going (6 people make a lot of dirty laundry in a week)
Dang that reminds me — I still haven’t taken any meat out of the freezer for dinner. I quickly do that, and put on the next load of laundry, before I forget again
I get back to work and make some progress. But once the uncertainty of how to handle the next unknown strikes again, I glance down at my hands as I stop to think
And then I notice the papers on my desk. Oh man, I need to get that account set up for the latest software tool our youngest’s teacher wants him to use. I write that down in my planner as a task to handle later in the day when work is finished
On the opposite page, my weekly goals are listed out. Sigh. It’s already Thursday, and I haven’t even started on my annual report for the church IT ministry. The board meeting is next week…
And on it goes. Every moment of every day does not feel like this, but the fact that I play multiple roles in my life and work from a space where all those roles converge means I often come face to face with all the reminders of my responsibilities.
How I Handle This Anxiety
How does one cope? Well, different people will have different responses. Not everyone is cut out for remote work, for example.
But here’s what works for me.
Be ok with working in small, micro chunks
You have to change your mindset. Even small bits of progress are just that: progress. I have had to recognize that even if it takes me 4 weeks to complete a task that could actually be finished in 4–5 hours, that’s the reality of the current stage of my life. And it’s ok.
With 4 kids coming up to their teen years, I’m likely the busiest I’ll ever be in my life. We have extracurricular activities 4 nights during the work week (and two on the weekend). I simply have to be on my game and as organized as possible. And some of my own desires have to be laid aside.
This is serving. And it’s a worthy sacrifice.
Another key here is straight out of GTD. I’m being inefficient if I handle the same thing more than once. Whether it’s a piece of paper or an email, I’m always needing to remind myself to process these items (and schedule a related task) and file them away rather than leaving them around.
Do not underestimate the power of the visual trigger. Seeing these items repeatedly will cause anxiety.
Have a weekly routine
This is an area I have struggled against for a long time. Matt Perman makes the recommendation for having a weekly routine, and I have fought this idea for far too long.
But it makes sense. If you wear multiple hats and those hats represent responsibility in a certain sphere of your life, you do well to give each of those roles some attention each week. I am in charge of the IT ministry at our church. It’s not a role for which I have a lot of time to devote, but I serve better when I give it at least a few minutes each week.
I’ve recently themed my weekdays so that each one has a different role in focus. It helps me to overcome that feeling of where to start. If I have a free moment, I focus on the day’s role.
Of course, I didn’t mention the fact that it’s always good to step back and evaluate whether you should cut some things from your life (and learn to say no). That’s a given.
But some things are worth saying yes to, even if it means you’re busier than a one-armed paper hanger.