The productivity world is fixated on building new habits. They have phrases like “You don’t decide your future. You decide your habits and your habits decide your future.” We also have bestselling books like Atomic Habits. The overall consensus is that building new habits is always a good idea.
As you probably know, I love to question commonly held beliefs and this belief about habits is no exception.
I believe that habits vary vastly when it comes to impact on one’s life. Some habits have the 10X, 100X ROI while others have a very small impact. Sometimes even net negative. Therefore, thinking that building a new habit is always such an awesome idea is not that accurate. And here’s why.
The Core Productivity Habits
First of all, let’s look at the habits that have an enormous return on investment – 10X, 100X, 1000X. I call them the core productivity habits. The Monthly Method is based on them.
Core Habit #1: Setting a clear definition of done.
We ask ourselves questions, “How does it look like when it’s done? What am I going to produce in that hour? In that time block?”
We’re focusing on the result, not the activity.
You build a habit of having a clear picture in your brain for how to know when the goal is achieved. It is having a tangible result at the end of your work session/sprint – a file on a computer, an email sent, a meeting in your calendar, workout session recorded, dinner cooked and served, a party hosted. It’s a very definitive statement of how we know when it’s done.
Core Habit #2: Acting in order of priority.
You start with the number one priority on the list. We have a weekly plan. It’s prioritized. You start from the very top and you work all the way to the bottom.
The goal is not to have everything done. The goal is to act in order of priority. I always tell my clients, “Listen, next time we have a call, I would rather want you to complete just one goal, and that’s your goal #1, then complete all the other goals while missing ignoring the goal #1.”
Core Habit #3: Journalling as a tool to deal with resistance.
We use the 10X Coffee Practice to work with resistance. It is the journaling practice that allows you to generate the thoughts that you need to do the tasks you feel resistant towards.
Core Habit #4: Time blocking.
This is one of my favourite habits. Under the Monthly Method, we start small. We start from time-blocking our mornings. And then we extend into time blocking our entire workdays (9-5).
All of these habits have an exponentially big return on time investment to building these habits. It usually takes people about 2-3 sprints to fully embody these habits. That’s 2-3 months. But the clients will be getting the benefits from these habits for the rest of their lives. Even if they decide to stop using the Monthly Method. These are the core prediutivity habits that can be applied to any method, any goal, any project. It’s that universal.
Once you build these core productivity habits, you don’t really need to build a lot of additional habits.
Here’s the thing. When you build that time blocking habit, you don’t really need to build a lot of additional habits. You can break down all the goals you have into 30-minute time blocks.
There is no need to build a habit of doing 10 pushups a day when you can put a full workout on your schedule and show up for it because you’ve built the habit of time blocking. Why bother with 10 pushups when you can do an entire workout? The time blocking habit allows you to do that.
I truly believe that time-blocking combined with the 10X coffee practice can eliminate the need to build 90-95% of the habits that you’ve been told you should build. There’s just no need for it.
Other Core Productivity Habits
Let’s look at some other habits that are not necessarily a part of the monthly method, but they think can be considered as core productivity habits or as habits that have an asymmetric return on investment.
I don’t meditate but I have a lot of clients who’ve built this habit. And they swear by it. It works really well for them. And again, it applies to many areas of their life. It makes them more focused at work. It makes them a little more patient at home with their kids, with their spouses. it might help them with some health issues.
Waking up early
Waking up earlier and working on important projects before your full-time job can be a great core productivity habit
How do you decide on whether to build a new habit or not?
To have an asymmetric return on the time invested to build this habit, it needs to have a positive impact on many areas of your life.
I would not focus on building only health-related habits. I would rather focus on building universal habits, such as time blocking, journaling, meditation. They have an impact on many areas of your life.
Let’s compare different habits.
Time-blocking vs. doing one minute plank per day.
Journaling to overcome resistance towards difficult tasks vs. reading five pages of a book every single day.
We have a limited amount of time and willpower to build new habits. We can’t build all of these habits at once. We’re constantly choosing what habit to build. And when you’re choosing to build a habit of doing a one-minute plank per day, you’re choosing to not build a habit of time-blocking. However, the habit of time-blocking has a much higher return on time invested.
Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, we end up spending time and willpower on building low-impact habits, such as one-minute planks and reading five pages of the book.
The cost of building a new habit
There is a cost to building a new habit. And some of the so-called “good habits” are net negative. And this is a dark side of building new habits. I call it the checkbox fatigue. When you are building too many habits and you are tracking them using index cards, habit trackers, fancy apps, you end up having a bunch of checkboxes that you need to check on a daily basis.
At some critical point, it becomes too much, too many boxes to check. At some point, you will get tired because you are human. And a sheer number of empty boxes that you need to check off on a daily basis might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
And what ends up happening is that you rebel against the system. You rebel against all the goals that you set for yourself. Just because there were too many boxes to check off on a daily basis. And most of them were not even that significant. Most of them are like one-minute planks and f reading 5 pages.
The cost of building a new habit is this mental heavy load that you need to carry on a daily basis. And this load has the potential to mentally “break” you on any given day. And the mental load that you need to carry in order to build a habit of doing a one-minute plank is often the same load that you need to carry when you’re trying to build the time blocking habit.
It’s just another check box in your habit tracking, and the checkboxes look the same to you. In your mind, the mental load is the same. But the impact of these two habits is vastly different.
That’s why I think the small insignificant habits are often net negative because of the huge risk they impose on the overall productivity. They add another checkbox to your habit tracker. And at some point, when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted, this one little check box might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Do less but better.
Build fewer habits, but build better habits. Build core productivity habits. Habits that have an impact on many areas of your life.
That’s why the limit habit building to one habit per category under the Monthly Method.
A lot of my clients start embracing project-based after the first few sprints working with me.
So what is a project-based goal? This is something that is finite. Something that you can cross off and move on to the next one. And the beauty of those goals is that they have a much lighter mental load. They are easier for your psyche because you don’t need to do them for the rest of your life.
When you tell yourself that you need to do something for the rest of your life, you quickly get very tired from this thought. But when you decide to do something for just three weeks or commit to a project-based goal, then it’s a lot easier to convince your brain to actually show up for the activity.
Instead of building new habits,
ask yourself what can I produce in three weeks to improve each area of my life?
Project-based goals are a lot more fun. The feedback loop is much shorter and you get to see the results of your work much faster.
Instead of building a habit of writing every day, set the goal of submitting 2 chapters of a manuscript to an editor by the end of your sprint. When you focus on project goals, you see faster progress on your goals. You focus on the outcome and not so much on the activity.
When you’re trying to build the habit of writing for 15 minutes daily, you don’t know when you have a book published. But when you focus on completing two chapters per month, you know when you will have a book published. When my clients embrace project-based goals, they get their results a lot faster than when they focus on building new habits.
As you can see, not all habits are created equal. Some habits have an exponentially higher impact on your life than others. Focus on building those.
When you have your core productivity habits, you don’t need to build a new habit for every goal that you set for yourself. The core habits will help you to achieve any goal. Consider embracing project-based goals instead of building new habits, you will see the progress on your goals much faster.
If you want to follow my process for building the core productivity while embracing project-based goals for everything else,
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