Should I focus on habits or my task list?
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:
- Cal Newport: habits vs. workflows
- Ryan Holiday: how to develop better habits
- 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:
- Bible journalling
- 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.&