Not another habit. Checkbox fatigue

Confession time. Over the past 3 years, I came to the conclusion that habit-building as a goal is, for most people, a counter-productive activity. I know… a scandalous opinion in the personal productivity world. It will take some time to lay out all my arguments against habits as goals. But let me start with the first one – the checkbox fatigue.

Most of my clients come with the idea that they should be building new habits. No wonder. It’s a given if you read any self-help book.

Early in the Monthly Method journey, I tried to accommodate that habit-building desire. And I tried to build habits myself. But time and time again, I saw people (and myself) get tired from checking off the boxes, trying to be perfect every day.

And because they got tired of ticking off never-ending boxes, they wanted to give up on all of their goals for sprint.

Example of checkbox fatigue

It looked something like this. A person wanted to wake up at 6 am, meditate for 20 minutes every day, read 5 pages of a book, and do a load of laundry daily so that it doesn’t pile up. But they also wanted to launch the app they’ve been working on for the past 4 months.

After coming up with a list of habits to build, they would create a complex habit-tracking system. We would try to fit it within the Monthly Method system.

Unavoidably, around week 2 there would be a slip-up. They didn’t read that day, didn’t meditate the next day, and woke up late the day after that.

They also secretly added 5 more things they wanted to track to make their life better. Because having 4 small habits to focus on didn’t feel ambitious enough. And before you know it, they felt overwhelmed by this whole tracking ordeal.

So many boxes to check. So many rules to follow. So rigid. So unforgiving. So machine-like.

And then the inner rebellion woke up. “Enough is enough”, he says. “We can’t live like that! This is a self-imposed prison! Time to break free!”

And they gave up on all sprint goals altogether. Including launching the app.

Not all goals are of equal importance

To me, it’s clear that the most important goal here was to launch the app. The person was working on it for the last 4 months! They were passionate about it. It might’ve resulted in a nice side income. They would’ve learned a new skill. It would’ve looked great on their portfolio if they wanted to pursue all building as a full-time carrier later on.

But this goal was derailed by a dozen of small checkboxes that they needed to check on a daily basis before they could start working on his app.

When they looked at their sprint goals, reading 5 pages a day for 3 weeks and launching an app were of the same importance. These goals were on the same list. The boxes he needed to check for these two goals were the same.

But they are multitudes apart in importance and impact on their life.

I saw it happen time after time. If there were habit-building goals in a sprint, checkbox fatigue was almost unavoidable. 

Project-based goals are different

It doesn’t happen nearly as often with project-based goals.

Project-based goals are finite shippable projects that you can finish within a sprint.

  • Launching an app vs. mediating for 20 minutes every day.
  • Decorating the room vs. sticking to the weekly cleaning schedule
  • Submitting the first draft of a Ph.D. dissertation vs. writing for an hour every day

See the difference?

Project-based goals require you to take different steps every day. It’s not repetitive. It keeps it interesting. And you see progress to the finish line.

You can anticipate being done in 3 weeks (my preferred sprint duration).

You know what done looks like because you have a clear definition of done for each project.

It’s much easier for your brain to work towards something finite than towards something continuous that you have to do for the rest of your life. Infinite goals feel a lot more laborious than finite goals even though finite goals often require much more effort. 

Our brain likes closed loops. In contrast, it dislikes open loops. Unfinished business. That’s why we create checkboxes for habits in the first place, don’t we? To give ourselves some sense of completion even if it expires within a day.

The sea of mundane habits stops us from doing the truly impactful


Habit building introduces checkboxes that we need to check off on a daily basis.

The longer we embrace the habit-building advice, the more checkboxes we need to check off. And because the advice is to start small, we often feel the need to pile on these small habits otherwise it’s too easy. We are not productive enough. Let’s be honest. It’s never just one habit we are trying to build.

The problem is that these habits are often viewed as of the same, if not higher, importance than our other goals. Submitting a PhD dissertation is lost among all the daily checkboxes one has to check off. The goal of starting a business is tracked alongside a daily tidy-up session. 

The few truly impactful goals are lost in the sea of the daily mundane habits we are trying to build. 

I’d say we stop. I haven’t consciously focused on building a habit for at least a year and I’m doing ok. Books are being read. Laundry is being done. Workouts are being completed. All of it without paranoically checking off some boxes on a daily basis. But more on that in future posts. 

If you are new to Agile philosophy, you can find the core principles on the Start Here page.

You might enjoy this:
  1. Agile to the rescue from victim mentality
  2. Step off the hamster wheel with Agile and Sturgeon’s Law
  3. Why we fail to achieve some sprint goals
  4. How to prioritize goals
  5. The happy path concept

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