Habits vs Recurring Tasks

I’ve been on a quest to add helpful habits to my life. But what I’ve really been doing is setting recurring tasks.

There’s a difference.

I woke up this morning and went about my business. I created my to do list:

  • Answer e-mails
  • Talk to a customer
  • Exercise

All sounds great, right? But I forgot one: writing.

Only 5 days ago I committed to writing 500 words a day in an effort to develop a habit of writing daily. I even created a spreadsheet to track how many words I write each day, to make sure I don’t miss days.

Yet today I almost did.

I went blissfully through my day checking off items on my to-do list. I went out for my “daily” run (which isn’t exactly daily yet). After I got back, I jumped in the shower. Then it hit me: I had forgotten to add writing to my to-do list.

More importantly: the only way I was writing daily was by remembering to add it my to-do list every day. And remembering to add it to my to-do list every day was not sustainable. Sure I could set it up to reappear each day, but often on the weekends I ignore my to-do list.

I was focused on creating a recurring task, not a habit.

Habits happen unconsciously. Recurring tasks require thoughtful initiation. Habits define the defaults for our lives; recurring tasks must be chosen to be done.

So what exactly is a habit then?

According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, a habit consists of three parts:

  • cue: the state or environment that triggers the behavior
  • routine: the behavior itself
  • reward: the pleasure we get by doing the behavior

This is called the habit loop: cue -> routine -> reward. No cue, no reward, no habit. Recurring tasks only define the routines, not the cues or rewards.

Writing for me has no cue. Thus, I need to find one. Ideally it should be a cue that happens naturally each day at a time when it’s convenient for me to write. Some ideas:

  • Finishing breakfast: I often read articles or watch informative videos during breakfast. The perfect time to get my head filled with ideas to write about.
  • Making a cup of tea: I already associate drinking tea with writing. Perhaps if I could pick a specific tea to make in the morning and use that as my cue.
  • Bathroom rituals: I have time to think while going through my morning routine. One of these rituals could be my cue.

For now I plan to combine the first two: make a cup of tea after breakfast and use that as a signal to write.

What about the reward?

Turns out I’ve been sabotaging myself. I set a threshold of 500 words a day. But my joy from writing comes not from the writing itself, but from having written. I take pride in the finished work, not the process.

Yet I’ve set the exact opposite as my goal. Quantity gives me no pleasure; I need accomplishment.

Thus, instead of trying to write 500 words a day, I should aim to finish a piece of writing each day. The writing doesn’t have to be the complete work. It can be a chapter or a section of a long post. But it must be fully formed. Not perfect, not edited, but at least a finished draft.

That will be my reward: a finished piece of writing.

That’s about it for now. I’ll be writing again tomorrow, this time working to incorporate a cue and a reward into my routine so I can work toward creating a true habit. Since they say it takes 21 days to create a habit, by the end of this month I should hopefully have a daily writing habit fully engrained.

What do you think? Do you use cues and rewards when creating your habits? What other tips do you have?

1 comment

  1. Jeff L says:

    So I started reading some of your blogs after our meeting today. I haven’t read all the ones I’m interested in yet but I did make it through this one. I found it interesting because a big part of my moving to WNC is to be able to establish better and healthier habits. I include “mental” benefits as well as “physical”. I found the “cue” concept to be of interest since I see them in my life already. For example, when I wake up in the morning I tend to follow the same litany of events (push-ups, emails, schedule, etc…) before going downstairs for breakfast. However, I see setting a list of “recurring tasks” as a way to insert new “habits” into my morning. After reading this blog I wonder if the reason I have not been as successful in making those recurring tasks into habits is they need their own cues. I will work on figuring this out. That will have to be a task, though! ;o)

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